When Washington winemakers like Jean-François Pellet of Pepper Bridge and Amavi Cellars swoop into town, there is usually one thing on the tasting agenda: Serious wine talk. About their own wines, of course. But during our recent cocktail hour chat with Pellet, the wine poured was not his own but a Burgundian Pouilly-Fuissé, and the conversation quickly veered away from stuffy wine chat. Into post-winemaking workday Happy Hour territory, actually. Yeah, we liked this guy from the moment he said “tequila.” Turn the page for our interview.
The back story: Pellet grew up in Switzerland and first got a degree in viticulture (he comes from a family of growers), then decided to go back for a winemaking degree. He interned at Heitz Cellar in Napa, but he wouldn't return to the U.S. for ten years (in the early 1990s, he worked at a winery in Spain and later as the winemaker at a start-up in South Africa). That last South African project was a financial bust, so Pellet did what few are willing to do: He started over in the same industry from the very bottom. He offered up his cellar rat services to Heitz, and they of course gladly accepted. Long story short, Pellet stayed for four years as a winemaker at Heitz before being recruited by Pepper Bridge's investors as their start-up winemaker in Walla Walla.
Squid Ink: You were in Switzerland, California and now Washington.
Jean-Francois Pellet: Yes, we've been in Walla Walla for ten, twelve years. It's hard to believe, I thought I'd stay maybe two or three years, start the winery and then go back to California. My 13-year-old daughter was born in California, and is such a California girl. She'd love to come back.
SI: Probably a lot of teenagers' television-driven dream. But Washington winery life must have that small-town charm we don't have.
JFP: Exactly. Everyone is so open, so nice. It's more farmer-like, and it's really changing now, with lots going on. When we moved there it was pretty deserted. It's not like Napa with tourists everywhere all the time.
SI: Yeah, sometimes Napa can feel awfully glossy these days, as even just a winery tasting is crazy pricey now.
JFP: Yes. Actually, when we moved up to Washington, no wineries were charging for tastings. We were the first to charge, and people weren't very happy about it.
SI: No doubt!
JFP: Well, it's not a problem with most people, but if you charge a fee, it eliminates the people coming by just to keep drinking. Now almost everyone charges in Walla Walla for a tasting since we started doing it. Not much, not like Napa. Only a few dollars.
SI: But it makes folks think about their wine purchase value a bit more. So you're still the winemaker at Pepper Bridge, but then partnered with some of the same folks to start Amavi, a lower price-point label, in 2001. Hence those two years in Washington turn into twelve.
JFP: Yes, it seemed like a good time in the market for wines like this, and I could focus on Syrah. I wanted to look at different ways to explore the grape
SI: You can taste that vibe in the 2009 Syrah, which is great, by the way. One of the benefits of the current economy, too. A lower price point allows you to play around more, in a sense. Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers in Santa Barbara gave us a similar glass half-full report. Still, running two wineries is a lot of work.
JFP: It is, but I've been doing it a long time, so I've got it down now. It takes a long time to feel that way with winemaking. That's why [winemakers] are all so old. [Laughs]
SI: Right. Even someone in their late thirties seems very young in the wine world.
JFP: Well you don't get much opportunity to make wine, it only comes around once a year.
SI: Makes sense. Unlike, say, a pastry apprentice who has already made thousands of batches of holiday cookies after just one holiday season. In the wine world it takes years to get that kind of experience.
JFP: Yes. That's part of what I like about making wine. You can't rush it.
SI: Lots of work, and literally time, in one bottle. Which begs the question — what's your after work beverage of choice? In the restaurant biz it's usually an ice cold beer, not wine.
JFP: Yes, often all I want to drink after a long day is a beer, a Coors Light. Or maybe just a little tequila. Just enough to cool off, maybe half a beer, then I move on to wine with dinner. By then you want to sit down and enjoy wine.
Wait, don't say that about the Coors Light! One of my winery partners [Ray Goff] worked at Anheuser-Busch. He'll kill me.
SI: Ha. Right. You're supposed to say you occasionally drink a Bud Light.
So you like cheap beer? We're not sure why, but we were expecting someone who makes high-quality wines to say Belgian beer, or an IPA or whatever from a tiny craft brewery.
JFP: Yeah, it's not a great beer, but when you're hot and thirsty, you want a light beer.
SI: Like in a restaurant kitchen, after a long shift you just want a refreshing, not a heavy, beer.
JFP: Exactly. [Laughs] Wait, are you really writing that down about Coors Light?