The Decanter September interview: Ted Lemon

  • Friday 26 August 2011

Rebecca Gibb meets the terroir-driven winemaker setting his own benchmarks in the New World

Ted Lemon

Ted Lemon set out to write the Great American novel. Luckily for fans of Littorai, his estate on California’s Sonoma Coast, he focused instead on composing poetry in a bottle – and ended up making great American wines.

Classically trained in the home of terroir, Burgundy’s Côte d’or, he is not interested in making ‘world-class Pinot Noir’. Rather he seeks wines with a sense of place – be that via the Sonoma Coast, Alexandra Valley or his new project, Burn Cottage in Central otago.

The written word has played a large part in Lemon’s life. Winemaking does not run in Lemon’s family – he grew up in suburban New York State, where his father, Richard, was the ‘Talk of the Town’ columnist for The New Yorker and covered the Beatles’ first visit to the Big Apple for Newsweek.

Lemon Jr studied French literature at Brown University, and dreamed of that great American novel.

In his early 20s he scraped a living as a nursing assistant at a Jewish care home while composing the first chapters of the book. on realising that he would not emulate John Steinbeck, he was soon on a plane to Dijon for further academic rigour.

The course texts he chose this time were Peynaud not Proust and, in 1981, he graduated with an oenology degree. He stayed in Burgundy, working at several prestigious estates: Domaines Georges Roumier, Bruno Clair, De Villaine and Dujac.

In 1984, aged 25, Lemon did the seemingly impossible and became the first American to run a Burgundy estate: Domaine Guy Roulot in meursault.

So, was he successful? Well, there can’t be many Americans who have a noble title conferred upon them in Burgundy. Such was his standing there, though, that in Beaune, Lemon answers to the moniker ‘Le Comte de Citron’.

After three vintages in Burgundy, however, Lemon returned to the US to become winemaker at Chateau Woltner in Napa Valley. By 1992, he and his wife Heidi were ready to start their own project. ‘We spent much of that year travelling from the Canadian border to southern California, looking at the potential for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. While I loved my time in Napa, I remained passionate about Pinot and Chardonnay and knew their greatest future lay elsewhere,’ says Lemon.

The following year, after months scouring the vineyards of California’s west coast from Seattle to Santa Barbara, looking for the best growing conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Lemons settled in the Sonoma Coast, where they founded Littorai with just $10,000.

Still influenced by Burgundy, Lemon had no intention of making the buttery, exuberant, high-alcohol Californian wines that were fashionable at the time.

He was aiming for restraint, elegance and balance from cooler coastal sites. other producers thought him crazy and even Lemon admits: ‘It was the period of ascendancy of the flamboyant wine style. I wondered how the hell I was going to make money.’

Lemon’s winemaking philosophy did not win him high scores from US wine critics in the early days, so he looked to the restaurant trade to build Littorai’s reputation. ‘Many sommeliers were not personally enamoured of American wine on steroids. They might happily sell it to customers, but it wasn’t what they were drinking at home.

Could we appeal directly to them and thereby find a wider audience? This was our goal and we really owe our early success to great American sommeliers. People like Larry Stone, Fred Dame, Peter Granoff, Debbie Zachareas, Evan Goldstein, Michael Bonaccorsi, Jay Fletcher, William Sherer, Eugenio Jardim and more. They were great supporters and allowed us to slowly develop a following.’

Almost 20 years after starting Littorai, Lemon is optimistic that consumer preferences in the US are now slowly shifting towards his understated wine styles, believing the rich, ripe, heavily oaked category will migrate to the bottom shelf. ‘The train has left the station,’ he claims.

‘That’s not to say flamboyant wines aren’t being made. That style still dominates, but the trend seems clear. People have put these big wines in the cellar and are not pleased with them after 15 years.’ In 2007, to prove New World wines can age gracefully, Littorai released a collector’s set that included every vintage from 1993 onwards. He is also encouraged by a younger generation of consumers coming through his cellar door ‘who have missed that whole period of flamboyancy’.

Burgundy will always have a place in Lemon’s heart but don’t make comparisons to Burgundy when you taste his wines; he is not trying to make Meursault or Volnay lookalikes. Littorai is Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Russian River – not Morey-St- Denis, and it is unhelpful to compare apples with pears, he says.

‘I find it interesting that the New World wants to compare itself to the Old World all the time because its usefulness is limited. It implies the Old World is better, and the benchmark.’

Yet it remains a comparison winemakers in the New World use for their wines. Unoaked Chardonnay producers in cooler New World climates, such as the Yarra Valley, compare their wines to Chablis; and New World Cabernet-Merlot makers insist on promoting their wines as Bordeaux blends, when they are from Hawke’s Bay or Napa.

The styles are no less valid, he says, just because they are not from a region with a long tradition of wine growing. He adds: ‘This slavish admiration will never lead us to truly inspiring New World wines. The only way we will do that is when we can put the Old World in a box. It took me a long time to get to that point.’

Lemon is a straight-talking, no-nonsense guy who doesn’t seem the sort to start burying cow’s horns. Yet Littorai’s vineyard has been farmed biodynamically since 2001 and his New Zealand partnership, Burn Cottage, is also biodynamic.

The move to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy on farming was born out of disillusionment with conventional farming practises and its negative impact on soil life rather than a belief in root and fruit days. ‘We went down the biodynamic path because we had lost faith in conventional farming.

After 20 years of working in Burgundy, California and Oregon [he was a consultant for Archery Summit Winery] it didn’t work any more,’ he laments. Lemon insists the biodynamic approach not only improves the soil but the extra time spent in the vineyards enhances the winemaker’s understanding of the farm and viticulture, which, he suggests, is often all too often lacking.

‘How many winemakers know how to prune?’ he asks. ‘They are technocrats. Give them a pair of shears and see if they can use them. If they are sat at a computer, they are not learning. There are too many winemakers looking at numbers.’

The recent release of a New Zealand Pinot Noir in partnership with Chicago-based wine distributor Marquis Sauvage has put Lemon back in the limelight.

They appear an unlikely pairing on the exterior: Marquis (pronounced Marcus) sports a heavy metal T-shirt, long hair and ZZ-Top beard. Lemon is clean-shaven, wearing a collared shirt. Instantly likeable, they introduce themselves as the ‘two musketeers’.

It’s clear they are both smart businessmen, passionate about wine, and that a third musketeer would be one too many.

Sauvage first bought the sheep paddock that was to become Burn Cottage Vineyard in 2001. He had been one of Lemon’s distributors for 15 years and wanted Lemon as his winemaker.

It took two Burgundy winemakers to refuse the job and almost eight months before Lemon said yes. It then took eight years to produce the first commercial wine.

Most producers bottle their first wine once the vines have reached three to five years of age, but the pair weren’t going to be rushed. Burn Cottage’s debut, the 2009 Pinot Noir, with a Goethe-inspired wacky label, has only just been released.

The pair seem to fit in with the quirky Central Otago types. In fact, Lemon is among old friends in Central Otago – Felton Road’s Blair Walter and Valli’s Grant Taylor have both slept on his couch.

Le Comte de Citron now has three heirs to his throne but they’re all under 12, so time will tell whether Littorai is passed onto his children.

With 30 years of experience now under his belt, starting out in the heart of Burgundy and making history, he remains most excited about the developments that have occurred in the New World in his lifetime.

‘Sonoma Coast and Central Otago will never be discovered again. We’re so privileged to have lived with what we have lived through, to be part of this fox hunt. What an amazing chance for consumers to follow. Unfortunately, Old World wine snobs have no idea what has happened in the past 50 years. Do they know how lucky we are?’

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