Salut!: A conversation in eight wines with two superstar Californian winemakers

A tasting and chat with two very different – yet surprisingly similar – superstar California winemakers: Mondavi’s Geneviève Janssens and Melissa Stackhouse from Meiomi.

Left, Geneviève Janssens, director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery, and Melissa Stackhouse, director of winemaking at Meiomi. Both will be attending the Vancouver International Wine Festival, Feb. 23 to March 3, for the first time. Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery / PNG

It’s a cold, rainy day in the Napa Valley when I sit down with Geneviève Janssens and Melissa Stackhouse to chat wine and winemaking, though our conversation would range much further than that over the next few hours.

Janssens has been director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery since 1997. Stackhouse, who has driven across the foggy Mayacamas Mountains to join us here at Mondavi, is the director of winemaking at Sonoma’s “tri-coastal” Meiomi winery.

Today, we’re tasting some of their recent releases, talking challenging vintages and getting a preview of the energy they’ll bring later this month to the Vancouver International Wine Festival. Call it a conversation in eight wines.

Left, Geneviève Janssens, director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery and Melissa Stackhouse, director of winemaking at Meiomi.

Meiomi Rosé 2017

“Wine is always a good catalyst for discussion,” Stackhouse says as she pours a little rosé into each glass.  “The design here is to create a wine that is crisp, clean and ‘salivatious,’ I like to call it. Mouthwatering. This is a coy wine, a quiet wine.”

“It’s very friendly,” Janssens says. “In French, we’d call this colour ‘zeste d’oignon,’ onion peel.”

The two women come from different backgrounds — the Michigan-born Stackhouse took “a circuitous route to winemaking,” with forays into newspapers and farming, while Janssens, who hails from France, “knew always that I wanted to be a winemaker.” But they have more in common than they realize.

“My first harvest was here, in 1995,” Stackhouse says, waving at the mist-shrouded To Kalon vineyard outside the window. “It was my first harvest, so I was a fermentation sampler.”

“So many people started their careers in that job,” Janssens says. “I started in 1978 in the lab. You would be admiring the winemakers and thinking, ‘one day I will be them.’ ”

Stackhouse nods. “When I looked at those winemakers, I thought, ‘this could be as cool as I think it would be.’ ”

Meiomi Sparkling Wine

Meiomi’s first sparkler is a cheerfully approachable bubbly made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the traditional method.

“It’s like methode champenoise prosecco style,” Stackhouse says. “It would be good with popcorn. It’s super food friendly so it should be drunk every day. We are also producing a brut rosé. That’s been fun. Everyone seems to be dabbling in a little sparkling.”

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2017

The crisp, slightly savoury Sauvignon Blanc was a favourite of Robert Mondavi, and is made exactly the way he had in mind.

“The idea is to make it pleasurable,” Janssens says. “Stone fruit, white peach, lychee, white flowers. With Sauvignon Blanc, the style is already decided in the vineyard. It’s a precision harvest, precision winemaking.”

The Sauvignon Blanc is the first grape to be harvested each year, she adds. “That wakes up the whole winery. That’s the one that brings everyone together. During harvest, we work as a team and that’s what I like the most.”

Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

“It’s super classic Bordeaux. Nothing fancy, very pleasurable and true to the terroir,” Janssens says. “For us, we try to stay true to Mr. Mondavi. He always said, ‘I want the softness of a baby’s bottom and the power of a Pavarotti.’ ”

“And this was a gorgeous vintage,” Stackhouse says.

“It is one of my favourites,” Janssens admits.

“You can have a good Pinot vintage and a not-so-good Cabernet vintage,” Stackhouse says.

Although Napa and Sonoma are geographic neighbours, Napa’s hotter, drier climate is ideal for Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet. Sonoma, with its cooling ocean influence, is better for Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. A good year in one does not necessarily mean a good vintage in the other.

“Napa,” Janssens points out, “is a very narrow valley, but it’s very diverse. Napa is the size of Medoc in Bordeaux, but we have so many appellations and so many different kinds of soil. We have something like 60 per cent of the types of soil in the world.”

“Sonoma is big,” Stackhouse says. “But the wine region is smaller, chopped up into sub-appellations as well. It also has eclectic soils, but different. For winemakers, we need to understand all these soils.

“And the weather,” she adds. “There are game-changing weather events. Winemaking is fun, but it’s not for the squeamish.”

Stackhouse recalls the 2004 La Crema harvest, when the heat spiked so high and fast it almost destroyed the entire crop. “It was the only vintage when I cried. I told people there was a tear in every bottle. Now we are pasted to the forecasts.”

“We are, too,” Janssens says.

There’s a little pause, then Stackhouse says to Janssens: “It’s magical to sit here with you and taste the ’15.”

Robert Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve 2016

We leave the cosy art-filled tasting room and make our way across the courtyard to the Tuscan-inspired Margrit Mondavi Vineyard Room, where chef Jeffrey Mosher has prepared a light, wine-friendly lunch.

We begin with a salad of grilled quail on shaved fennel and compressed pears tossed with a mustard vinaigrette, and served with a well-balanced, subtly citrusy Chardonnay.

Balance, the winemakers say, is as important in life as it is in wine.

For instance, Stackhouse is on a cleanse until the wine festival, doing lots of yoga and meditation, trying to reset mind and body after a busy year as a full-time working single mom of an adopted seven-year-old daughter.

“I need a kind of balance to be content. I’m pretty mellow so I don’t think I show the stress. I keep it inside,” she says.

Janssens gives her a sympathetic smile. She and her husband Luc raised two children of their own; their daughter Gabrielle is a lawyer in San Francisco and son Georges is a researcher in the Netherlands. Luc, meanwhile, runs a foundation that provides medical services to the poor in Laos, and has just left on one of his quarterly trips to the Southeast Asian country.

“When he goes away, I change totally my world,” Janssens says. “I don’t drink. Four times a year, for three weeks, and I don’t drink wine, I taste wine.”

“We do it to remind ourselves that we honour wine, so we don’t over indulge,” Stackhouse says.

Meiomi Pinot Noir 2016, Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

The salad is followed by a swordfish steak with fingerling potatoes, roasted vegetables and Bordelaise sauce, served with benchmark wines from each winery.

“These wines are so different,” Stackhouse says. The Meiomi Pinot is rich, round and full of bright red berry flavour. “I think a wine like Meiomi would be perfect for the millennial customer. Bigger, bolder, jammier, not subtle.”

Meanwhile the Mondavi Cab is elegant, classic, velvety black fruit and spice. “The customers who are going to taste our wines know exactly what they are going to get. They won’t be disappointed,” Janssens says.

Talk turns to the upcoming wine festival. It’ll be the first appearance for both women, and they will be taking part in numerous events in addition to the international tasting.

“We’re also doing something called Babes who Brunch, because we are babes, you know, Geneviève and I,” Stackhouse says drily.

And that brings up the whole issue of women and discrimination and #MeToo.

“I think back to when I started my career, if something like that would have happened, that would have killed my career,” Stackhouse admits.

Instead, she says, “I’m 25 years into winemaking and I don’t think there was one time I felt discriminated against as a female. I did the work. I laid that good foundation.”

Being a woman “made no difference,” Janssens says. “If I was in France, that would have been different. I left France for many reasons, but one of them was that at the time a woman would have been in the lab and she would never have been the wine maker.”

She credits Mondavi and his mother Rosa, who as co-owner of Charles Krug in the 1950s and ’60s demanded that women in the wine industry be respected.

“When I was hired here the head winemaker was a woman. Mr. Mondavi always hired a lot of women,” Janssens says. “It’s all education. If a woman has the education and the skills, why not hire her?”

Robert Mondavi Moscato d’Oro 2017

Finally, dessert: apple buttermilk sherbet with caramel and oatmeal crumble, paired with the lightly sweet, slightly fizzy Moscato.

“It’s a fun wine to make,” Janssens says. “The young winemakers make this under the supervision of the winemakers. They are very proud of it. They develop an instinct. I spent my career supervising winemakers and teaching them how to develop that instinct.”

The meal and our conversation end on a philosophical note.

“Generally, winemaking philosophy for me would be vineyards and precision first, and then my role is to shepherd it into place,” Stackhouse says.

“I love every single moment of my job,” Janssens says. “Walking the vineyard and experiencing nature and tasting wine. It’s a community we have at all the wineries. There’s a camaraderie in all the winemakers. There’s a friendship. It’s not superficial.”


Meet the winemakers

Geneviève Janssens

Born in Morocco and raised in France, Janssens received her National Diploma of Enology from the University of Bordeaux in 1974. For the next few years she managed her family’s vineyards in Corsica and France, then in 1978 moved to the Napa Valley to work at Robert Mondavi Winery as a lab enologist. In 1989, she became director of production at Opus One Winery. In 1997, she became director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery. Wine Enthusiast magazine named her 2010’s Winemaker of the Year and in 2009, she became an “officier” of France’s Ordre National du Mérite Agricole.

Melissa Stackhouse

Originally from Michigan, Stackhouse explored numerous careers before discovering wine — she worked at a newspaper, a pottery studio and a New Zealand organic farm before earning her Bachelor of Science in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California Davis in 1988. Today she is the director of winemaking at the “tri-coastal” Meiomi, but previously worked at such illustrious Sonoma wineries as La Crema, J Vineyards Winery and Clos de Bois.


Mondavi Winery Menu

• Grilled quail salad with compressed pears, shaved fennel and radish, spiced pecans and mustard vinaigrette

Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Chardonnay Reserve 2016

• Grilled local swordfish with miso-roasted fingerling potatoes, roasted winter vegetables, maitake mushrooms, crispy shallots and sauce Bordelaise

Meiomi Pinot Noir (Monterey, Santa Barbara and Sonoma County) 2016

Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon “The Reserve” 2015

• Apple buttermilk sherbet with caramelized honey crisp apples, house made caramel sauce, oatmeal walnut crumble

Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Moscato d’Oro 2017

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