Over 60 wineries abound in North Carolina, but our little neck of the woods has a special distinction: we have several French Wine importers racing about offering their wares to thirsty mountaineers.
I recently met with two of them — young men both from the Loire Valley. One has set up shop in Asheville and another is based in Chapel Hill but has married a Hendersonville girl. I was curious about what would bring these sons of La Belle France to the Blue Ridge.
Philippe Bourgeois started Bourgeois Family Wines in 2007. After attending Western Carolina University, where his sister had been an exchange student, he went to work for Eric Solomon Imports in Charlotte as Operations Manager and later as General Manager. His family on his father’s side has been in the wine business around Saumur in the Loire for six generations so he grew up knowing a lot of wine making families. It seemed natural to start his own business so he began in Charlotte and later moved his business to Asheville.
Working by word of mouth, he found wine makers that did not have representation in the American market and began importing. In three years he has built a portfolio of 80 wines from 30 different producers. His mission is to make French wine more approachable.
French wine labels are daunting since they are named by the region or the community they come from. We Yanks have become accustomed to labels listing the variety of grape such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Looking at a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse you would not know that it was Chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France or that a red wine with the label Chambolle-Musigny was a classic Pinot Noir. The French tradition is based on terroir — the right grape in the right place.
Philippe’s wines have back labels that tell you the grape or grapes and the percentage of blend. His Le Drunk Rooster Chardonnay is inexpensive and full blown without any oak to gloss over the taste of juice. He supervises the selection and preparation of his Le Drunk Rooster wines which also include a Syrah-Grenache blend. The Bourgeois “In Fine” wines were discovered when he visited a café near Mount Ventoux in the Rhone region. He drank the wine and asked the owner who made it. He was on the road with directions. Voila, a contact and a contract. These wines are good wines in a range from eight to 15 dollars. Thank you Philippe.
Thomas Meunier happened in town a few weeks ago with a bag of wine and plans to marry Elizabeth Justus of Hendersonville. He carried out his wedding plans and is making a fast run at building his company Authentique Vin, Thomas Meunier Selections. This young man is also from the Loire but has never met Philippe. They have surprisingly similar life paths and passions. His father, too, is from Saumur and he had a passion for cooking. As a young boy Thomas would play Sommelier to his Chef Father looking for just the right pairing for the food. Later Thomas worked as assistant wine maker to famed Loire producer Frederic Mabileau. Having studied business and logistics, and with a facility for foreign languages, he opened the British market for Mabileau and then other countries in Northern Europe. When he came to the states to sell wine, he met Jon David Hendrick, a Chapel Hill-based importer who introduced him to Elizabeth at, you got it, a wine tasting. Elizabeth was running a couple of establishments in Chapel Hill where she earned her food and wine credentials while working as a UNC student.
Thomas made a personal and professional choice to quit his job and move to the states to seek some kind of livelihood in wine. Many of his wine making friends back home said they needed him in the U.S. to represent their wines so TM Selections was born. Besides, he thought, these are the wines I really like so I should bring them with me to enjoy. He describes himself as a Don Quixote, passionately defending small wine makers who are trying to do things right. As he sees it, terroir is all that defines a region and he wants to help terroir-driven wine makers succeed. He, like Philippe, wants to simplify French wine for American consumers.
Thomas prefers to teach Americans because the average French person assumes they already know everything about wine and wouldn’t admit if they didn’t because, well, they are French and are expected to be masters of the subject. He believes that Americans are open-minded and welcome his help.
Thomas imports many affordable, solid wines from Bordeaux as well as delightful Muscadet’s, Sauvignon Blancs and Gamays from Touraine in the Loire. Tasting his wines make you feel like you are experiencing home town life in France. These are the wines of the people and made by the people he grew up with and trusts.
I am thrilled to witness this democratization of French wines in our area. To have some hometown boys you can connect with about French wine is new for us in the Mountains. Check the back labels for their names and give them some support. We should wish them both great success.