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Historic Blessing of the Grapes At Robert Mondavi Winery

by John Intardonato
September 29, 2017

The queen is dead, long live the queen. A cryptic phrase: Sad, and, yet an apt and boyant one, as well. It lauds the past, while keeping its focus on the future. A celebration of spirt and continuity both past and present. And this appeared true in the case of the 52nd blessing of the grapes at the Robert Mondavi Winery last Thursday in Oakville, CA.

Last year's historic, 51st anniversary was saddened by the death of Margrit Mondavi on September 2, just as the Napa Valley harvest was moving into gear. The last of the Mondavi link was gone. The grace, charm, and talents of such an inimitable individual can now only be envisioned in memories. Her accomplishments and her contributions will, hopefully, always be noted.

The mood at this year's blessing was, indeed, still a bit somber. Afterall, how do you replace an icon? And, therefore, fond memories of Margrit were shared along with the purpose of the event-- to give thanks to the harvest and see to its future.

A bit ill at ease, Genvieve Janssens, director of winemaking at RMW, was now holding the mike: now doing what Robert had done for so many years, beginning in 1966, when the winery was founded. Then, when Robert was no longer able, and for more than a dozen years, Margrit took over the role. While appearing a bit nervous, and an unwilling spokesperson, Janssens performed assuredly and expertly: perfectly.

Janssens began with a warm smile and quiet demur, and spoke with a depth of knowledge that her flawless background in wine conveys. She spoke, of course, of the present, highly unusual harvest, and also of past memories. She said it is hard to be in the vineyards and to not also think of Robert and Margrit. "I had been working with them for so many years. Sharing their thoughts, their ideas. Their spirits are always in my heart," she said.

According to Janssens, the 2017 harvest was, in fact two harvests for the winery. "We had to deal first with a hail storm that caused leaf and berry damage, and then temperatures that went to 112 degrees for three days." She added that they are very fortunate to have plenty of labor to pick almost all the pinot noir and chardonnay prior to the heat wave that hit the valley in late August. The Bordeaux reds weathered the heat very well, she said. "It took the cabernet two weeks to adjust, but they are excellent; the color is exceptional, and very intense flavor."

Voila: A Star is born. Clearly, Janssens shows that the Mondavi link continues, and the winery has "une Princesse," and future queen.

Janssens is clearly an amazingly complex and talented woman who was knighted by her country of birth, France; nominated winemaker of the year, by her adopted homeland; successfuly launched her two children in both academic and professional pursuits; and spends countless hours along with her husband building hospitals and schools to assist the war torn people of laos.

Her wine back ground is probably unequaled: Born in North Africa where her parents owned vineyards, they returned to France following the loss of French Morocco and Algeria during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. The family remained in the wine business where they have vineyards and and a winery in France and the island of Corsica.

Janssens has been schooled by the legends of wine: In France she attended the Institut d'Oenologie, at the University of Bordeaux. There, she took course work from two legends in the world of wine: Jean Ribereau-Gayon, considered the father of modern wine science, and Emile Peynaud, who revolutionized the wine growing and wine making process, and is most responsible for the wine style and consultants that have emerged over the past 30 years.

After graduating in 1974, Janssens spent three years in her father's vineyards, and then became a consultant. In 1978 she made a special trip to California, specifically to visit the Robert Mondavi winery, and to, hopefully meet its winemaker, at that time, Zelma Long, one of the first woman winemakers at a large, major winery. Impressed with Janssens' background, Long ultimately offered her a position as a lab assistant. Her Mondavi link began. Her new tutors, along with Ms. Long, now were Robert, Margrit, and Tim Mondavi. And she was a great student.

While wine was her forte, family was her absolute. In 1979 Janssens met and married her husband, Luc Janssens, an artist and pilot born and schooled in Brussels. He was teaching at a small college in the central valley, and she spent the next nine years raising her two children, Georges and Gabrielle, there. She also worked as a consultant for the new wineries springing up in the Sierra foothills.

Repeatedly being enticed back to the Robert Mondavi Winery by Tim, she finally agreed to return in 1989, and after her husband found a position at an East Bay school. Because of her extensive knowledge of French wine, she played a leading role in coordinating the historic union between Robert Mondavi and the Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, and the creation of Opus One. Rothschild, like Mondavi, was a revolutionary in wine. He was able to change his second growth winery, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, to a first growth. No other winery has been able to change its status since the tiered system was created in France back in 1855.

For her work in wine, the French Government has awarded her L'Ordre national du Merite, Agricole. It is an award second only to the Legion d'Honnour. It is an honor similar to the knighthood bestowed in Britain. The award has gone back, at least, to the Third Republic. A similar award was given to Louis Pasteur and Jacques Cousteau. In 2010 Wine Enthusiast made her their winemaker of the year.

She and her husband have a small, bonded winery, where they make a limited quantity of a Bordeaux blend called, Portfolio. The wine is instrumental in raising funds for their on-going project to benefit the people of Laos. A program Luc began while working on his PhD shortly after the Vietnam War. Their foundation through wine sales, auctions, and generous contributions has, raised well over $1 million. The Janssens have been able, with volunteers, to build three schools and two clinics in remote villages. They scour used equipment for these facilities, train nurses, and recruit volunteer doctor to treat illnesses. Surgery from cataracts to cleft-palates are performed.

Genevieve Janssens. A truly complete individual. A truly complete winemaker.

Salut, La Madame, Genevieve. une icone nouveau. And the beat goes on.

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