Pauline Lhote, 38, laughs about how she turned a three-month internship at Domaine Chandon into a 15-year—and counting—run at the Napa sparkling wine house. She now serves as winemaking director, heading all winemaking operations. The Napa house of bubbles was founded near the town of Yountville in 1973, one of the first French-owned sparkling wine houses in California. Lhote is the second female winemaking director—Dawnine Dyer held the position during her 24-year career there before retiring in 2000.
Lhote was born near the Champagne region of France and set her sights on winemaking at an early age. After earning her degree and master's in sparkling wine production in Reims, she worked at Nicolas Feuillatte and Moët & Chandon before accepting the internship opportunity in 2006 that would change her career. As director, she not only oversees winemaking operations, but spearheads new product development, is helping introduce new packaging for the brand this year and is overseeing a renovation of the tasting room.
Lhote spoke with Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about growing up on a French farm, proving she could work as hard in the fields as two brothers and about the differences between French and Californian sparkling wine.
Wine Spectator: So when you were a kid what did you want to do when you grew up ?
Pauline Lhote: I actually grew up in in the Champagne area. I was always interested in the magic of wine and by age 14 I knew I wanted to be a winemaker.
WS: Was your family in the wine industry?
PL: My parents are farmers. I grew up around potatoes, sugar beets, wheat and barley, and I was used to getting on the tractor. I grew up with two big brothers as well—so I think I was already used to an environment where it's about hard work. I think they prepared me for what will be my career in a male-dominated environment. When I started to learn about making the wine, I was really fascinated with it.
WS: Did you have a taste for sparkling wine when you were growing up?
PL: Yes, and I think that's what attracted me to it. That and the fact that it's much more complicated to make sparkling wine—a lot of science and precision but also a lot of creativity.
WS: Tell me about your decision to come to California. It sounds like you had an opportunity to pursue wine in your home country.
PL: I did. I started working in Champagne. To tell you the truth, I was really encouraged by my parents to go abroad, to discover new things. My parents were always telling me I need to speak English if I want to have a career. Since I was 15, they would send me to England or to other countries in the summer and outside of harvesttime so I could learn English. They really pushed me to do it.
WS: Do they speak English?
PL: No, they don't. I think they didn't want me to repeat the same mistake. So I had the idea of discovering new countries and going outside the Champagne region and see what was being done. So I talked to Moët & Chandon about going abroad and later applied for an internship with Chandon; they have sister wineries all over the world. California made perfect sense to me. They sent me here for three months in August 2006 as an intern. Then I became assistant winemaker, then winemaker and now director of winemaking. It's been 15 years.
I never anticipated that I would stay in Napa, but after my first few months, it really felt like home. I don't know how to explain it, but I just got really good at being really confident here.
WS: When you got to California, was there any culture shock in the way things were done, or is making wine universal?
PL: What struck me was that I was young. I was 23 yet I felt like I had the ability, the freedom to make decisions. I could bring in any idea. I felt like I was given immense opportunity and I really love that way of working. I had freedom and responsibility.
WS: I imagine that there's a lot of tradition in France while in California they really valued innovation.
PL: Yes. I felt like I could definitely bring my touch even though I was just assistant winemaker. What I loved about Chandon is the creativity and the willingness to actually go outside of tradition and really embrace the California way of thinking. That's what appealed to me.
Chandon was one of the first sparkling wineries—and the first French-owned—in Napa. It opened over 45 years ago. Because we were pioneers, that gives us a sense of obligation toward innovation and leading the category for sparkling wine. Over the years, I've been able to express my creativity. That's what keeps me going and motivated, the fact that we are always on the search for new techniques, new ways of doing things. It's in our DNA.
WS: Broadly speaking, how would you describe the difference between California sparkling wine and Champagne?
PL: I try to educate consumers and explain to them the difference between all of the bubbles—whether it's Cava or Prosecco or Champagne. We are making sparkling wines in the traditional method, and we also happen to use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I think what differentiates the California and Champagne is [the land] we are focusing on—I want to make wines that are truly representative of California and that California sunshine.
When I think about California, a lot of things come to mind—it's about being casual but being chic at the same time. So at Chandon, we want to be the sparkling wine that you have today, the easy to drink and approachable wine. You don't wait for us. You don't need to wait for a special occasion.
The idea is to not recreate Champagne in California. We're using the traditional method but find new ways to highlight where we are. I'm always pushing my team to discover new things, doing many trials and being open-minded is quite important and I think this is the California way of thinking.
WS: As you've evolved to director of winemaking, can you can you explain how your role has evolved?
PL: I spend a huge amount of time with my team because that's what I love. During harvest I'm making all the picking decisions and tasting all of the wines fermenting. With my team, I'm part of every single tasting that we do. It's a good mix for me. Managing people is maybe the hardest thing for me. But I rely on the team and support them. I am fortunate to lead a team of three women.
Now there's much more strategic thinking and communication. I'm really involved with what's going on each day, but my role is to craft new wines and think about what new products we can make. We want to be relevant and interest people with new things.
We're about to launch our Garden Spritz from Argentina. Chandon is a community of wineries. There are six of us across the world. We were founded in 1959 in Argentina, then California in 1973, then Brazil, Australia, India and China.
For the first time we're introducing a wine in the U.S. market from Argentina, the Garden Spritz, which is made without any artificial flavors. The concept was around bitters. It's a maturation of oranges, spice, botanicals and herbs infused in the wine. It's about local ingredients—in this case, amazing hand-picked oranges.
We use sparkling wine as a base. The botanicals are macerated in brandy and incorporated into the dosage. We recommend to drink it on ice, with a zest of orange and some rosemary if you can. It's a perfect sip for the summer.
I think that's one of the things that I enjoy the most about working for Chandon is the fact that it's a collaboration of winemakers and so we get to actually talk to each other. There are six of us and it's truly a community where we get to exchange ideas. The Garden Spritz is a collaboration between all of us.
WS: What has your experience been working as a woman in the wine industry?
PL: We are underrepresented. I think there is still a lot of work to be done.
In my 15 years here, I was able to make my way to wine director, so I feel lucky and fortunate. There are a few things that really helped me, and I've tried to introduce these ideas to my team. I think you need to be confident. You need to be assertive. You need to sometimes be bold and to push your idea forward and not being afraid.
There are a lot of women in the wine industry, but not a lot of women getting to the director level. I'm always trying to mentor and push my team and give them the best I can to help them succeed. I was the second, but I don't want to be the last woman head winemaker here.
I never knew if it was the fact that I was a woman or the fact that I was also younger than most, but I always believed you have to be courageous and unafraid and always stick to your guts.
The other thing that was quite fortunate in my career is while I didn't have women mentors I had female role models in mind. And I was fortunate to have good mentors back in France. There were people in my life at the right times in my career.
I think you need to find somebody that is there during the great times but also at the times when you need a little bit of reassurance or a little bit of push. I remember going back to France one time and I wasn't sure if I should go back to California. People there gave me a boost of energy. So I'm truly trying to be there for my team to do the same for them.
WS: It sounds like being bold and taking risks was something you grew up with, including the idea to challenge yourself.
PL: When you grow up on the farm and you have two big brothers and you have to show them that you can do as well as they can … I was going in the field and doing as much as they can.
I think another role model I had was my grandma. Because when my grandfather passed away, she took over the farm and showed me women can do it. So I had a role model at home. So I never saw being a woman as an obstacle, just needing a way of showing that we can do as well, if not better. You have to show them, though. You have to take that risk.
WS: One last question: What's your guilty pleasure food pairing with one of your sparkling wines?
PL: Chandon Rosé with a burger and french fries!
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