Brendan Tracey's home and winery buildings are sitting right next a cute old church, in the small village of Sainte Anne on the outskirts of Vendôme. I visited him by a rainy day, and when I stopped just outside the property, he was working around his press in the courtyard. If not for this execrable weather, the workplace view was particularly pastoral and peaceful. As an introduction, we looked at the funny caquetoire, a common fixture for churches of the region, a sort of roofed chatroom built outside the church (picture on left) so that parishioners could chat (cackle) after the mass (caqueter means cackle in French). Brendan says that's they hold traditional masses there (in Latin) and that he hears the songs from the courtyard, which are sometimes as nice as Gregorian chant (I found later that it's one of the 2 churches in the département 41 with old-style Latin masses)
I first met Brendan during the solidarity harvest and friendly lunch held at Le Briseau to help Nathalie cope with the passing of her husband Christian Chaussard. The guy was easygoing and cool and I thought I might visit him one of these days.
Brendan didn't land in this corner of the Loire overnight, he is a New-Jersey native who spent most of his youth in San Francisco where his parents moved to in the 60s' to follow the hippie trail. When in San Francisco, Brendan lived through the cultural revolution embodied by this city, he soon developped a passion for music, going to concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium, listening to psychedelic bands and then much later to punk musicians. His mother being French, he travelled from time to time to France and eventually moved in Blois in 1971 at the age of 15, initially to better his French, staying with his aunt. He went to high school there and passed his baccalauréat in 1974, beginning all the while to love this country. His aunt Geneviève was a journalist at Le Figaro (a major newspaper) when he arrived in France, and Brendan remembers that one day she brought him to a restaurant and asked him what he wanted to drink, he looked at the drinks list and ordered a coke, in America it was unthinkable to order wine for a minor, and the waiter could have risked jail for letting him have some; his aunt was pretty upset of his choice, saying that this was France and he had to oder wine, and that's when he understood that there were big differences in the culture here, things that he didn't suspect and that he should try to learn. From then on he tried to understand better this alien culture and as it happened that his aunt was planning to leave Paris and journalism to set up an antiques business in Blois, and as she told him he could stay if he wanted to, he decided to remain.
The barn (grange) does a good job as a winemaking facility, storing now other kind of treasures and on a liquid form. But part of the building he uses to make his wine was also a cuverie (vat room) used by the church people before the revolution. The house and buldings around the church belong to his wife's family since more than 5 generations, so it can be said that Brendan's grafted roots are pretty deep.
Sequitur on Brendan's story : Brendan came back to California in 1977 and there, he joined several music groups of the hard-core punk movement in California, as one of these groups was looking for a singer and he happened to be a good singer. It worked well and he went on stage in the first part of events featuring The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Avengers to name a few.
Having kept contact with a friend whom he met during his highschool years in France, he came back to France in 1980, married her and stayed in France for good.
Brendan says that this punk-rock episode in the U.S. helped him understand that you can do things even though you think you haven't the training and expertise in a given field, and he says that this applies to winemaking well.
When he came back to France in 1980/1981, he first helped set up a local fm radio in Blois, Plus FM. 1981 was the year when newly-elected French President Mitterrand opened the radio waves to small independant actors and there was a lot of energy and intiatives all over France. 2 years later he was offered a permanent job in this radio station where he was a program director and a journalist. Brendan remembers that Jack Lang, a flamboyant personnality who was then mayor in Blois and minister in the socialist government, often came to the radio studio with artists and famous friends like the Dalai Lama, Mitterrand, Prince charles & Lady D and others. It was very enriching and also a lot of fun.
Brendan quit the radio station in Blois in 2008 and he enrolled in the viticulture school in Amboise. You always have to work part time in a winery when you're in a wine school, and he spent his training part at Thierry Puzelat's négoce, taking advantage of Thierry's rigorous winemaking and vineyard management expertise. He opened shop in 2010, making wines from purchased grapes (the equivalent of 2 hectares then) and from the start he vinified the natural way, using only wild yeast and working like Thierry on reds, with semi-carbonic macerations. For the whites, Brendan got his inspiration from Philippe Tessier. While working at Puzelat's négoce he saw that you could buy grapes and make wine without actually owning vineyards or having family roots in the growing trade, so that's what he eventually did from the start, buying grape from a grower who farms organic in the Cher valley (St Julien de chedon) and who doesn't make wine himself.
Today, the overall vineyard surface Brendan works from is 5 hectares, a nice increase from the 2 hectares he still worked with last year. He needed to augment his production because he couldn't provide enough wine for his buyers in Japan. They buy from his different cuvées but foremost his sauvignon. Mrs Yasuko Goda of Racines (the importer) visited him last year before the Dive (the wine fair in Angers).
Brendan Tracey makes wine from the following varieties (usually 60-year-old vineyards) : Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Côt, Romorantin, Cabernet Franc and Pineau d'Aunis. The Cab Franc grapes are farmed in biodynamy by Bruno Allion in Thésée la Romaine. When he was still in the wine school, he bought his first batch of grapes to Bruno Allion to see if he could make wine (he made 400 liters of wine), so he is a long-time friend of his. Since that time Bruno keeps selling him these grapes year after year and he makes a rosé pet'nat with them (Pink Bull') after having been inspired by the work of Pascal Potaire's Piège à Filles, also a natural sparkling with residual sugar.
He'd like to have also a parcel of Grolleau, he's looking for an opportunity.
Nice aromas of grapefruit, citrus. At the beginning he made wine from a mere 40 ares in this saint-Julien-de-Chédon but now he augmented his purchased fruit to 2 hectares there.
Speaking of appellation and labels, Brendan says that all the grapes he purchases are on appellations but as he vinifies in a facility located outside the respective appelations' boundaries, he can't apply for any of these appellations, so his wines are labelled as table wine with the familiar blue seal cap on the top (pic on right). Today the Vin de Table term has been replaced with Vin de France, but anyway that's fine for him. Again, Brendan says his years as a punk-rock musician made him distrustful of the establishment rules and making wine under the table-wine label is just nice, he feels more free. What really counts for him, he says, is pick at the right maturity, sort the grapes properly and the best way to do all that is when you do it yourself. If he had the work done by the grower and the wine made at the grower's facility, he could apply for an appellation but he'd loose control on what really counts in the winemaking : the finetuned control of the grapes from just before the harvest to the chai.
One more thing, Brendan designed most of his labels, and he studied art and design at the Beaux Arts in Orleans, which certainly helped. He says that it is important to have labels that say something, and also as he started without financial backings, doing the label-design job yourself saves money.
It's the 3rd year he's making a Romorantin wine, and he works from a parcel of 30 ares, he made three barrels this year. He doesn't stirr his whites, he just lets the wine by quiet, itself, adding after a pause that maybe he could try to stirr, like he did it at Puzelat.
Brenda says that everything ferments well this year, compared with 2012 where he has some of the fermentations lagging until end of july (the cold winter also played a role).
__ Romorantin 2012, in newer casks. Brendan says that he made a try with an élevage in newer casks (3 years old) to see what it yields. He bought the barrels from the Tonnellerie du Val de Loire, a cooperage not far from here in Mont-prés-Chambord. This company was actually a sawmill and it bought back the Tonnellerie Blanchard (which I visited a few years ago) after the owner Jacky Blanchard retired, rebranding it as Tonnellerie du Val de Loire. He'd like to make a 6-month élevage in wood for this Romorantin 2012 but his stock of 2011 is dwindling rapidly and he may have to bottle a cask before the term. In general he'd like to make longer élevage for his wines but he can't really at this early stage of his business, plus the demand is pushing the release earlier. He tries harder with the Romorantin as these whites are known to age very well.
The wine has indeed some vanilla, even whisky notes at this stage.
The wine is more advanced in its fermentation, there's still a bit of sugar, it's still on its way.
__ Pinot Noir, from a cask. Les Hauts Bruyères. Very light color, almost like a rosé, it's a direct press. Very turbid, stil fermenting (was at 1000 3 days before). He chose to make a direct press because of the condition of the grapes but the wine turns out well actually. For this one he had to put a bit of sulfur at homeopathic doses on the incoming grapes. Very nice if still early, you already find the elegant tannin of the pinot noir.
__ Pinot Noir, also from a cask, made with a 10-day maceration, also from Les Hauts Bryères. The color is a bit darker but not that much compared with the former. More substance, the mouthfeel is more forward.
__ Pineau d'Aunis 2013, from a large red fiber-glass vat in the middle of the barn. The fermenter is covered with a blue tarpaulin because brendan id doing a semi-carbonic maceration here, the grapes are destemmed if I understood well, and he put some CO2 on the top of the fermenter until the fermentation took off, yielding its own CO2. It's the 2nd year he makes pineau d'aunis wine. The maceration was nearing a month when I visited and the color extraction was still very modest. Brendan was to devat 3 days later. He punched the cap only once until now, and he may do it more before the devatting. Brendan doesn't filter his reds, no fining either. He noticed by the way that his buyers feel reassured when the wines are a bit turbid becaause they aren't filtered or fined. I can add, so do I...
In the mouth you recognize unmistakably the aroma and gentle mouth touch of the pineau d'aunis, the pepper is already there as well as the light but still marked tannins. Brendan says that he loves this grape varity too. He made this wine from a 30-are surface. Most of this wine sells in Paris plus a bit more in Japan
Brendan shows me at this point the label of Rouge, the first cuvée he made (and which he keeps making most years), it's a Gamay. The cuvée name is in two parts, first Rouge (Red) in red letters at the top, then on the lower part the sentence "Le Capitalisme Rouge est
une Voie un Vin de Garage", a play of words with red capitalism (a slur for Trotskyists), dead-end way and garage wine... the picture of the man holding a glass on the label is a brother of a his grandfather (on his mother's side), an artist named Yves Tanguy who was friend of Jacques Prévert and Breton, took part to the surrealist movement and lived a bohemian life throughout the30s' before settling in the United States around WW2 with his American wife. This label has also to do with his years when aged 13 in San Francisco he was flirting with the Troskyist dream, Rouge being the name of the Trotskyist newspaper in France then. The slogan on the lower part of the label happened to be one of the slogans used by the leftist newspaper.
Last year he couldn't do the cuvée because the yields were so low, but in 2013 he bought some gamay to his friend in Saint Julien de Chédon to make the cuvée again.
__ Gorge Sèche 2012, 50 % Pineau d'Aunis, 25 % Côt and 25 % Gamay. 11 % in alcohol ! Asked if he tells about the varieties on the label, Brendan says that while it was theoriocally possible to display the varieties on a table-wine label, you had until recently to go through an administrative process and make a written demand for the authorization to FranceAgriMer (the French admistration dealing with sea & agriculture products), and this, before the grapes were even picked, at a stage when a winemaker doesn't know which cuvée he'll make. But recently, this administrative authorization has eased and you can ask for it two weeks before the bottling and commercialization of the wine, which is much more convenient, so Brendan will be able to print the variety on his table wines routinely.
Very nice nose, and the pineau d'aunis is expressive on the nose, even with only 50 % of the blend. In spite of making 25 % of this blend, the wine remains fairly clear, it must not be one of these dark malbecs of Cahors...
In the mouth, it's a pleasure, you drink this wine by itself, it's fruity and gentle, with enough of pineau d'aunis to make you feel all its lively character. A couple sips later, I'll note the candy, acidulous side of this wine, really enjoyable.
Brendan says that he made a special cuvée of it for Coinstot Vino (the wine bar/restaurant in Paris_map), he walks to a cabinet behind where he stores his labels and sticks one on a bottle. Nice design, easy to spot with the color and the crossing lines. The label also reads Vin de France and this unusual 11 % in alcohol. Another vin de soif that should sell well at the wine bar...
__ Pour une Poignée e Bouteilles, Vin de France
(Pinot Noir & Côt). The label (pic on right)
is an humoristic reference to an iconic Western by Sergio Leone, with the would-be-Clint-Eastwood character in the foreground holding his hand ready to grasp a bottle. It's actually the only label which Brendan didn't design himself, even the Coinstot Vino label is his work, if inspired by the bar's logo. It was designed by a friend-caviste in Blois who is also a designer.
The grapes (50 % pinot noir, 50 % côt) are also farmed organic by Franck Rio, his friend grower in Saint Julien de Chédon along the Cher river (further east from Clos Roche Blanche and Noella Morantin). Brendan says that the pinot nois is dominant here for the expression of the wine. First, the nose has an exciting appeal. In the mouth, there's a bit of perly feel, as Brendan doesn't add sulfur during the vinification or bottling, except for homeopathic doses on the incoming grapes and the fact that the barrels are sukfur wicked. He had a Cofrac lab check of the wine after bottling (he exports to Japan and they do ask levels) and the total SO2 was 20 mg, which is really low. I ask how much he sells this wine without tax, (for professionals buyers), he says that he sells all his wines 5,5 €. Not bad, where can you get the "professional buyer" status again ?...
[Edit] I'm just having a few glasses of this wine back home (picture on left) : very nice and pleasant drink, inspiring color and turbidity, makes you gently high and ask for more, and again I love this light color and haze... Try this wine if you see one, it's very alive.
Brendan explained at this point how Coinstot Vino happened to ask for a special cuvée with one of his wines : he has been selling wine to them (they're two associates) for a while, and earlier this year Guillaume came to La Dive (the natural-wine event that takes place in Angers in late january) and Brendan had him tasted a few samples of wines thar were still fermenting in his barn, including the Pineau d'Aunis wine (actually he had brought a micro-blend because the wine is not 100 % pineau d'aunis). Guillaume liked it and made an order right away, and when Brendan bottled the wine before the harvest it was already sold out including with his Japanese importer.
This Romorantin may be labelled as a vulgar table wine but it's naturally made, unfiltered and un-sulfured. In the mouth it is straight, neat with a nice roundness. I ask about the malolactic, Brendan always let them unfold. He listens to the fermentation bubbling noise and he says that the malolactic makes a very different, distinctive noise compared to the alcoholic fermentation. He made 4 casks of this Romorantin in 2011. Brendan still had 200 bottles left of the 2011 when this visit took place.
Asked about the aging of bottles, wether he keeps bottles aside to see in a few years how they behave, he says yes, but just a dozen per cuvée because he hasn't enough volume, and he'll check for example this Romorantin and the 2010 as well to see how it ages. He keeps the wine in an old cellar under the house which dates from the 9th century.
Brendan recounts me an incredible anecdote : When he came from California to France in 1971 as a teenager to eventually study in a high school in the Loire, he ended up being in the same class than Christian Chaussard in the Lycée Notre Dame des Aydes, a Catholic school of Blois (no public school accepted an American who didn't speak enough French...). Chaussard was in a scientific cursus in the school and Brendan (who says that he was not good in maths) was in the literary section. Their paths crossed again at the Wine fair of Villebarou in 2008 (north of Blois) where Chaussard was pouring his wines, Brendan had come to taste wines and he was surprised to see Chaussard, who in turn encouraged him to start-jump his new career in winemaking. And only later he leant that Chaussard was the president of the AVN, the natural-wine association... This is a strange coincidence, they had both followed their path not knowing about the other and ended up follwing the same work and philosophy.
This year, two thirds of Brendan Tracey's wines were exported, first to Japan (Racines), to New York (Vitikult), Belgium (Biodyssey), Holland (Wilde Wijnen) and Denmark (Lieu-Dit). Otherwise you can find his wines in a string of cavistes in Paris : La Cave des Papilles (a street wine-shop that also sells and ships online including abroad), Coinstot Vino, Versant vins (she's alas moving to the Loire soon), Au Nouveau Nez, Crus et Découvertes, En Vrac (where you can buy wine in bulk). Brendan Tracey's wines sell for 10 or 12 € tax included in Paris.
2007 Article about Brendan (the punk-rock musician) in the Nouvelle République
Article abour Brendan's cuvée Rouge (in English)
Go taste Brendan's wines (along with others) at Les Vins du Coin in Blois (Nov 30-Dec 1st)