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The Man Behind the 2002 Wine of the Year

Passionate and pragmatic, winemaker and negociant Marcel Guigal dominates France's Rhône Valley

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: December 3, 2002

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Marcel Guigal is the Rhône Valley's most famous grower, and the wool vigneron's cap he dons in his cool barrel chais is a colorful symbol. But the indefatigable Frenchman wears many hats, and while his roots are local, his reach is global.

He is the region's most influential shipper. In 40 years, Guigal, a savvy marketer, has turned E. Guigal into a globally recognized brand. E. Guigal, his Château d'Ampuis (producer of the celebrated Côte-Rôtie single-vineyard wines La Landonne, La Mouline, and La Turque) and another family-owned negociant, Vidal Fleury, together produced about 500,000 cases last year from Guigal's base in Ampuis, a town in Northern Rhône's Côte-Rôtie appellation.

Guigal, 59, has been an innovator in both vineyards and winery. A shrewd businessman, he has continually expanded both his business holdings and his wine portfolio. He is also a potent political force; a board member of the powerful Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), Guigal sits on its executive Commission Permanente, which reviews all issues involving French vineyards.

In person, Guigal is unostentatious and soft-spoken, courteous and friendly. But he's an ace at circumventing bureaucratic hurdles that slow down his empire-building. He's shown a knack for securing top grape and wine supplies for large-volume blends, including The 2002 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year, the 1999 E. Guigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape (93, $30).

His stamina is legendary. Guigal works with his wife, Bernardette, and son Philippe in cramped offices next to the entrance of the winery where they manage E. Guigal, which had sales of about $27 million last year. He enters his office at 5:15 a.m., leaves it around 9 p.m. for dinner, and works weekends. "It's hard to keep up with him. France has the 35-hour work week, but my dad keeps a 35-hour workday," says 27-year-old Philippe.

Like any hard-driving pioneer, Guigal has experienced resistance over the years. "We passed for being crazy many times," says Guigal.

Guigal took over management of the family firm in 1961 when he was only 17, because his father, Etienne, fell ill. He adopted his father's practice of maturing his Côte-Rôties in new oak barrels, claiming it was common practice in the 19th century. But local winemakers claimed the technique was illegal for aging the wines of the appellation.

"People were up in arms," recalls Guigal. "It was a very difficult experience for us. We were made to feel like lawbreakers."

Nevertheless, Guigal prevailed, and over the years many other Côte-Rôtie winemakers have begun using new barrels.

In the 1960s, Guigal (joined later by other growers) took up another battle -- this one to save Côte-Rôtie from developers after the vineyard land, which had been planted to vines for 24 centuries, was zoned residential. In the past 40 years, the appellation has quadrupled, reaching 531 acres today.

In the 1970s, Guigal clashed again with colleagues when he warned them against using chemical weed killers, which were becoming increasingly popular with growers. Guigal stuck to the old-fashioned way of working the steep hillside vineyards -- with pickaxes. It is a more expensive alternative, but also less polluting, and Guigal argued correctly that it would force the root system deeper into the soil and make for better wines. Today, many growers have switched back to organic methods.

In the mid-1980s, when winemakers were using open-top wood vats without means to control temperatures, Guigal was the first in his region to make wine in temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats, the Frenchman recalls. About 10 years ago, he introduced a sorting table at the winery, so the poorer quality grapes could be eliminated when the harvest arrived.

In 2001, Guigal tripled his vineyard holdings in the Northern Rhône when he purchased the 23.5-acre Domaine Jean-Louis Grippat and 41 acres of Domaine de Vallouit. Through speed and secrecy, Guigal was able to maneuver around opposition from both competitors and government bureaucracy.

Guigal's next challenge is to expand into the Southern Rhône, and purchase a domaine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The drive forward is relentless. "We always try to do better," says the vintner, whose hard work and talent paid off in 2002 with the accolade of Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year.

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