On a recent trip to San Francisco, we noticed an attractive, stylishly-dressed woman seated at a table near us. She was speaking in French and we were almost positive we’d met her, but couldn’t recall when or where. (Seems to happen more and more frequently these days…)
Later, outside the restaurant, we bumped into her again and began chatting. She was none other than Martine Saunier, the acclaimed wine importer and, more recently, a filmmaker. Her trilogy on wine — A Year in Burgundy, A Year in Champagne, A Year in Port — has won critical praise. And we’re big fans of the films…no wonder she looked familiar!
We asked Martine if she’d share her story and experiences in producing the films. She graciously agreed and the result is this interview.
For almost 40 years, Martine Saunier’s import operation has been a prominent source for French wines, particularly on the West Coast, where she’s based. An ardent lover of wine, Martine grew up in Paris, but spent school vacations with her aunt, who owned a vineyard in Prissé, near Mâcon. She quickly became familiar with grape harvesting, fermentation and all things wine.
When Martine arrived in the U.S. — to marry an American doctor — she desperately missed the wines that she’d always known. In 1965, she took a now famous drive to Beaulieu Vineyards. There she happened to meet the legendary André Tchelistcheff, who told her that the only place to find a good Pinot Noir was Burgundy. Martine took him at his word, went back to France and began looking for wines to bring to the States. Vineyards in Beaujolais, Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé were early sources. Later she made excellent contacts within the Côtes-du-Rhône.
Martine incorporated her business in 1979 and Martine’s Wine’s was officially launched. In time the company grew to have several offices around the country. Many honors followed as well: Martine is a member of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy and Confreria de Vinhos in Portugal. She has also been decorated twice by the French government with the title of Officier du Mérite Agricole and lately became a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. Additionally, Martine is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier and was formerly on the national board of the American Institute of Wine & Food.
In 2012, Martine sold her company, staying on as a consultant. That move freed her to pursue what has become a second career in film. And, as was the case with her wine imports, Martine’s initiation into the film industry was a bit of providence. While volunteering at a bilingual school in her hometown, Mill Valley, Martine ran into David Kennard, whose daughter attended the school. Kennard is an international producer-director, renown for his many projects at the BBC, including Cosmos with Carl Sagan, The Hero’s Journey with Joseph Campbell, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight, co-produced with the Smithsonian Institute, Keeping Score: The Great Symphonies with Michael Tilson Thomas.
While filming Wine for the Confused with John Cleese, Kennard fell in love with California and moved to the West Coast. He’d also been bitten by the wine bug and wanted to make a documentary about winemaking. But he needed a qualified consultant to help him with any undertaking. As Kennard put it: “Somebody said to me that the way to do this was to find an expert, but not an expert who is going to prance around and speak to the camera… Instead find a distributor of wine, somebody who’s been in the business a long time and who had to develop really long-lasting relationships.”
Martine was perfect!
A YEAR IN BURGUNDY
In the Spring of 2011, Martine and Kennard began filming in Burgundy. They had decided to focus on the daily life of wine growers. Martine explains: “We wanted to show the human side of the business, the soul and passion of the winemakers. We had no script whatsoever. We’d agree on a few basic questions for the various winemakers, then David and Jamie LeJeune (cinematographer for the production) filmed the conversations. It was all very spontaneous and unrehearsed.”
Among Martine’s many Burgundy connections, seven winemakers were chosen for the project. A diverse group, each has a very personal approach to their craft:
Domaine Leroy – Lalou Bize-Leroy, former winemaker at the mythical Domaine de la Romanée Conti, is the most recognizable name within the group. An early advocate for biodynamic farming, Madame Leroy provides a remarkable tour of her estate and highly-prized wines.
Martine says, “Landing Lalou was a real coup! She had made a film, but it was so poorly done she didn’t want to use it. After I sent her videos of David’s project with Michael Tilson Thomas, she was easily persuaded to work with us.”
Domaine Morey-Coffinet – Father and son team Michel & Thibault Morey manage 7 hectares (17 acres) of vines in Chassagne-Montrachet. Tiny as it is, the estate boasts an extraordinary 16th century cellar originally built by Cistercian monks.
When not tending to the grapes, Thibault Morey composes at his piano. When David Kennard first visited the family, he was so taken with Thibault Morey’s compositions, he asked to use them in the film. Morey’s exquisitely haunting melodies are one of the highlights of the production.
Domaine Perrot-Minot – A third-generation winemaker in Chassagne-Montrachet, Christophe Perrot-Minot is known for meticulous attention to detail. With his high-tech laboratory and new steel tanks, he represents the ultra-modern side of winemaking in the film. Watching Perrot-Minot don a wetsuit and climb into a tank to check fermentation is one of the film’s more unusual moments!
Domaine Mortet – Respected vintner Denis Mortet works entirely by hand on his property. The Domaine’s 10 hectares (34.5 acres) encompass 14 different appellations, including two Grands Crus: Clos-de-Vougeot and Chambertin.
Domaine Michel Gay et Fils – Michel Gay and his son Sebastian, fourth and fifth generation respectively, have a collage of terroir from across the region, totaling 9.5 hectares (23.5 acres). Michel Gay is known for his irrepressible sense of humor. Watch for his end-of-harvest pranks at the family estate in Chorey-les-Beaune.
Domaine Bruno Clavelier – A former professional rugby player, Bruno Clavelier continues to coach while he manages his family’s property in Vosne-Romanée. His estate is one of the few organic-biodynamically certified wineries in Burgundy.
Domaine Cornin – Straight forward and down-to-earth, Dominique Cornin claims “Wines evolve and mature, but never lie.” Cronin owns the Chaintré property planted by his grandfather back in 1938.
With the seven winemakers to provide context, A Year in Burgundy presents the entire 2011 growing season — a difficult vintage, with an exceptionally warm spring, sudden frost, then a brutally dry summer.
Through vivid storytelling and sumptuous cinematography, we, the viewers, experience the process along with the winemakers. We observe the promise of spring bud break and endure the backbreaking efforts required to prune and cultivate each vine.
We too are anxious as hailstorms threaten precious crops and breathe a sigh of relief when the berries are finally delivered. Like the vintners, we’re eager to celebrate the successful harvest and attend the poshy Chevaliers du Tastevin dinner in Clos de Vougeot.
Martine describes the determination and fortitude required to capture the images necessary for the storyline: “David and Jamie would spend hours in the fields — even while it was raining — to get just the right shot, the right clouds, the right light, the right angle. Filming is unbelievably time-consuming and requires enormous amounts of patience.”
Kennard and LeJeune spent 2012 editing and revising the film. In 2013, A Year in Burgundy was released to very positive reviews:
Wine Spectator: “A Year in Burgundy actually curates the long-standing reality, difficulties and romance of the type of small, family-fueled businesses that collectively form the backbone of the wine industry….the movie is lovingly shot. It’s tender and real.”
Decanter: “It’s a paean to an ancient craft without a hint of bombast or polemic, gentle and old-fashioned and at some moments, like the closing scenes of autumn smoke rising from the pruners’ fires, it’s lyrical.”
Lettie Teague for The Wall Street Journal: “It’s a beautiful film. In fact, it may be the best wine movie I’ve ever seen.”
“We were thrilled with the response,” Martine recalls. “Best of all Todd Ruppert, Executive Producer wanted another film — this time in Champagne.”
Stay posted for Part II of our interview with Martine Saunier.
Copies of A Year in Burgundy are available on DVD, iTunes and all other leading platforms.