Xavier Arnaudin: The Man in the Arena

At 16 years of age, Xavier Arnaudin began training professionally as a boxer. He trained for hours each day; running hard early every morning, training late into the night at the gym. “In boxing, every effort counts,” he says now. “There is no room for mistakes. You have to repeat the same thing, over and over again, until you learn to do it efficiently, perfectly.” Arnaudin likens preparing to step into the ring to preparing for harvest. “You have to understand each moment and adapt to it and make the most of it. You have to work with the right grape variety. You have to adapt to any situation at harvest. Then you have to work with the fruit. Then you need to work with the right wood, the right toast on that wood. And you have to repeat each effort until you’re satisfied—but you’re never satisfied, because as soon as you’re satisfied with your performance, you get knocked out.”

It was while he was attending a strict Catholic boarding school that Arnaudin first developed his cautious intensity. “We were expected to be organized, very clean, very efficient and to work well with others.” With a deliberate focus and a careful manner of speaking, he continues on about his difficult time there. “I’m from the old world and am very old school. I was taught from a young age to be this way. This cellar…the way it looks, this cellar is a mirror of me.”  

By nine years of age, he was awakened each morning at 5:30 a.m. By 6:30 a.m., he was doing schoolwork. Breakfast followed an hour later. An eight-hour school day was split in half by an hour-long lunch. Returning to his room after school, he would then perform two hours of homework before dining with the other students between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. When “lights out” were announced, Arnaudin joined 200 other children in one very large sleeping room. He remained at the boarding school until he was 16 years old. “It wasn’t fun,” he says. Still, he admits these difficult years taught him much about efficiency—a characteristic he counts today as a virtue. “Efficiency is important. Why not get the most and best out of everything you do?” 

Indeed, the cellars at Sans Liege, where Arnaudin is assistant winemaker, and at Union Sacré, where he is consulting winemaker, are models of efficiency and a nearly monastic sense of order. Impossibly tidy, organized and symmetrical, each feature of these working cellars—from the rows of barrels to the equipment—is perfectly aligned, very clean and easy to navigate. There is not a rag, gasket, clamp or hose out of place. “One of the first things I'm struck by when I see a cellar that Xavier is in charge of is how orderly it is,” says Philip Muzzy, owner of Union Sacré, and one of Arnaudin’s clients. “The barrels are stacked in military-tight rows, every barrel is rotated perfectly straight in its rack, all tags and markings are level. The floors are immaculate, the forklifts are perfectly tuned, the press is glistening. This is all after 12 hard hours, disassembling the whole cellar and processing God only knows how many tons of fruit and dealing with a dozen major emergencies. It's easy to overlook these things, especially if the only time you ever see a cellar is through a planned visit with wealthy investors or on holiday, but a cellar is a dynamic and dirty place. Its natural order is chaos. I say all this because the kind of person who can bring order to this much shifting soil can work absolute wonders when given the keys to a private garden. Xavier is an amazing gardener and I'm happy to be one of the people to have given him the keys.” 

Arnaudin began his career as a winemaker in his homeland of France in 1997. His first harvest was at Alain Voge, in Saint-Joseph. While pursuing winemaking there, he also studied to be a sommelier. After receiving his sommelier’s WSET diploma, he headed to Monbazillac, where he enrolled in winemaking courses while working at Château La Brie in Bergerac for two harvests. After enrolling at the Agricultural College of Louis Giraud in Carpentras, Arnaudin completed his formal education in enology, all while working at the college’s winery and vineyard. “I’m a strong believer in the vineyard; that’s where you will find the true answer. The impact of viticulture is so important, and it leads you to everything you need to know about a wine.” 

Throughout the growing season, Arnaudin visits the vineyards from which his clients are sourcing fruit with great frequency. “I love to ride my motorcycle to the vineyards, and see the deer and the bobcats. It’s a win-win for me. I get to be outside with the smells and fresh air. And I can check in to see how the vines are being pruned. When is bud break going to happen? My time in the vineyards tells me a lot about the future of the grapes. If you understand the weather, the climate and the site, you can have an impact on how the grapes come in at harvest.” 

“We don't really believe in titles at Sans Liege, but his business card reads ‘Confidant,’ ” says Curt Schalchlin, owner of Sans Liege Winery. “The camaraderie he and I share in all things winemaking and life is something that I do not believe I will ever experience again. Together we’ve made a goal of one-upping ourselves every vintage, adopting practices with enthusiasm that would seem mundane, unnecessary or over the top to most producers. I’m proud of every wine he and I have ever bottled, and can tell you in earnest that whether we are assembling a 3-barrel lot or 50, it receives the same thought, care and attention to detail.”

During our long visit together, we taste through an impressive, elegant selection of wines Arnaudin has had a hand in creating. I’m especially impressed by the white wines he makes for Union Sacré, and am somewhat taken aback by their prices. Arnaudin isn’t shy in recommending price points to clients; several of the Union Sacré wines are priced between $20.00 and $30.00, but I’d pay two to three times that price for any number of them just because they’re so vibrant, fresh, energetic and made with a very light touch. “I want to be fair, and my passion is to make wine, not money. I want to make wines that hardworking people like my parents can afford to drink.”

While he greatly enjoys making and drinking red wines, Arnaudin favors the challenges involved in making fine whites. “They are more fragile and delicate, and harder to understand. The fermentation of white wines can be more challenging. I love the Union Sacré Gewürztraminer. I like Gewürztraminer to be very expressive, so I pick it late, around 23 brix. Obviously, you can lose acid when you pick that high, but not at the vineyard we’ve chosen for the Union Sacre Gewürtz. It’s in the Santa Lucia Highlands—Paraiso—where the nights are very cold and the mornings foggy. This keeps the acidity and complexity high.” 

Once Arnaudin brings the Gewürtz into the cellar, he immediately de-stems it and allows it to cold-soak for a day. This extended skin contact gives this wine, named Belle de Nuit, a lovely, bright copper color. He then presses the Gewürztraminer for three hours; it’s a long, soft pressing, as if he were making Champagne. After two days of cold-stabilizing, he racks the juice from the gross lees to 50% neutral barrels and 50% stainless steel. The wine is fermented entirely with feral yeasts. It then ages for seven months on fine lees. The resulting wine is nothing short of enchanting. And the cost? Twenty bucks.


When I ask Arnaudin if he’d like to explore winemaking in any other region—other than the Central Coast of California—he begins to respond before I’ve even finished my sentence, “America is freedom. A winemaker here can work with many vineyards. I like the American wine business, too. People like sharing their experiences, their thoughts, their knowledge. I have had many great opportunities to meet great winemakers, vineyard owners and managers.” 

When Arnaudin and I sit down to lunch with a handful of his colleagues, I hear, time and again, what a hard worker his is, relentless in his pursuit to make a perfectly balanced wine. So I ask him if he ever takes time off, and if so, what he enjoys doing. “I like to ride my motorcycle. I still box. I go to the gym and I like to hike. That way I won’t get comments about gaining weight when I visit my family in France.” And, he adds that he enjoys spending time with his circle of friends. “A glass of wine is a photo of a year—the work it took during that year to grow that wine. Wine is just fermented grapes, and it’s meant to be shared. I want my wines to be shared among friends.” 

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