I remember the day vividly. I had just started covering France's Rhône Valley. I had overbooked my schedule of appointments—classic rookie mistake—and was running late. I was often a little lost as I drove around between stops. I showed up at Domaine Georges Vernay a few minutes late and was nervous. There in the vegetable garden was an older gentleman, working on his hands and knees. He turned to me, beaming as he pulled up a beautiful set of leeks.
"My father," said Christine Vernay as she walked up to greet me. "He's retired now, but he still loves to work the garden."
Georges Vernay's garden was more than just that small patch of pristine leeks. It was all of Condrieu itself. The warm-hearted vigneron started his namesake domaine in 1943, taking the single hectare (2.5 acres) of Condrieu in existence at the time, planted by his father in 1936. That plot ballooned to 17 acres within a few years—still the only vines in the appellation though. Condrieu had fallen on hard times after World War II, and the wines made from Viognier—ripe, exotic and fat in style—had faded from the marketplace. Vernay was undaunted.
For 54 vintages, Georges Vernay tended to Condrieu. While Côte-Rôtie, its immediate neighbor to the north, raced ahead in terms of fame and prestige, Vernay stayed loyal to his home base. As president of the Condrieu grower's association from 1965 to 1995, he worked with his fellow vignerons, Pierre Perret (father of André), Alfred Gerin (father of Jean-Michel) and Edmond Duclaux (father of Benjamin and David), guiding the AOC's replanting and helping it slowly return to its full glory. He earned the nicknames 'the Pope of Condrieu' and 'Mr. Viognier.'
Today there are 470 acres of Condrieu. The appellation's current generation of vignerons, including prominent producers such as Yves Cuilleron, Julien Pilon, Francois Villard, André Perret, Pierre-Jean Villa and others, have Vernay to thank for leading the way. As Vernay set the path, shifting the style of Condrieu to one that focused on freshness and purity, a new generation of vignerons followed his lead, and the appellation reasserted itself as one of the world's greatest white wines.
"When he created the AOC in 1940, he created a new style of Condrieu, without residual sugar,” says Pierre-Jean Villa. “And along the way he helped a lot of young winemakers out with advice, always sharing his experience. He had one last parcel of unplanted vineyards in Chavanay, which he gave me to help get started. He was a model of the good life.”
"People would ask him if he realized how much he had done for Viognier," said Paul Amsellem, Vernay's son-in-law. "He would just say he was doing his job. He liked to say he didn't sell his wines, but rather people came to buy them."
Vernay passed away May 19 at age 91. His daughter Christine continues to run the estate (she took over in 1997 when he retired). His son Luc manages the vineyards; a second son Daniel lives in the U.S. Vernay is also survived by four grandchildren. And today the domaine is the reference point for the Condrieu appellation.