California's Central Coast has two new winemakers from France. Both are graduates of the University of Bordeaux's enology department, although only one -- Florence Sarrazin -- is actually French. Her French-trained fiance, Jeff Branco, is an American from Massachusetts.
Branco, 30, is the new winemaker at Justin Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles. He was originally hired as assistant winemaker but took over the reins from departing winemaker Steve Glossner after the 1998 harvest. Justin produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-based blends, as well as several other varietals. Sarrazin is assistant winemaker at Paso Robles-based Peachy Canyon Winery, best known for its Zinfandels.
Sarrazin's education was a traditional one, culminating in her masters degree in enology. True to American form, Branco took a more circuitous route. In 1993, he was living in London and marketing computer products. "I fell in love with wine in England," he said. Soon he began making trips to Bordeaux and eventually talked his way into the master's program in enology at the university there, where he was also tapped to work on technical translations into English.
Both winemakers have somewhat limited practical experience, although they have worked short stays at Bordeaux's well-known Chateau Pape-Clement and the negociant Maison Sichel. Neither had ever been to California before their recent move. "I hadn't heard much about California in France, except for the disparaging comments from some of my Bordeaux professors," Branco commented with a chuckle.
While Branco and Sarrazin bring a wealth of information with them from the French perspective, they will have much to learn about growing grapes in their new home. Ironically, this past harvest was long and cool -- somewhat similar to a European season. "I was surprised," Branco said. "Our '98s will have Bordeaux alcohol levels."
Nonetheless, the contrast between California and France is still significant for the francophiles. "I am excited about being here," Branco declared. "I feel like a pioneer. In Bordeaux, everything is so established. Here, we still really need to define ourselves."
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