Meet Geneviève Janssens, Robert Mondavi’s Director of Winemaking

Geneviève Janssens was born in Morocco and raised in France, where she was brought up in a winemaking family—her ancestors were farmers who cultivated grapes and alfalfa and her father continued the tradition in Provence, where he grew Rhône grape varieties. After earning her National Diploma of Enology in 1974 from the University of Bordeaux, she became a successful enologist with her own laboratory and consulting business. To learn more about winemaking, she took a trip to California where she visited Robert Mondavi Winery, which was well known in France for Mondavi’s innovation. She was so drawn to the philosophies of Mondavi that she moved to Napa Valley in 1978, where she worked as an enologist. In 1989, she became Director of Production at Opus One and in 1997, Director of Winemaking at Robert Mondavi.  

Get to know Janssens and what her day-to-day is like, as well as the importance of passion when pursuing your dreams. 

Your father was a winemaker. How did he influence your career?

My father didn’t push me into my career. Winemaking was my dad’s passion and he was always talking about his winery and grapes. But he also spoke to me about how important it is to be passionate. He always told me, “Winemaking won’t make you rich, but it will make you happy.” He raised all his kids with that philosophy of life and I endorse it. I love the complexity of winemaking, I love to be outside in nature, to walk in the vineyards. I am surrounded by good people who have the same goals. The glorious end to winemaking is to be at the table—good food, good wine, good friends. You cannot ask for more. 

Tell us about your first trip to Robert Mondavi Winery.

I first came to California as a tourist in the late 1970s. I took a tour [there] and thought it was so interesting that I wanted to meet the winemaker. I was introduced to Zelma Long, the Director of Winemaking, and we spent an hour talking. Speaking to someone like that is usually quite intimidating, but she was very accessible. She was young and knew so much and I wanted to learn. I told her to call me if a job became available. Two months later she did! I jumped at the chance. I loved the wines that Mondavi was making. I could connect them, with the soil, the people—I could see through them to understand who made them and why. They were completely different than the wines I had tasted in France.

As Director of Winemaking, what do you do on a day-to-day basis? 

We have two winemakers who take care of the details and day-to-day activities in the winery. I am their counterpart; it is a true partnership. They know the vineyard lots very well and they convey the story of each lot to me. Then together we blend the wines. I am here for the assemblage of every tier of each variety. I have meetings with the team to talk about improvements, new products on the market, things we want to try, sampling, all the details of the life of the wines. I meet a lot with the vineyard director of To Kalon and walk the vineyards and talk about pruning, past harvests, what to anticipate for the future. I help educate the sales and marketing staff. I cover a bunch of roles, which is versatile and fun. I’m doing what I like the most—blending, walking the vineyards and talking wine. 

What makes the To Kalon vineyard and its wines so unique? 

Location, location, location. It’s unique. We have the Mayacamas Mountains, breezes and clouds coming in from the ocean and Sonoma and we receive fresh air from the bay in the south. The sun goes across the To Kalon in such a way that the grapes get sunlight all day long, from east to west. And the soil is so complex. At one point in the life of this place, it was at the bottom of the ocean, and later it was the top of the mountain. Every 20 rows the soil changes. 

I consider To Kalon the First Growth of Napa Valley and I think more and more we will treat it like a Burgundy Grand Cru rather than a Bordeaux First Growth. With the Grand Cru system in Burgundy, you handle smaller pieces of the vineyard differently and we like to vinify this way. Sometimes when we pick the grapes are silky and soft with dark fruit; next to that you get grapes with brighter red fruit and more structure. We want to understand the differences imparted from the soil.

For you, what are the elements that make a wine great? 

This is a very difficult question to answer because you must put aside your own tastes and pleasure. For me, it’s important that a wine show complexity on the nose and palate—you should be able to taste and smell many different things, so that it’s not just one-dimensional. The mouthfeel must be whatever it should be for the variety, with density and substance. It needs to flow and be very lengthy from beginning to end and show harmony and balance. And then after that, you need to go back to the people and the typicity and the terroir. If you can feel the place, that’s excellent. The wine delivered. And of course, when you have a sip and you want to go back for another. 

Who are some of your mentors and how did they influence you as a winemaker? 

I had three great teachers at the University of Bordeaux: Jean Ribéreau-Gayon, his son Pascal and Émile Peynaud. Jean was an incredible chemist who took apart wines and put them into formula. Pascal taught winemaking and chemistry and Émile was a cellar master who taught us all the practical elements of being in the winery. He also taught us tasting and watching him taste wines was amazing. From these three I learned discipline—they were not tender. They were very good teachers and passionate of course, they all loved what they were teaching. If you love wine, it’s beautiful to teach. 

I also learned a lot from Mr. Mondavi. He was a good man. He taught me discipline, too, but also the passion of wine. He taught me that you need to love your people to be able to achieve your dream, and he taught me about being a nice person. He cared about us and gave us all the tools and was very supportive. He taught us never to give up, to continue and to realize your dream. He was passionate about teaching and was always generous, giving back to the community, never forgetting anybody. That’s what we call a leader. He used to say, “A leader inspires and does not rule.” He was and still is inspiring. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an oenologist/winemaker? 

Pour your soul into your passion without compromise. Just do it. Respect your passion. My father used to tell me, “always do the best with what you have, and you will be rewarded.” 

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