The wine world is small, the local wine world doubly so. On February 20, in response to a recent column, I received several e-mails from “a group of wine enthusiasts” chastising me for ignoring the talents of Charles Gendrot, the winemaker at Kluge Estate. Make that ex-winemaker, because one week later, at the Virginia Wine Expo in Richmond, all anyone could talk about was the news that Gendrot was no longer employed by Kluge. This struck me as odd for several reasons, not the least of which was the timing of the e-mail campaign in support of Gendrot, which seemed to coincide almost to the day with his leaving. There was also the question of why he had left. There were many reasons given down at the Expo, none of them pleasant and none of them on-the-record. The Kluge Estate says that the parting was amicable, but as anyone who watches the local wine or restaurant world knows, Patricia Kluge has a long history of hiring the best—and then finding them suddenly replaceable.
Patricia Kluge has a long history of hiring the best—and then finding them suddenly replaceable—which seems to be the case with her latest winemaker, Bordeaux native Charles Gendrot.
Yes, wineries do change winemakers. Within the last few years there have been major changes at several local wineries, including King Family and Blenheim. However, in the case of Mrs. K, rapid personnel changes seem to happen often, gathering as they do a lot of seriously bad vibes. When C-VILLE reported on the closing of her eat-in gas station, Fuel, we tallied the number of chefs at six and general managers at five. Ken Wooten, a former GM, claimed the restaurant was “hemorrhaging about $100,000 a month” and blamed some of the inefficiency on expensive “consultant chefs.” (The Kluge people differed with Wooten’s analysis.) Things haven’t been quite so bad at the winery, as Gendrot is only the third winemaker overall and the second to leave its employ (behind Claude Thibaut). But the high-priced consultants are definitely in evidence. Kluge Estate currently has three: local hero Gabriele Rausse, Champagne maker Laurent Champs, and Michel Rolland. The latter two are almost certainly very expensive, as Champs is owner of cult Champagne house Vilmart, and Rolland is the most (in)famous wine consultant in the world.
But Gendrot himself is no slouch, and that is the other aspect of this whole thing that seems odd. Son of a wine consultant in Bordeaux, France, according to his official bio on the Kluge website, Gendrot has 15 years experience working with Bordeaux wineries as well as a brief stint in California. Reggie Ryals, the head of human resources for Kluge Estate, told me that they had been conducting a long-term study of the company “for both economic reasons and efficiency reasons” and, with the advice of Rolland, are restructuring operations to have one winemaker for the reds and one for the sparkling wines. And so they have said goodbye to Gendrot.
O.K., but Gendrot, coming as he does from Bordeaux, home to some of the most sought-after and renowned red blends in the world, would seem to be the ideal candidate to head production of the Kluge reds, listed on their own website as “Bordeaux-style” wines. When I pointed this out, Ryals replied, “We’ve just decided to go in a different direction.”
The rumors swirling around the Expo the night of February 28 were all about how sudden and unexpected Gendrot’s leaving was. Most people, industry veterans all, seemed shocked, not because personnel changes at Kluge are unusual (“people come and go all the time,” Kluge spokeswoman Kristin Moses-Murray said over the phone), but because Gendrot seemed to be doing well at the winery. The general consensus was that Gendrot was abruptly relieved of his duties. I even heard stories that he was escorted off the property—although again, no one would be quoted saying this and presumably those who said it were not present at the alleged event. A call to Gendrot’s house was not returned by press time, but the wine world rumors were dispelled by Ryals. “It was a change that came about after quite a bit of study and soul searching,” he said. “We have not parted the company of [Gendrot] under any negative circumstances and we still think very highly of him and would give him high recommendation.”
Kluge Estate Winery has been, since its inception in 1999, one of the most visible and ambitious in Virginia. Patricia Kluge’s name and money ensure that her endeavors receive national attention. Her winemaking efforts have been talked about from New York to Los Angeles, and when Kluge Estate became the first East Coast winery to employ the famous Michel Rolland, she drew the eyes of the entire wine world to our little town. For better or for worse, Kluge Estate Winery is a star on our growing stage. I think that one reason the news of Gendrot’s departure caused such a buzz among the industry insiders is that they are afraid that his exit portends trouble at the symbolic mansion on the hill. At this point, no one knows with certainty that there is any trouble, although it’s never good for any winery to change winemakers, especially twice in 10 years. It makes people wonder.
I wonder myself what happened, and what the story behind the lastminute campaign to promote Charles Gendrot might be. Perhaps after reading this the group of Gendrot-loving wine enthusiasts will write again. Or perhaps Mr. Gendrot himself will give me a call.