A woman of wine
Mondavi's Janssens scales rare heights
Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 7, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.
Her colleagues point to her work ethic, her palate and her political
savvy to explain how Genevieve Janssens landed one of the biggest
jobs in the California wine industry. Janssens herself talks about
The director of winemaking for Oakville's world-renowned Robert
Mondavi Winery, the 51-year-old Frenchwoman recounts professional
milestones as if all she did was show up at the right time. But
her rise -- remarkably swift despite a long break for marriage and
motherhood -- suggests a career that owes more to spunk than to
serendipity. Responsible for more than two dozen Mondavi wines and
more than 300,000 cases, Janssens has reached a height in the wine
industry that few women attain.
A fifth-generation winemaker who never imagined becoming anything
else, Janssens was drinking watered wine from an early age. Born
in Morocco to French Algerian parents, she grew up mostly in southern
France, where her parents settled after Algerian nationalists took
the family vineyards. Her father, whom she describes as a pioneer,
then established vineyards and a winery in Corsica but lost them,
too, when the Corsicans forced French property owners out.
Encouraged by her father, Janssens studied enology at the University
of Bordeaux, where her professors included the legendary Emile Peynaud,
a world authority on wine tasting. Cigarette in hand, Peynaud taught
her how to taste. "The room was full of smoke all the time,"
Janssens recalls. "He always said it didn't bother him."
The young enologist worked briefly in a Bordeaux wine consultant's
lab, then decided to set up her own small lab and consulting business
in Provence. In 1977, she and her brother visited the Napa Valley
and -- destiny calling -- she visited the Robert Mondavi Winery
and met winemaker Zelma Long.
"We spent a good hour talking about winemaking philosophy,"
Janssens remembers, "and when I said goodbye, I joked and said,
'If you have something for me here, I'm ready.' " Three months
later, Long called, with the offer of a lab job. "I did not
hesitate one minute," Janssens says.
Less than two years after arriving, the then 28-year-old met and
married a Belgian artist seven years her junior who taught at the
College of Merced.
"So I quit Mondavi," the winemaker says, "which was
not very smart, but when you're young, you go with your passion."
The couple moved to the Merced area and started a family -- they
have a son and a daughter -- and Janssens put her career aside,
allowing herself just enough consulting work to stay content.
A decade later, Janssens picked up the phone. "I called Tim
(Mondavi) and said, 'Do you recall me? I would like to come back
if you have something interesting.' "
Mondavi did. Opus One, the family's groundbreaking joint venture
with the French Rothschild family, was rapidly moving forward and
needed a director of production.
"Isn't that incredible?" Janssens says now. "It was
destiny. Why did I call at that time? I could have called later
when there was no opening."
More incredible, perhaps, is that Tim Mondavi and Patrick
Leon, the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild winemaker, gave the prestigious
post to someone who hadn't held a winery job in 10 years. Janssens
and family moved back to Napa Valley, and her husband found work
teaching French at a Bay Area college. Then Janssens began what
must have been, at the time, one of the most challenging winemaking
" I worked with a member of the team here and a member of the
team in France, " she says, "and my role was to put the
two different winemaking visions together, to make Opus One happen
from day to day."
Janssens stayed for nine years, overseeing construction of the costly
winery -- the industry joke is that the project had an unlimited
budget and exceeded it -- and production of one of California's
"There weren't too many relaxed times at Opus," recalls
Napa Valley wine consultant Ashley Heisey, who Janssens hired in
the early '90s to run the lab. "I don't think Genevieve ever,
in her mind, had a rest day in terms of making those wines better.
She'd return your voicemail at two in the morning because that was
the only quiet time in her life. I know she has this other life
outside of wine, but when you're working with her you have no sense
At Opus, Janssens made only one wine -- the famous Opus One, a Bordeaux-
style blend meant to compete with the top wines of the world. According
to Heisey, Janssens had the persistent temperament for such an endeavor,
where the brass ring is always just beyond your grasp. "You're
working on that last one percent of quality," Heisey says,
"a refinement that probably never ends. I would have thought
she was going to be at Opus for a lifetime."
Instead, Janssens left her plum job in 1997, when Tim Mondavi recruited
her for her current post. A current Opus One employee says the French
partners were furious at the Mondavis for luring her away.
"The French were sorry," says Janssens diplomatically,
"but they knew I wanted to grow. It's very difficult to stop
an employee who wants to know more. "
Compared to Opus, with its narrow focus, Mondavi is a giant playground
with enough games and toys to keep even a hyperactive winemaker
amused. Janssens can make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel -- varietals
she had never had the chance to work with in the past -- and she
talks excitedly about how much she is learning.
Janssens points out that winemakers learn a technique from every
varietal that they can apply to other varietals. Currently the winery
is using lees stirring on its Sauvignon Blanc, a practice more often
associated with Chardonnay. Periodically stirring the lees, the
spent yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the tank or barrel
after fermentation, gives the wine a richer texture to balance its
natural austerity, Janssens says.
"I am starving to learn more," says the winemaker, who
continues her explorations at the dinner table. With meals, she
says, "I taste wines that are going to teach me something,
improve my knowledge. At the present time, I am opening every bottle
of Merlot I can." The exercise is intended to help Janssens
define the ideal Merlot, a varietal that is the object of much current
attention at the winery.
Although Tim Mondavi, who carries the title of winegrower, sets
the style for the wines, Janssens and her crew are the ones who
make it happen. She refers constantly to both Tim and her team which,
with her accent, sound just the same. Three mornings a week, she
tastes with her two associate winemakers, part of the critical process
of determining which lots go into which blends.
At those meetings, says Janssens, a listener could discern a fundamental
difference between her French way of describing wine and the words
used by her American assistants.
"American winemakers describe wine with floral and fruity terms.
I describe by structure. I will say 'the beginning, the middle,
the end.' It's very Cartesian. I might say 'cassis' because I learned
that here, but I'm more likely to talk about the body, the structure,
the depth, the center, the finish," she says.
Last year, the Wine Spectator's influential columnist James Laube
wrote a blistering criticism of the current Mondavi releases. Laube
argued that Tim had steered the wines away from richness, ripeness
and complexity and toward a leaner, less interesting style. Today,
Mondavi defends the style as more European, more sophisticated,
more harmonious with food -- "elegance with power, and not
the other way around" -- but the criticism must have stung.
Janssens will only say now that Laube had the right to his opinion,
but Richard Sowalsky, one of her associate winemakers, says he learned
a lot from how she reacted at the time. While a similar blow from
such a powerful critic would have sent many winemakers into a deep
funk and a stylistic about-face, Janssens held her ground. She pulled
the wines, retasted them, read what Laube wrote, and then pronounced
the wines just fine.
"It was really refreshing," Sowalsky says. "She said,
'I don't think we've made any mistakes. He's entitled to an opinion,
but we don't agree.' She's really self-confident, and she knows
when she's done a good job."
With her 19-year-old daughter at UC Berkeley and her 16-year-old
son eyeing UC Davis -- perhaps to become a sixth-generation winemaker
-- Janssen has more time for a long-held dream, a collaboration
with her husband, Luc. The couple recently released the first commercial
vintage from their own petite winery, called Portfolio Limited Edition.
A Cabernet Sauvignon made with grapes from Napa's Hendry Ranch,
the wine is partly a vehicle for promoting Luc's art.
Luc, a printmaker who works with copper plates and a photogravure
process, is creating limited-edition photographs to accompany each
The couple make only 200 cases a year "and we won't grow bigger
than that," Janssens promises. Some of the profits are earmarked
for a Laotian hospital that the two have ties to, but the endeavor
is largely an excuse to work together. "It's a nice project
for our older ages. We make the wine at home, and that's the beauty
of it. We can punch down together at midnight," Janssens says,
referring to the process of extracting color and flavor from the
Far from being worried about losing some of his winemaker's attention,
Tim Mondavi says he supports the venture. "I think," he
says, "that I bought their first couple of cases."
E-mail Janet Fletcher at email@example.com.
�2002 San Francisco Chronicle. Page 5WB