Flop-Flip in Provence

How bad choices (and an old tractor) killed a winemaker’s dream
Flop-Flip in Provence
In headier days: Jean-Marc Espinasse in Bandol in 2014, before his labor of love soured. (Robert Camuto)
Dec 11, 2017

Jean-Marc Espinasse sat on the terrace of his new home in the French Provençal coastal town of La Ciotat and contemplated what went wrong.

Three years earlier, Espinasse had launched a daring boutique winery less than five miles to the east, in the heart of Bandol. He began planting Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Ugni Blanc vineyards from scratch with the help of friends and family. Eventually, he planned to build a small cellar on the hillside below the 19th-century farmhouse in which he and his American wife, Kristin, lived.

The 2017 vintage should have been the first from which Espinasse bottled a Bandol appellation rosé under his Mas des Brun label. Instead, he and Kristin sold the farm with its 6 acres of organic vineyards in August and moved.  

"I realized the whole thing was a fiasco," said a subdued Espinasse, who had recently turned 50, looking out over his small, leafy yard that sits a block from a popular beachfront. "I didn't have the financial means to start over. The only way out for us was to sell."

I've known Espinasse from his five years at his first acclaimed estate, Domaine Rouge-Bleu in the Rhône Valley, which he sold in 2012. I count him and Kristin—who writes about their adventures in her "French Word-a-Day" blog—as friends. I was rooting for their dream in Bandol. Who wouldn't?

A Marseille native, Espinasse projects brash self-confidence. A former triathlete, he has made wine for more than a decade and sold wine in the United States through his brokerage, which represents 20 small French producers.

"When I started in Bandol, I thought I could do anything and that it would work," said Espinasse.

What went wrong?

"The big part of my failure was farming," he explained.

Espinasse had never before planted vineyards. He made his first mistake with poor soil preparation at Mas des Brun. After excavators cleared the brush and pine forest, he didn't break up his rocky limestone subsoil for optimal root growth.

"I was in too much of a hurry," he said. "I didn't consult with anyone and did it the way I felt it."

Mistake number two was planting too densely. The conventional configuration in Bandol is to have 2.2 meters between vine rows, with the vines closely spaced 90 centimeters apart—about 2,000 vines per acre.

Espinasse planted narrower rows and increased density by 40 percent.

"One way for me to distinguish myself in that community was to do something distinctive," Espinasse recalled. "They said, 'Who is this crazy guy?' At the time, it made me proud."

But the vineyard configuration prevented Espinasse from using a modern tractor or soil ripper or outsourcing plowing.

Instead, Espinasse bought a small, half-century-old, track-type tractor. The vintage machine was cool, but "always broken." Getting parts proved a nightmare.

The weather didn't help either. Beginning in 2015, three hot, dry growing seasons, combined with the dense plantings, resulted in the loss of up to 25 percent of the fledgling vines in some parcels.

Mas des Brun's final chapter began in autumn 2015. Espinasse broke his elbow in a bicycle accident, just as he was set to clear more land. The clearing went forward, but he encountered administrative wrangling with a local conservation agency. Espinasse, exhausted and frustrated, fell into depression.

In August 2017, he closed the sale to a Parisian business executive who plans to use the house as a vacation home and is leasing the land out to nearby Château de Pibarnon to replant and cultivate for its wines.

Espinasse did manage to produce wine at Mas des Brun in 2016. The 200 cases and 300 magnums of rosé, which under appellation rules had to be labeled as vin de pays because the vines were still young, sold out on allocation.

"Distribution and winemaking have never been my problem," Espinasse reflected. "One thing I learned is that winemaking is much more intuitive than farming. With winemaking, you have the raw material, and depending on your feeling and your taste, there is room for creativity. In farming, you must do the right things at the right time—especially with young vines."

Espinasse plans to focus on his brokerage and try to expand his network of eight regional U.S. importers. But he still hopes to make one-off wines from purchased grapes, like his single-vintage effort on Sicily's Mount Etna in 2010.

"Eventually it will work out, and I will move on with my wine passion," Espinasse said, beginning to brighten. "For example, if I had a chance to make wine in Oregon … that would be my first choice." 

France Provence People

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