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An Interview (Part I) with Jean-Luc Colombo, French Winemaking Pioneer

First in a two-part series. Part two will cover Jean-Luc Colombo’s winemaking philosophy and his love of the Syrah grape.


It is just after 1:00pm on a foul, rain-drenched Wednesday in October, and Jean-Luc Colombo is looking for water.


The Maitre de Cornas, one of the most prominent winery owners in the world, is huddled with Sommelier Julien Moreno near the front bar of Alain Ducasse’s Benoit, on West 55th Street. It’s a double-play: Colombo has invited his American crew to lunch, and he’s noticed that the pétillante is missing from the table. Which gives him the perfect excuse to talk shop with Moreno. Business in the Age of Covid requires more human interaction than ever.


Jake Taub, of Taub Family Selections, is at the round table in the corner, with Adrian Chiota, Sales Director for Independence Wine & Spirits (IWS), and Antoine Lecompte, Key Account Manager and Team Leader at IWS.


As Colombo kibitzes, they’re getting hungry. And thirsty. But that’s about to change, since Colombo has already ordered appetizers enough for an army: a plate of pâtés, rillettes, saucissons, and other charcuterie and forcemeats; pig’s knuckles in puff pastry; escargots with puff pastry hats; and an Alsatian tarte flambée with onions, bacon, and an ungodly amount of butter. They are also here to taste many of Colombo’s red and white wines, as well as a couple of whites that are not his, but that Chiota wants his opinion on.


WATER


In fact, water is very important to understanding Jean-Luc Colombo. Colombo was born and raised in Marseille, the multi-cultural French port on the Mediterranean that is both beloved and reviled by the French, a den of intrigue and exoticism, carrying more than a hint of danger, but dressed up in a sing-song accent, an affability, and a generosity that are the envy of France.


Was Colombo inspired to go into the wine business by the place where he was born? Colombo’s Mother owned a restaurant in Marseille’s Belle de Mai neighborhood, a working-class enclave in the center of the city whose residents were predominantly Italian immigrants (Colombo’s family itself came from the Italian region of Luca a century ago).


The story goes that Belle de Mai (May’s Beauty, in French) is actually a corruption of “Bèla de Mai,” in the Provençale language, meaning “more beautiful.” It is said to refer to a vine that grew along a large swath of the neighborhood, and produced late-maturing grapes that could be picked even into December. Years later, Colombo named one of his vineyards in the St. Péray appellation of the Rhône after La Belle de Mai.


Colombo completed his military service in the French Navy. He then graduated with a degree in Pharmacology from the Université de Montpellier, for centuries one of France’s outstanding faculties in both Medicine and Oenology. Setting out to build his own pharmaceutical laboratory, he realized that he could transfer his skills to create an analytical laboratory for the wine industry.


In 1984, he settled in Cornas, on the banks of the Rhône River, with his wife Anne. By 1987, he had purchased 8 hectares (20 acres) of land in Cornas; by 1994, they were producing wine under the “Jean-Luc Colombo” label.


AGENT PROVOCATEUR


What is Colombo doing on this trip to the United States? More importantly, with the Covid crisis still raging, how did he even get intothe United States?


“I am here because President Macron sent me on a mission. I am here to negotiate a truce between Donald Trump and Joe Biden!”


One might be tempted to believe him, given his background. Besides his service in the Navy, Colombo still practices Karate at 65 years of age. He holds the French Legion d’Honneur. And in a country where wine is still king, Colombo very definitely has Président Macron’s ear.


Yet one quickly learns that Colombo’s entire conversational style is predicated on provocation. It’s not necessarily a test of your gullibility, but more of a way to hook you into the story he’s about to tell. Chiota was visiting Colombo’s vineyard a few years ago, and asked Colombo why he had built a duck pond. Colombo answered “Ah! I’m glad you noticed! You see, now I can hunt the ducks – bang! bang! – and have Confit de Canard every night for dinner!”


It turns out the ducks came in rather randomly, and Colombo loves to see his grandchildren squeal with delight when they see them. He has a slew of cats, three dogs (Fitou, Nash, and Syrah) named after a wine appellation, the city of Nashville, and the grape used in Cornas wines. He also has 2 dozen chickens who provide the domaine with eggs.


OBV and THE GOOD LIFE


Antoine Lecompte translates Colombo’s story of “diplomatic service” with an indulgent smile. Everyone dissolves laughing; Adrian and Jake explain that Colombo’s nickname at Taub Selections and Independence Wine & Spirits is “OBV,” or Original Bon Vivant. They all clearly like working with OBV.

As Colombo puts it, “the secret in life is not to work.” This seems a little too facile, given that Colombo has so obviously put in more than the necessary hours to create a multinational wine business. Yet Colombo does enjoy the good life.


“The ICE Officer who greeted me at JFK guessed that I am 54 years old! Can you imagine? I am well over 60! But the key is not to work too hard. It is about lifestyle: working hard every day, but at a job you love. Have good food and wine. Taste things every day.”

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