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Garage-made wine challenges traditions

He was a logger, a lifeguard, a disc jockey and a banker. But Jean-Luc Thunevin didn't strike it big until he started making red wine in his garage.
Jean-Luc Thunevin
Jean-Luc ThunevinJohn Ward Anderson / The Washington Post
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He was a logger, a lifeguard, a disc jockey and a banker. But Jean-Luc Thunevin didn't strike it big until he started making red wine in his garage. From there, the Algerian-born high-school graduate began challenging upper-crust wine barons and their traditions, helping spur a revolt that experts argue will either revitalize the fabled Bordeaux region or drive it nearer to ruin.

In the beginning, Thunevin climbed into vats with his wife, Murielle, to slosh around in the grapes. He relied on friends to bend over tables in the driveway and pluck out leaves and stems in exchange for dinner.

But from that first vintage -- 1,291 bottles of 1991 Chateau Valandraud, which retailed for about $25 each -- evolved one of the most exclusive boutique wines in France, fetching as much as $500 a bottle. Today, Thunevin makes 11 different wines and sells about 1 million bottles a year in markets from Paris to Hong Kong, Moscow to New York.

To some wine lovers, Thunevin, 54, and other garagistes who use similar iconoclastic techniques represent the greatest threat facing Bordeaux and its reputation as the world's premier wine region.

But to others, stubborn defense of tradition in the face of tough overseas competition is a key reason for the decline of Bordeaux, which had a surplus of 200 million unsold bottles last year. They question whether the people who make Bordeaux wines have the gumption to change and compete. "We had success because we rediscovered some techniques that were used a long time ago that had been abandoned," Thunevin said. Among them: extensive pruning and thinning to concentrate grapes on the vine, and handpicking and sorting only the ripest fruit.

"It did not go over well with the historic winegrowers in the region, especially when Valandraud started selling for more than the top traditional wines," he said with a smile, his lips stained purple from a recent tasting. "But it forced all the big chateaux to take a second look at what they were doing, and that was useful because it helped them prepare for the future, for the American and Australian competition."

"There was jealousy from the historic properties," said Michel Bettane, one of the most influential wine critics in France. But Thunevin and a small band of garage winemakers "had brilliant ideas about wine making, and they were doing it better than anyone else, and now 80 percent of the best growers in Saint-Emilion are doing the same thing the garagistes did 10 or 12 years ago."

‘A standard taste’
Many traditionalists remain unconvinced, accusing Thunevin and other modernists of embracing an international trend toward standardization in wines. They say that too many winemakers are ignoring the unique characteristics of their vines and land in favor of technical, by-the-numbers production that will make all wines taste the same.

"A wine should tell you the story of the place it came from," said Jean-Claude Berrouet, the top winemaker at 12 vineyards, including Chateau Petrus, the most famous wine in the neighboring Pomerol region, and Napa Valley's high-browed Dominus Estate. Innovation and change are important, Berrouet said, but there should be limits on techniques that a winemaker can use and still be classified as a Bordeaux. "If I'm a conductor playing Mozart, can I add notes to it?" he asked. "Pretentious men do this."

"As long as I can make a living doing what I do, I will resist the move to a standard taste," Berrouet said. "But you need to be realistic, and the day you can't make a living, you have to change." Three decades ago, Bordeaux was one of the top fine wines all over the world. Then the world's taste buds started to change, and lighter, fruitier, less expensive wines from abroad -- particularly the United States, Australia and Chile -- won international acclaim.

Between 1999 and 2004, France's wine exports dropped 11 percent, while America's rose 49 percent, Chile's grew 96 percent, and Australia's exploded by 152 percent. Over the same period, France's share of world wine exports dropped from 25 percent to 19 percent, while the combined share of the other three countries grew from 13.5 percent to 25 percent.

‘Sunnier, fruitier’
In blind, international tastings, 80 percent of the people prefer "sunnier, fruitier" wines from the overseas vineyards, "and if you try to force the consumer to accept the very old style of Bordeaux, it's a disaster," said Hubert de Bouard, president of the St.-Emilion Winegrowers' Union. He is the eighth generation of his family to head Chateau Angelus, a Premier Grand Cru Classe wine that is ranked among the highest quality in France.

Members of the government's stodgy wine regulating agency, the Appellation d'Origine Controlee, accuse Bouard of being "a revolutionary," he said. Among his demands they cite is that French wines relax their regulations, change their labeling, modernize their production techniques and adjust their styles and tastes -- even allowing oak chips to be used in aging barrels for flavoring -- to compete in global markets.

In his demand for innovation, the aristocratic Bouard, 48, is an unlikely ally of Thunevin. Bouard has purchased vineyards in Spain and South Africa, and his teenage son is apprenticing at a vineyard in Argentina to better understand the importance of globalization. His logic is simple, he said. "You want to work, or you want to die?"

"I don't want to kill my tradition and roots," he said, "but if you want to protect your traditions, you have to be strong enough to understand that the world changes."

But to Yves Delol, 66, whose family has owned the modest Chateau Gueyrosse vineyard since 1870, modernist techniques that use additives "are like doping in sports." Other vineyards "are free to do it, but they should be transparent and say on the label that oak chips were added, because it's not a natural process," he said, waving gnarly hands that look like the vines they tend.

"You don't want to sell your soul and lose your individuality," added his daughter, Samuelle, 37, next in line to run the vineyard.

While French wines are under commercial assault abroad, their problems are being compounded at home by a health movement that has slashed national wine consumption in half, from an average 27 gallons per person a year in 1980 to 14 gallons in 2004. That has contributed to the unprecedented surplus in Bordeaux.

"We have to find a solution to simple problems -- there's too much wine, and too much of it is bad in quality," said Bettane, the wine critic.

‘Pushing your limits’
Those are problems Thunevin says he doesn't face, citing his willing to try new things -- -- such as his development of a kosher wine that critic Robert Parker claimed was "undeniably the finest red kosher wine in the world." It sells in the United States for more than $200 a bottle.

"It's not that, if you weren't born wealthy in a chateau, you can't make good wine," Thunevin said. "It's a question of pushing your limits."

"At the beginning, he crossed the road looking both ways -- everybody was fighting the modernists," said Michel Rolland, a renowned wine consultant who provides production advice to about 100 French winemakers -- including Thunevin -- and another two dozen vineyards in 13 countries.

"Jean-Luc is permanently looking for something new to do. Every year he's asking how is it possible to move and change?" Rolland said. "We need 200 Jean-Luc Thunevins in Bordeaux, but we have only one."

In fact, with his extraordinary success, Thunevin said, "My friends say, you're not so garage anymore. And I say it's a state of mind."

Special correspondent Marie Valla contributed to this report.