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Q&A: Jean-Michel Valette, Chairman, Institute of Masters of Wine

Q&A: Jean-Michel Valette, Chairman, Institute of Masters of Wine
© Mark Dean
Jean-Michel Valette is the recently appointed chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine – the first American to hold the job. While at home baking his latest batch of bread, he discussed his admiration of Robert Mondavi, and his love of lesser vintages.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

A lucky man, sometimes with wild eyebrows.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up everywhere. My father is French and my mother is German. I was born in the United States, in Colorado, although I never lived there. They decided eventually to settle in the U.S. so our childhood was spent in all those three countries – we lived in the Black Forest, the French Alps and New England. I think I counted 10 schools before university. My grandparents lived in Vouvray so I spent all my summers there.

What did you study at university?

I studied German literature and because my father was paying the bills he insisted I do something useful, so I also studied economics. The interesting thing is that my career has been a business career and I can’t say I’ve used a single thing I learned in economics. But German literature and philosophy has been useful to me in untold business situations.

What drew you to wine?

Spending all my summers in Vouvray. My grandfather made wine there so I grew up around it. I really didn’t think of it as a career. Later on, after I had done a stint in Germany with a consulting company and come back to the U.S., I was thinking more seriously about what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in the consumer world and something international, and I didn’t want to be in a place crawling with M.B.A.s. It brought me straight to wine. I didn’t really want to work in France, so I set out to California and knocked on a lot of doors.

What have been your best experiences?

It’s hard to pick anything out in particular, but being able to sit at lunch one-on-one with Robert Mondavi multiple times was a special experience. Another was going on a Master of Wine trip to Burgundy in 1996. Driving up from the south of France [with] a comet in the sky overlooking my path was magical.

What have been your worst experiences?

I tend to forget those!

Members of the Confrérie de la Chantepeure de Vouvray celebrate the harvest; part of the wine museum at Vouvray's Château de Montcontour
© AFP | Members of the Confrérie de la Chantepeure de Vouvray celebrate the harvest; part of the wine museum at Vouvray's Château de Montcontour

Who are your wine inspirations?

Bob Mondavi again. And for very specific reasons. Each time I think I’m getting old, I’ve done all I can do, I sit back to the fact Mr. Mondavi, or Bob, was 53 when he started his winery. He was basically penniless and had, in essence, been thrown out of his family company. Everything we know about Robert Mondavi Winery, what he has done for the California wine industry, all happened from age 53 onwards.

What do you most like in a wine?

Surprise. A good surprise, of course. I especially like it when the second glass or the last sip in the bottle was better than the first. That usually comes from something that has balance and comes from a special place. It doesn’t always mean it comes from a special vintage. In fact, some of the really memorable wines I have had, have been from great vineyards but unheralded vintages.

I remember a 1987 Pavie that was just stunning, or a 1998 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – years that were really not high up on the hit parade. Or, a 1993 Clos Ste Hune. That’s part of the surprise. You are not expecting it to be wonderful and it is.

What is your view of the Robert Parker system of ranking wines?

That it’s useful to a point. That’s it a reality of our world. And that in some sense it might be coming to its natural end. I think more and more as people are interconnected, we will slowly see in wine what we have seen in all sorts of other products, whether it’s movies or books or washing machines. More and more people are taking their cues not from historical experts but from each other. Five stars on Amazon means something to someone buying a book, even though they have no idea who is writing those reviews or whether their tastes are the same.

Is wine becoming less elitist?

One mistake people often make in a business context is that they think wine is a monolith and that there is a wine industry. The reality is that there are so many different segments –geography, price points, consumers – that generalizations are never true and generalizations about wine are often dangerous. I think there is part of it that is elitist and has been elitist for centuries and will remain elitist, and there’s a part of it that is down to earth and simple and democratic. We have all of that now and going forward.

The Robert Mondavi winery in Napa, California
© AFP | The Robert Mondavi winery in Napa, California

What do you drink on a ‘school night’?

A glass or two.

If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

I like beer and, in the same way as wine, I like things with a personality and a flavor. I also like coffee, but that’s in the morning!

How important is the glass you drink from?

It’s better than drinking from the bottle! But it’s an interesting question. When I sat my MW exam ages ago I made sure that I always tasted and drank wine out of the same glass so that I would not experience any variation. At the same time, I also rebel a little against the notion that there can only be one glass for each type of wine. Perhaps I should change the question to what glasses do I drink from. In the last week, I’ve drunk wine in Riedel glasses and I’ve had wine in a regular whiskey tumbler.

Where would you like to be buried?

I’ve thought about this before and I really have no idea. It is terrible to say, but I don’t think I care that much for myself whether I’m buried or cremated or stuck in a crevasse in a mountain. But I suppose the people around me probably do, so I guess I’ll let them choose.

What would you want the last wine to be?

One of those surprises. I’ll keep on looking until I find that one.

What brings you the greatest happiness?

Small things.

What do you think would make the world a better place?

[If] we all try to be curious and respectful, and try to be good communicators. We all have good souls.

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