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A Master Turned Apprentice at Domaine Dujac

Our First Guest Writer Reflects on Toil, Terroir and Craft in Burgundy

15 min read

“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

I didn’t spill Clos de la Roche all over the winery floor.

That was the reoccurring nightmare I had before my harvest in Burgundy at Domaine Dujac in Morey-Saint-Denis, France. In this dream, I would absent-mindedly open the valve, thinking it was securely hooked up to a hose, and whoosh! I wouldn’t be able to stop it. Gallons of their iconic Pinot Noir splashing up to my ankles. I had ruined an entire year’s worth of Grand Cru wine.

While my first ‘vintage’ (as seasoned traveling winemakers refer to harvest) included its fair share of blunders, thankfully no one died, no (substantial) amount of wine hit the floor, and overall it was an incredible — albeit humbling — experience.

What Really is True Mastery?

Though experience is encouraged, winemaking is not a requirement for obtaining the Master of Wine (MW) degree. Living in Denver, Colorado, far from the vineyards, I’ve known that a major blind spot and insecurity of mine has been the hands-on aspect of winemaking — the practical side of the knowledge I have accrued in books, maps and journals. So I made a promise to myself: If I am to hold this title, I must recognize these weaknesses and seek out wisdom from true masters within their respective specialties.

The Seysses family is among the greats in Burgundy, revered for their ability to make world-class, age-worthy Pinot Noir. Years ago, over dinner with the Seysses as friends, I expressed an interest in participating in harvest. If I was serious and willing to be patient, they could offer me a coveted space, one that many wait years (if ever) to get. And so, I headed to Domaine Dujac with harvest already in motion. Part nervous, part excited and fully prepared to be schooled.

We were five interns: three global winemakers, a New York sommelier, and myself — plus a chef. Most of us rolled in on September 10th, a couple days after the domaine began bringing in some of their Chardonnay. Though Domaine Dujac is famous for their Pinot Noir, they also produce Chardonnay from Puligny Montrachet and Morey-Saint-Denis.

The modest facade of Domaine Dujac — no gilded archways or million-dollar tasting rooms here. ©Alexandra Karosis

The modest facade of Domaine Dujac — no gilded archways or million-dollar tasting rooms here. ©Alexandra Karosis

The whites were coming in beautifully. Dujac believes in fully browning (aka oxidizing) their must once pressed in order to prevent premature oxidation later on once it is fermented and bottled. Jeremy likens this process to a vaccine you might get as a child. Then, after a short time settling, we did a ‘dirty rack’, where most of the solids (lees) followed the must into the barrels for fermentation. This more reductive technique is what gives their whites such great sensory qualities and texture in the long run.

It was a quiet start, and we all fought over what little work there was to do at this point. I cleaned my first press, which would mark the first of many times I would get anything and everything around me wet the moment I had the spray gun in my hand. Jacques Seysses — the man, the myth, the legend who began this reputable domaine back in 1967 — would joke that I was “dangerous” with that thing.

Jacques’ passion began with a single harvest and apprenticeship with Gerard Potel of Domaine de la Pousse d’Or. Jacques’ father, Louis, instructed Potel to put Jacques through the ringer. (Levi Dalton’s interview with Jacques on I’ll Drink to That elaborates more on this time in his life, and is worth listening to). Louis wanted to be sure his son truly experienced a vintage before putting it all on the line with the family domaine. As they say, the rest is history.

Domaine Dujac is now largely run by Jacques’ two sons — Jeremy and Alec Seysses — as well as Jeremy’s wife, Diana Snowden Seysses, who also makes wine for her family at Snowden Vineyards in Napa. Jacques began with a mere 4.5 ha in Morey-Saint-Denis in 1968, and the Seysses have since expanded to farm about 17 ha, including seven Grand Cru, five Premier Crus and a handful of village-level vineyards covering Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Puligny-Montrachet and Gevrey-Chambertin.

Harvest: In the Vines

“When to pick is the hardest and most important of decisions,” Jacques explained, echoing so many other winemakers who depart from data at a certain point and make decisions based on taste and experience. We walked each vineyard in those days leading up to the harvest, tasting grapes and examining the readiness of the seeds by flavor and the darkening  of color. It was interesting to learn that when pulp clings tight to the seed it is a sign of some water stress from that year. A little bit can be a really great thing for quality, as it slows vegetative growth. By law, Burgundians cannot irrigate, so these are the tiny details that contribute to a vintage’s terroir from one to the next.

We also noted how quickly the berry pulled away from the stem to determine readiness, while also observing the level of lignification of the vines with Alec, Jeremy and Diana Seysses — their transformation from green to woody being another indicator that the vine had done it’s job, produced its fruit and was ready to shut down for the season. 

We began picking on the earlier side. 2019 was shaping up to be a very dry year, and the physiological ripeness was finally catching up to the more advanced sugars. From one site to the next, the nature of the tannins varied already. Grapes from windier sites — like Clos Saint-Denis and Vosne-Romanée — could wait a few extra days because they had firmer tannins with brighter acidity.

By contrast, the Gevrey-Chambertin village would be harvested first. It showed a bit more sweetness and a touch more water stress. While this can give grapes great depth of flavor, we wanted to pick them before they became desiccated and raisin-like — a note on the palate that one can pick up from such Burgundian vintages as 2003. Dujac seeks a fresher style with good (lower) pH levels for healthier fermentations, so they tend to pick on the earlier side overall.

Harvest is backbreaking work. And I was only too grateful I prepared myself. Having been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease back in my early twenties, I put myself on a rigorous training regime this past summer, preparing to squat for hours, shuffling my body from one vine to the next. (I cannot stress how important it is to get your body ready to work a vintage, especially if it’s falling apart like mine.)

That said, nothing quite describes the bliss I felt at the end of a day picking grapes. A kind of frenetic vibe overcame everyone (a good 50 of us) when we got down to the last couple rows, and we all swarmed in to finish together. And then — a kind of hushed numbness, an exhaustion that is so complete and satisfying. My appetite was epic. Food tasted incredible. Wine unparalleled. And I would fall into bed like I had just gotten off an international flight. I would simply melt.

The Paulée to mark the end of work in the vineyards at Domaine Dujac. ©Ashley Hausman

The Paulée to mark the end of work in the vineyards at Domaine Dujac. ©Ashley Hausman

After about two weeks in the vines, on the very last day of picking, we sounded the car horns, drove around town, sprayed one another with hoses and exhaled. We came together and celebrated a proper Paulée in the winery garage, flipping our hands front and back with a jolly La, la, la…

Throughout the next week and a half, the triumphant sound of honking horns filled the air as other domaines finished picking as well. It was a different way of joyously clanging the church bells in a region where monks started the winemaking tradition more than a thousand years ago.

Post-Harvest: Making Magic in the Winery

Each day, up with the sun, we would draw samples from the fermenting tanks, record sugar densities to monitor their rate of fermentation, and then set them aside for taste analysis.

This will always be one of my favorite memories. Once all the samples were ready to taste, Jacques, Jeremy and Alec would come into the winery, and we would all stop whatever we were doing. Then, one by one, we would pass the glass — I believe 23 in total including trials. And I saw it: the magic. The knowing looks, concerns, exchanges and recommendations each made to one another. We were then given our daily assignments. Pigeage (punchdown) would lend more breadth on the palate. Remontage (light pumpover) for the more reductive types. And sometimes just a gentle foot massage or nothing at all.

At Domaine Dujac, there is no recipe. Even the use of 100% whole clusters — a practice many have come to associate with Dujac — is not a given. They assess each vineyard, the vintage, and the stems and grapes themselves to decide how much will go into the ferment as whole bunches (in 2019 it will vary from 70–100%).

Jeremy discussed what informs their decision for whole-bunch inclusion. In higher botrytis vintages, for example, less stems go into the vat. Or, in the case of their Chambolle 1er Cru Les Gruenchers site, old vines and a touch of virus results in beautiful, small berries and loose clusters, an ideal combination for staying whole through the fermentation. These clusters are also well-spaced, like a layer of nets that give more breathing room for the grapes. They also form a healthy fermentation cap.

Finally, terroir. Patience and careful observation has taught the Seysses family the nature of fruit coming from various villages, each having an affinity for more or less whole bunches. Jeremy explains: “Gevrey [Chambertin] is not so spicy in character and so I feel the whole-cluster spiciness can come across a little gimmicky. It doesn’t mesh with the fabric of the wine as well as with Morey [Saint-Denis], Chambolle [Musigny] or Vosne [Romanée].”

I was genuinely shocked at how little they insert themselves in the winemaking process at Dujac — truly guiding these grapes from vineyard to fully fermented wine in such a gentle, non-intrusive way. Even when it came to hygiene, we weren’t relying on any chemical solutions to keep the floors, presses and equipment sanitized. Just good old water. Drinking these beautiful wines back to vintages from the ’70s, it certainly seemed this hasn’t had a sensory impact on their quality in the way of brett issues or otherwise. It was another learning point for me to consider just how far we go sometimes to maintain cleanliness. Where is the line? And how often do we unquestionably use products that make no sense out of fear?

Thoughtful and responsible viticulture management has long been practiced at Domaine Dujac. They began adopting organic and biodynamic practices in 2001, started the formal process of organic certification in 2008, and their domaine vineyards were 100% certified organic by 2012. They are not certified biodynamic, but they have incorporated its applications and inputs during their conversion to organic.

Diana shared some observations from a fascinating trial they have conducted over the past five years. Essentially, they farm a small plot of Clos de la Roche as they always do (organic plus biodynamic) against another that is purely organic. The results? Diana explains, “In short, there is a bit more acidity (measurably) and energy (intuitively) in the biodynamic Clos de la Roche.” I will be eagerly following this trial as it progresses.

As I recall, Alec summed it up well one night at dinner when discussing organic viticulture: the path of least intervention allows these sites to express their terroir, which is crucial for Burgundy. This region is treasured for such site-specific identity. So from farming to the native yeasts to complete fermentation, any step removed is a piece of personality gained.

"Even with the fan, the tank is such a CO2 rich environment, I would have to pause and gulp some fresh oxygen above the fumes." Photo by: Cooper Davis-Draper

“Even with the fan, the tank is such a CO2 rich environment, I would have to pause and gulp some fresh oxygen above the fumes.” Photo by: Cooper Davis-Draper

Pain is Beauty

While no one died — nor was I responsible for ruining the vintage — I did acquire a good 30 bruises, was almost never without three band-aids on me at one time, and I may have had the lid to a destemmer fall on my left hand. How it is still attached to my arm, I will never know. (I will just make sacrifices to the wine gods from here on out).

My day-to-day in the winery included taking lots of samples, remontage and pigeage (including by foot for the more delicate small vats), chilling and heating particular vats, draining then digging out tanks to go to press, hooking up and disassembling hoses, racking wines, cleaning destemmers, cleaning presses, cleaning tanks, cleaning floors, cleaning tools, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning …

While perhaps the hardest, my favorite task was digging out tanks — I dug out four myself. This involved draining a tank of as much juice as possible, flipping on the fan, then hopping in with a pitchfork and shoveling heaps of clusters into a bin on the outside of the tank to go to the press. We would blast music (Beyonce, Spice Girls, Jay-Z, Kanye), and I would go to town. Even with the fan, the tank is such a CO2-rich environment, I would have to pause and gulp some fresh oxygen above the fumes. In digging, I used my entire body, from my arms, to my quads to my core. It was glorious to know that evening I wouldn’t have to think twice about taking seconds at dinner.

I sought to do this harvest to feel my body being used to its fullest. I was given that desire back in spades. Some mornings, my whole body ached to stay in bed. But I managed to drag one foot out after the next and head to the vines with my secateurs, or to the winery to dig out whole-cluster tanks. The pain is unique — exquisite really. I’ve never quite felt its full expression until now.

Ma Famille

“A table!”

At 7:30 each evening, Rosalind ‘Roz’ Seysses (Jacques’ wife and partner) would holler these words to initiate dinner. We would stroll from the patio or kitchen to the dining room table — always a good 10 of us or so — often with a sip of something bubbly. Every night for weeks, I never took these dinners for granted. I am certain they are memories that I will cherish for a lifetime.

We would usually start by playing a game of ‘options’ and blind wines from all over the world (even Georgia!). We would be given choices to narrow in on the wine in our glass (Old World vs New, Cotes de Nuits vs Beaune, Chambolle vs Morey, etc). Grateful doesn’t even touch how I feel when I reflect on the wines the Seysses family shared over the past month. This was hardly an everyday occurrence at chez Seysses; it was a special treat to celebrate the hard work of vintage.

On Jeremy’s birthday, we opened a 1976 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg and a 1975 Château Haut-Brion, two highlights for the trip. Jacques made an effort to honor most of our birth vintages (it was one of the rare times I was able to taste my pricey vintage: 1982 with Lynch-Bages and Château Leoville Las Cases). He also decided it might be elucidating to open a few vintages of the domaine bottles that reflected vineyards on the day we were pressing them, hence lunches and dinners filled with Clos de La Roche, Clos Saint Denis and Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts. Tasting these blind and allowing for roundtable discussions of vintages and terroir was priceless education (and so fun!).

Jacques and his family offered a wealth of knowledge and experience. I learned so much about different harvest conditions — the stories behind the bottle. We heard tales from everyone, but perhaps most captivating were those Jacques and Ros could reach back and share from their early days — the weather, the styles, the friendships. Jacques would reflect on his younger years, hopping in a car with his buddies and making the journey to India through the Middle East. Ros would take me through their art collection, recounting their engagement and their travels in the early years of their marriage.

A huge component of vintage is the community. I was so fortunate to work this vintage with five intelligent, talented, and, above all else, truly good people. We each gave it our all and encouraged each other throughout the process. Our home was a charming annex off of the winery, and it was full of a singular kind of energy and inspiration. We would come back in the evenings after dinner, listen to music — a couple of them played guitar, another sang. We’d make tea or have nightcaps, sometimes start a fire, sometimes have a dance party, exchange photos, stories, screw-ups and triumphs of the day.

We were exhausted. But we all were so happy, sharing this moment in time together. For four weeks, from the crack of dawn until the lights went off, we were with each other. We shared stories, tips, water bottles and unfinished dinners (one intern — you know who you are — was especially good at helping us with this). I told them things many will never know about me. Because that’s what happens when you build trust.

Hardly the End

My last morning, I took a walk in the vines. They were beginning to settle in to autumn, turning golden and accented with a few that were red from virus — a bittersweet swan song before their eventual demise. Burgundy is not prized for power, nor the volume of her voice. Burgundy has a subtle, steady cadence. Treasured for her grace. Revered for her candor. A willingness and compulsion to translate a piece of land through its fruit. Looking out onto the Grand Crus, they stare back at me plainly. So unassuming. So humble. And I can’t help but think how many eyes were caught on this moment as well — transfixed by the magic beneath the vines.

As I headed back to the domaine to begin my trip home, I thought about my journey in wine, which began more than ten years ago as a clerk in a wine store in New York, where I was mortified when I didn’t have answers.

Sunset over Burgundy and the 2019 harvest. ©Ashley Hausman

And now the vines of Morey-Saint-Denis can head into their long winter’s rest. ©Ashley Hausman

Nearly a decade later, becoming an MW brought me a sense of academic achievement (and relief). I learned to ask more questions, aware the answers are never simple, always changing and entirely dependent on a cast and crew of characters that vary from one producer to the next. I came to see I knew so little really, and I cultivated a stronger sense of curiosity and humility through the process. I became more inquisitive. I realized that taking comfort in answers and chasing degrees does not bring about true knowledge or understanding, especially in the world of wine. As Rilke would encourage: try to love the questions themselves. And so, I am more interested these days in asking questions and living the answers, and I was lucky enough to get to do that here in Burgundy for my first vintage.

This apprentice is changed forever, but hardly a master. The journey is far from over. I think I have just begun. Perhaps I may have even gotten bit by that same French bug that got Jacques back in the day. When people ask what draws me to wine, it’s the beauty — it’s the lessons we learn from beauty. Sure, the wine itself is a thing of beauty. But really, it’s what wine gives us: travel, food, people, hard work, relaxation, stories, history, earth, living. Thank you to the Seysses family — for all of that.

 


About Ashley Hausman, MW

Ashley Hausman MW is based in Colorado, though her heart gets her back to her family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin and France as much as possible. Ashley represents two portfolios by day (Old World Wine and Craft); she sips, teaches and writes by night. She is a Professor of Enology at Metropolitan State University in Denver.

 

 

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