Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Two French vintners turn to Sonoma

Claire and Gonzague Lurton do their winemaking in a barn on their Trinité Estate.
Claire and Gonzague Lurton do their winemaking in a barn on their Trinité Estate.

Gonzague and Claire Lurton have been married 21 years. They have three children. And they own five chateaux in Bordeaux.

So why are they establishing a vineyard and winery in the Chalk Hill district of Sonoma County, just east of Healdsburg?

“We’d never worked together. We felt it was time for us to have a common project,” says Gonzague, pronounced “gone-zag-ah.”

In Bordeaux, they run their chateaux individually. He has one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite estates, Chateau Durfort-Vivens of Margaux, whose latest vintage can be found locally at Costco.

She oversees four chateaux – Chateau Ferrier and Chateau La Gurgue, both of Margaux, Chateau Haut Bages Libéral of Pauillac and Chateau Domeyne of Saint Estephe.

Both are from longtime Bordeaux wine families. Claire is the granddaughter of Jacques Merlaut, a vintner who collected several chateaux during his career. Gonzague is the son of another prosperous Bordeaux vintner, Lucien Lurton, who acquired enough chateaux to turn over one each to his 10 children.

Lucien Lurton also planted the seed for the couple’s California adventure. In 1952, he put in a stint at Wente winery in Livermore Valley. Forty years later he became smitten with Sonoma County and urged his son to scout the area for a potential vineyard and winery, a search that culminated in 2012 with their purchase of a 45-acre parcel previously occupied by Chateau Felice.

They’ve rechristened the site Trinité Estate, a name inspired by their three children and by the three Bordeaux grape varieties on which they are focused – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. They’ve replanted the zinfandel, chardonnay and syrah that made up about half the 24-acre vineyard with Bordeaux varieties. This fall, they hope to move winemaking from an old barn into the winery they are building on the parcel.

Their turn to California was motivated by more than a desire to work together. They know that the United States is the world’s biggest wine market, and that Americans don’t shy from the elegant, complex and dear sort of wine they are starting to release.

And while they recognize that growing conditions in Sonoma County are far different than what they are in Bordeaux, the two are confident that Chalk Hill has the soil, climate and exposure to yield a wine with the same balance and vigor they want from their French vineyards.

“California is a fantastic place to produce great cabernet,” Gonzague says.

“This area has the perfect conditions for cabernet to ripen with complexity,” Claire says.

They are confident that Chalk Hill’s elevation, rolling terrain and relatively cool temperatures give them the foundation for the complex and crisp wines they want. The clincher came when they tasted a Bordeaux-style wine made by fellow Frenchman Pierre Seillan at Verité Winery just up Chalk Hill Road.

“We have the same objective as we have in Bordeaux, but the wine here is produced in a completely different way,” says Gonzague.

“We have to change our software each time we come here,” he adds, tapping the side of his head.

“It’s easier to make wine here,” says Claire. “You never have rain (in the summer).”

On the other hand, they are learning to cope with sudden California heat spikes that can complicate the development and harvest of grapes. While summer days are warm here, nights tend to be cooler than they are in Bordeaux, helping to retain in grapes the acidity on which they put a premium.

“Here, many of the people add acid because the pHs are so high. We don’t want to do that because it breaks the balance (of the wine),” Claire says.

But overall they are excited by California’s warmth. “Here the fruit is really bright,” Gonzague says. “We don’t have that in Bordeaux.”

When asked what he means by “bright,” he shows off his growing command of English by defining its flavors as “fresh,” “lively” and “flashy.”

They also appreciate the warmth with which they have been welcomed by their neighbors.

“People here have been very receptive,” Gonzague says. “I’m not sure in Bordeaux that if an American was coming in he would be as welcome.”

Though Gonzague tends to be more oriented to the vineyard and Claire more focused on the lab, they agree that they share amicably both the workload and the stylistic decisions. “We have to be on the same page with the education of our children, and wine is easier than children,” Claire says.

In the Bordeaux fashion, they are making one wine, though they haven’t ruled out expanding their lineup. Their first wine, the Trinité Estate 2012 Sonoma County Acaibo ($75), is a bright, richly aromatic and subtly complex blend of 53 percent merlot, 46 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent cabernet franc. Aged a little more than a year in mostly new French oak barrels, the wine is just delicately toasty, without intrusions of vanilla and tannin to upset the cart of berries and plums.

Claire, who developed an appreciation of ancient documents as a student in Paris, came up with the name “Acaibo” in reading about the Pomo tribes of Native Americans who lived in the Chalk Hill region. She combined their “aca” for fish with “sibo” for three to come up with “Acaibo” and its logo of three swirling fish.

The wine has just been released and isn’t yet in the Sacramento market, nor have the Lurtons opened a tasting room. If they are in California, however, tastings can be arranged by appointment through their website, www.trinite-estate.com.

Don’t look for Acaibo in France. The Lurtons are focusing on distribution in the U.S., Canada, England, China and Japan. “France is the last place we will sell,” Gonzague says. “The French, they drink French wine.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmicheldunne@gmail.com.