SF Gate

A woman of wine
Mondavi's Janssens scales rare heights

Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 7, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/08/07/FD242132.DTL

Her colleagues point to her work ethic, her palate and her political savvy to explain how Genevieve Janssens landed one of the biggest jobs in the California wine industry. Janssens herself talks about destiny.

The director of winemaking for Oakville's world-renowned Robert Mondavi Winery, the 51-year-old Frenchwoman recounts professional milestones as if all she did was show up at the right time. But her rise -- remarkably swift despite a long break for marriage and motherhood -- suggests a career that owes more to spunk than to serendipity. Responsible for more than two dozen Mondavi wines and more than 300,000 cases, Janssens has reached a height in the wine industry that few women attain.

A fifth-generation winemaker who never imagined becoming anything else, Janssens was drinking watered wine from an early age. Born in Morocco to French Algerian parents, she grew up mostly in southern France, where her parents settled after Algerian nationalists took the family vineyards. Her father, whom she describes as a pioneer, then established vineyards and a winery in Corsica but lost them, too, when the Corsicans forced French property owners out.

Encouraged by her father, Janssens studied enology at the University of Bordeaux, where her professors included the legendary Emile Peynaud, a world authority on wine tasting. Cigarette in hand, Peynaud taught her how to taste. "The room was full of smoke all the time," Janssens recalls. "He always said it didn't bother him."

The young enologist worked briefly in a Bordeaux wine consultant's lab, then decided to set up her own small lab and consulting business in Provence. In 1977, she and her brother visited the Napa Valley and -- destiny calling -- she visited the Robert Mondavi Winery and met winemaker Zelma Long.

"We spent a good hour talking about winemaking philosophy," Janssens remembers, "and when I said goodbye, I joked and said, 'If you have something for me here, I'm ready.' " Three months later, Long called, with the offer of a lab job. "I did not hesitate one minute," Janssens says.

Less than two years after arriving, the then 28-year-old met and married a Belgian artist seven years her junior who taught at the College of Merced.

"So I quit Mondavi," the winemaker says, "which was not very smart, but when you're young, you go with your passion."

The couple moved to the Merced area and started a family -- they have a son and a daughter -- and Janssens put her career aside, allowing herself just enough consulting work to stay content.

A decade later, Janssens picked up the phone. "I called Tim (Mondavi) and said, 'Do you recall me? I would like to come back if you have something interesting.' "

Mondavi did. Opus One, the family's groundbreaking joint venture with the French Rothschild family, was rapidly moving forward and needed a director of production.

"Isn't that incredible?" Janssens says now. "It was destiny. Why did I call at that time? I could have called later when there was no opening."

More incredible, perhaps, is that Tim Mondavi and Patrick

Leon, the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild winemaker, gave the prestigious post to someone who hadn't held a winery job in 10 years. Janssens and family moved back to Napa Valley, and her husband found work teaching French at a Bay Area college. Then Janssens began what must have been, at the time, one of the most challenging winemaking jobs anywhere.

" I worked with a member of the team here and a member of the team in France, " she says, "and my role was to put the two different winemaking visions together, to make Opus One happen from day to day."

Janssens stayed for nine years, overseeing construction of the costly winery -- the industry joke is that the project had an unlimited budget and exceeded it -- and production of one of California's priciest wines.

"There weren't too many relaxed times at Opus," recalls Napa Valley wine consultant Ashley Heisey, who Janssens hired in the early '90s to run the lab. "I don't think Genevieve ever, in her mind, had a rest day in terms of making those wines better. She'd return your voicemail at two in the morning because that was the only quiet time in her life. I know she has this other life outside of wine, but when you're working with her you have no sense of that."

At Opus, Janssens made only one wine -- the famous Opus One, a Bordeaux- style blend meant to compete with the top wines of the world. According to Heisey, Janssens had the persistent temperament for such an endeavor, where the brass ring is always just beyond your grasp. "You're working on that last one percent of quality," Heisey says, "a refinement that probably never ends. I would have thought she was going to be at Opus for a lifetime."

Instead, Janssens left her plum job in 1997, when Tim Mondavi recruited her for her current post. A current Opus One employee says the French partners were furious at the Mondavis for luring her away.

"The French were sorry," says Janssens diplomatically, "but they knew I wanted to grow. It's very difficult to stop an employee who wants to know more. "

Compared to Opus, with its narrow focus, Mondavi is a giant playground with enough games and toys to keep even a hyperactive winemaker amused. Janssens can make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel -- varietals she had never had the chance to work with in the past -- and she talks excitedly about how much she is learning.

Janssens points out that winemakers learn a technique from every varietal that they can apply to other varietals. Currently the winery is using lees stirring on its Sauvignon Blanc, a practice more often associated with Chardonnay. Periodically stirring the lees, the spent yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the tank or barrel after fermentation, gives the wine a richer texture to balance its natural austerity, Janssens says.

"I am starving to learn more," says the winemaker, who continues her explorations at the dinner table. With meals, she says, "I taste wines that are going to teach me something, improve my knowledge. At the present time, I am opening every bottle of Merlot I can." The exercise is intended to help Janssens define the ideal Merlot, a varietal that is the object of much current attention at the winery.

Although Tim Mondavi, who carries the title of winegrower, sets the style for the wines, Janssens and her crew are the ones who make it happen. She refers constantly to both Tim and her team which, with her accent, sound just the same. Three mornings a week, she tastes with her two associate winemakers, part of the critical process of determining which lots go into which blends.

At those meetings, says Janssens, a listener could discern a fundamental difference between her French way of describing wine and the words used by her American assistants.

"American winemakers describe wine with floral and fruity terms. I describe by structure. I will say 'the beginning, the middle, the end.' It's very Cartesian. I might say 'cassis' because I learned that here, but I'm more likely to talk about the body, the structure, the depth, the center, the finish," she says.

Last year, the Wine Spectator's influential columnist James Laube wrote a blistering criticism of the current Mondavi releases. Laube argued that Tim had steered the wines away from richness, ripeness and complexity and toward a leaner, less interesting style. Today, Mondavi defends the style as more European, more sophisticated, more harmonious with food -- "elegance with power, and not the other way around" -- but the criticism must have stung.

Janssens will only say now that Laube had the right to his opinion, but Richard Sowalsky, one of her associate winemakers, says he learned a lot from how she reacted at the time. While a similar blow from such a powerful critic would have sent many winemakers into a deep funk and a stylistic about-face, Janssens held her ground. She pulled the wines, retasted them, read what Laube wrote, and then pronounced the wines just fine.

"It was really refreshing," Sowalsky says. "She said, 'I don't think we've made any mistakes. He's entitled to an opinion, but we don't agree.' She's really self-confident, and she knows when she's done a good job."

With her 19-year-old daughter at UC Berkeley and her 16-year-old son eyeing UC Davis -- perhaps to become a sixth-generation winemaker -- Janssen has more time for a long-held dream, a collaboration with her husband, Luc. The couple recently released the first commercial vintage from their own petite winery, called Portfolio Limited Edition. A Cabernet Sauvignon made with grapes from Napa's Hendry Ranch, the wine is partly a vehicle for promoting Luc's art.

Luc, a printmaker who works with copper plates and a photogravure process, is creating limited-edition photographs to accompany each release.

The couple make only 200 cases a year "and we won't grow bigger than that," Janssens promises. Some of the profits are earmarked for a Laotian hospital that the two have ties to, but the endeavor is largely an excuse to work together. "It's a nice project for our older ages. We make the wine at home, and that's the beauty of it. We can punch down together at midnight," Janssens says, referring to the process of extracting color and flavor from the grape skins.

Far from being worried about losing some of his winemaker's attention, Tim Mondavi says he supports the venture. "I think," he says, "that I bought their first couple of cases."

E-mail Janet Fletcher at wine@sfchronicle.com.
�2002 San Francisco Chronicle. Page 5WB