American Wine Maker Ted Lemon Is the Toast of Meursault, France
In Burgundy, the most tradition-bound French wine-producing region, vineyards usually pass from father to son. But two years ago, when Guy Roulot, a third-generation wine maker in the town of Meursault, learned that he had cancer, he knew that his only son, Jean-Marc, wanted to continue studying to be an actor. So Geneviève Roulot, Guy’s wife, turned to Jacques Seysses, one of the preeminent wine makers in the region. Seysses said he had the perfect person to manage Domaine Guy Roulot et Fils: Ted Lemon, an American who was not quite 25. Retorted Mme. Roulot, “Impossible!”
But the impossible came to pass. Lemon, who was then working at a California winery, had been first in his class while studying enology at the University of Dijon and had stood out among Seysses’ many apprentices. After making further inquiries and hearing only praise, Mme. Roulot hired Lemon by transatlantic phone call, making him the first American ever to head a Meursault vineyard. Arriving in January 1983, two months after Guy Roulot’s death, Lemon helped with the production of the 1982 wines. He handled the 1983s entirely on his own and is now producing the 1984 Roulots (which should yield about 60,000 bottles), a job that keeps him busy as many as 14 hours a day.
Lemon, now 26, will spend part of this month up to his waist inside huge wooden vats, stomping on masses of fermenting pinot noir grapes. As the precrushed grapes ferment, carbon dioxide pushes the solids to the surface. Stomping punches them back down. “The most complete and effective method of breaking up the solid mass is with your feet,” Lemon says. “At the same time, you can feel the hot and cold spots and unify the temperature.” The concentration of carbon dioxide makes the work dangerous, however. “Never do it alone,” Lemon warns. “I’ve pulled a friend out of a fermenter. He jumped in and just passed out.”
Stomping is the most picturesque, but not the largest part of Lemon’s routine. In late summer, for instance, he mixes and sprays protective chemicals over the vineyard’s 35 acres, conducts cellar tours and oversees the maintenance of equipment and the bottling of past vintages. At harvest time he starts at 6:30 a.m., supervising 20 or so pickers, and working alongside his five vignerons, who press the grapes and transfer the liquid to cellar barrels. By continually tasting (then spitting out) the wine at each stage of its development, Lemon makes the judgments that reveal the art of a true vintner. “If a wine tastes too good too young, it can be a sign it won’t age well. You have to decide when to let things go and when to intervene. You can make good wine by following chemical rules—but not great wine.”
Lemon’s judgment is clearly paying off. His 1983s, which sell for up to $18 a bottle, were deemed among the best in the region by the influential Gault Millau guide. Lemon’s 1984s may be hurt by a spate of late summer rain and a dreary fall, but his friend Seysses is optimistic. “It is a bad harvest,” he says, “that gives wine makers a chance to shine.”
Mme. Roulot is equally delighted—and not just with the wine. “It’s as if Ted was sent by Providence,” Guy’s widow says. “We particularly like the fact that he didn’t come here with the idea of revolutionizing the place. He talked with employees to find out about my husband’s methods. He has preserved the character of the enterprise.” Explains Ted: “Tact is a big part of managing.”
Lemon’s selection by the Roulots surprised him as much as it did the residents of Meursault. Ted grew up in suburban Bedford, N.Y., the son of Dick Lemon, now a senior editor at PEOPLE, and his wife, Molly, an elementary school guidance counselor. “As far as my family is concerned,” he says, “wine making is a totally esoteric undertaking.”
It is an undertaking Ted first glimpsed when, at 14, he traveled to France with some of his Phillips Academy classmates. The group visited a Muscadet vineyard. “I saw this beautiful, neoclassic château set in a romantic park,” Ted remembers, “and there was the wine maker—a man obviously in love with his subject—telling us about wine. It was the first time I realized how many diverse aspects of human knowledge went into the making of wine—technical, chemical, agricultural, traditional, cultural, plus, of course, the unknown.”
At Brown University Lemon majored in French literature and took up the study of wine during a semester abroad. After graduating, Ted returned to France, where he apprenticed to several wine makers, including Seysses. Then he went back to the U.S., where he spent nine months working as a nurse’s aide and trying to write a novel. But, realizing that “wine making was the only activity I could enjoy doing that allowed me to earn a living,” he took the job in California, where Mme. Roulot reached him.
Ted’s life of wine leaves little time for women or song. He lives alone in a simply furnished apartment and rarely gets away except for trips to wine tastings and excursions with friends, sometimes by bicycle, to distinguished restaurants. Though he values Burgundian tradition, Ted says “it would be fun” someday to make his own wine in freewheeling California. Seysses is ready. “If I have money, I will invest,” he says. “He is capable, conscientious and intelligent. What more could you want?” Judging by Ted’s musical tastes, Lemon wine would be a bold and eclectic potion. After a day trampling out the vintage, he comes back to his bedroom and plays tapes of Beethoven, John Coltrane and the Pretenders.