Pauline Lhote Blazes a Trail at Chandon

May 9, 2018

Pauline Lhote

Terroir, the particular qualities of a region, greatly shapes the taste of wine from the area. For Pauline Lhote, terroir was also a determining factor in shaping the stellar arc of her career with Chandon. Born and raised in the Champagne region of France, Pauline relocated to California’s Napa Valley at age 23 for a job at Chandon. She now holds the position of Director of Winemaking at the iconic California winery.

This year’s vintage is the first she has guided from grape to bottle, an achievement worth toasting, and one that has put her in the industry’s spotlight. Throughout her steady and speedy rise at Chandon, Lhote has been a highly visible ambassador for winemaking, and her accomplishments have also made her a role model for women and young people who also dream of a life among the vines. She spoke with Breakthru recently, taking us through her career and sharing her insights into the industry.

Planting the Seeds of Success

Her journey began in France’s Champagne region, arguably one of the axes the world of wine spins around. But for Lhote, the opportunities in Champagne looked scant when compared to the boom happening in Napa. Lhote found herself attracted to the region for several reasons, but one factor stood out for her.

“Mostly, it was the place itself,” she says. “Of course, Napa Valley is beautiful, but when I say ‘the place,’ mostly I mean the work, the ability to have a great job with Chandon at 23, and being able to make real decisions.”

I found that in the U.S. we give more opportunities to the younger generation.
- Pauline Lhote

“At my age, having the level of responsibility that I had was quite unreal,” she explains. “I would have had to wait much longer to get the same job in France.” Instead, Lhote took a chance on the belief that the U.S. would take a chance on her. “In the U.S., if you show you can do something well, then people let you do it. In France, it's about how old you are, how many diplomas you have. I found that in the U.S. we give more opportunities to the younger generation.”

Twelve Years in the Valley

“I've been at Chandon for almost 12 years,” Lhote says, “and now I can really show what I've been doing.” The 2016 Chandon, now on the shelves, is the first wine she was fully responsible for creating. “It’s my touch. It’s my wine.”

“Starting in 2016, when I got promoted to head winemaker, I got the opportunity to show the type of style I wanted to make, and we worked with the whole company towards this end goal. When you have one hundred percent control, you're able to make all the decisions. It's really exciting. Before, when I was the assistant winemaker, even though I was making a lot of decisions, you don't have control of everything. That's somebody else’s wine. Starting in 2016, that's really my fingerprint on every bottle.”

Finding her own voice also means working within the history and tradition of Chandon. “I'm from Champagne,” she says, “so tradition is something that is anchored in my personality. But at the same time, I don't want to make Champagne. For me, Chandon has to be a true representation of California. I want to make a wine that is casual, easy to drink. Chandon is your affordable sparkling wine, the one you can drink any day of the week.”

“You don't need to wait for a special occasion to open that bottle,” Lhote explains. “I wanted to make the wine fresh, vibrant, fruity, smooth, round, easy to drink. That's really about highlighting the California aspect, that vibrancy and that fruit fullness to it. We worked on getting the mouth feel creamy, round, smooth, with a really long finish, but something makes you want to have a second glass, and a third.”

Blending In and Standing Out

A key skill for any successful winemaker, particularly at a large and storied house like Chandon, is blending, a skill Lhote worked for years to learn— “eight years,” she says, as the assistant winemaker. “Blending wine takes time, so learning how to blend is essential. Those eight years before I took this position really helped me, because that's not something you learn overnight.”

It requires teamwork, a solid idea of where the team should end up and painstaking attention to detail. “Before we go into blending with my team, I talk to them about how I envision the wine. Then, we take all the wines we have, which is a lot of samples, it could be 150, 180 different wines, and we pick the one we think will fit right within the blend. After that, we try different variations of the blend until we're very satisfied.”

One of Chandon’s most beloved blends is their rosé, a category close to Lhote’s heart. “It's what I started my career with,” she says. “It’s something that really piqued my interest as a young winemaker. It's also a complex wine to make, and I like the complexity of it.” Despite the complexity, Lhote says rosé is “definitely a fun wine. People love it,” particularly “the wine that we do at Chandon. It is a rosé that wants to be lively and fresh and bursting, and vibrant, and not like a very heavy rosé. That's what I love about it.”

Vin Par Les Femme

As a woman, Lhote’s experience in the industry has been different from her male colleagues. Despite shifting demographics, winemaking is still a traditionally male-dominated field. “I would say it's even more the case in France than it is in the U.S.,” says Lhote, “But, it's definitely across the whole world. If you go to Argentina, for example, or Australia, it's exactly the same thing. It's definitely something historically that has been done by men.”

I think the wine industry as a whole is more open and inclusive, but I see my job as trying to help [women] make their way through that environment.
- Pauline Lhote

With her highly visible role in the industry, Lhote understands she carries an extra responsibility as a pioneer for the women coming after her. “Definitely, I take it very seriously,” she says, “I believe in mentoring young women to help them navigate within that environment, because it's not always easy.” However, things are changing. “More and more there are women entering the industry,” she says. “I think the wine industry as a whole is more open and inclusive, but I see my job as trying to help them make their way through that environment.”

“I think there are difficulties in any job where women are minorities,” she says, explaining that “getting in the industry is not difficult, but in moving up the ladder, it's definitely tough.” But there are resources now available to help the next generation of female winemakers. “At Chandon we have the Early Career Winemaker Program,” she says. “We've had two women in that program so far, and they are rotating through all six of the Chandon wineries. Those women have been on my team, and that was very important for me to train them in every single aspect of the job, making sure I'm spending enough time with them to mentor them. That's very important.”

Reflecting on the lessons she has learned, and passing them on, Lhote says “winemaking is very funny. You learn at school to make wine, but there is so much more to it. It's such a diverse job that it's very important for me that I show those women every aspect of it, that they know it's not just making wine, but everything that goes around it. That's what makes it very exciting.”

This story is part of our award-winning “Women in Wine” series, our long-running effort to highlight winemakers, sustainable specialists, executives, and others making a positive impact in the world of wine.

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