Coming To America - Tom Sullivan, Damien Landouar & Vignobles Sullivan Wine
ÀVôtre santé America! Raise a glass to the wines of Vignobles Sullivan: the naturally produced and eco-certified wines of Château Gaby, Moya, Du Parc and Auguste. Meet the owner, TomSullivan, the billionaire U.S. businessman recently inducted into the prestigious Brotherhood of Fronsac. Tom says he “never intentionally got into wine. I always pictured Bordeaux as crazy expensive, but really it is way less than Tuscany. We were driving up here and (my broker) was showing me the papers on this place. I said it is way too fancy. I just want to get a small place.I told him, ‘What I want is a good wine that has never been marketed, that is in a good area. He described this as the ‘Brooklyn of Bordeaux.’ People in the region will say in the 1800’s, this was the place to be - higher than Pomerol and St. Emilion. It is coming back. The terroir is good, the wine is good. It just does not have the PR.Coming to AmericaSo, we came in here in 2016. My background is in construction and renovation and I just loved the house and felt good coming in even on a dark, gloomy day in February. The deal came with Moya already certified organic, Gaby was certified in 2018. It fit exactly what I wanted... except for the price!” Tom Sullivan is now proud owner of Château Gaby in the Canon-Fronsac appellation, Château Moya, a castillon-Côtes-de-Bordeaux property, Château du Parc, a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru and Château Auguste, a Bordeaux. He loves a challenge and is known for picking winners, so prepare your palate and meet the land and team he chooses wisely to foster the vines and spread the word.
Meet Tom’s chief vintner, Damien Landouar, in whom has entrusted the management of all four estates. He is not new to wine. Damien has been immersed in wine and this terroir in particular, as chief operator of these vineyards for twenty-one years. “The main thing is to be able to look at all through to the end: prune the vines, make the wine, then drink the wine. I prefer to be in charge of everything, so I understand everything.” His family was in the railroad business, but he fell in love with nature. He studied agriculture and in 1995, he came to this area for a post-Baccalaureate degree. He studied marketing for wine and spirits and realized, “No, definitely not my job.” He wanted to be outdoors and working with the earth and its seasons. “I started at Gaby with the first owner in 1997 and he proposed more responsibility. I have never worked in another vineyard. I have studied at others, but never worked anywhere else.”Tom jokes, with clear admiration, “He (Damien) is from Cognac and that takes hundreds of years. I thought 2 years was forever!” Damien has a sentient love and connection to the earth. He ploughs certain areas of this dreamscape with his horse Umar. “I cannot bring a cellphone with me....she would get jealous. You have to be present.”Horses require his full attention as does keeping his hands and heart on the pulse of the seasons. For it is mother nature that, in the end, makes the great vintages, like 2010, what they are. “As a team, we are fifteen people for four vineyards. The main thing is to have good people with you. I try to make a good atmosphere. Make it like being at home and understand that you are working for yourself. Be in charge of what you do. It is like a family and everybody understands we have to work hard and when nature decides, you have to be ready. In 2017, there was a total frost that swept across Bordeaux.
Their rosé Auguste is pressed within 3hours of its harvest. Damien and his crew harvest Gaby, Moya and Du Parc by hand and are thinking of that for Auguste too, which alone is 32 hectares (almost 70 acres). “The soil is the most important thing and the trust of the plants.” He goes from every two weeks to daily tasting of the seeds, “As soon as they are not glued to the body (of the grape), and not bitter, but like a nut, they are perfect!” While we are chatting, Julien Durand appears and shares in a wine tasting. He is the descendent of the original proprietors, the families De Kermoal and De Bouissiron. The original family Bouissiron was here 2000 years, then a British owner Kermoal for two hundred and fifty. Tom is lucky owner number 5. His home away from home, the Château Gaby, was originally a post for people driving their horses for water at the château trough and to stop for lunch. Tom and Vignobles Sullivan wines too can be a part of history with this land and Damien’s care.
As the new owner and business maverick,Tom Sullivan, is walking straight into history. According to Tom, a self-made billionaire, wine making is a harder business. “In my business (LumberLiquidators), I was on the other end. I would come to mills that were producing and they would have leftover stuff that was not popular. Similar to wine, like 3 grades of lumber where the middle grade was selling but the high and low grade were not popular. I would say, ‘Ok, you have 20 trucks, I will pay this.’ Now I see how the mills felt when I dealt with them.It is also harder especially in the US. I’m used to a product I can sell directly to the consumer. Here we have to go through a distributor and retailer, so we are far removed from the end customer plus you have a million people selling wine and spirits - how do you stand out from that? It is a good challenge. I like a challenge.
Newcomers in a region this rarified face competition, Damien explains, “There is always something competitive whenever an owner changes. Mainly with someone from the U.S. or worse yet China. But French buy properties and often change out the team, so the first thing is (we get) to keep the team.” Previous vintages have garnered incredible kudos. Tom jokes “My friends say the broker made one book and gave it to you.” But fact is, a blind tasting of 1,000 wines from 2001-2015 vintages for the area, ranks Petrus (2,300€ a bottle)at #18 and Lafite Rothschild at #5 (850€). Chateau Gaby (160€)comes in at #12 in Bordeaux and at #1 in Fronsac in Le Grand Classement des Vins de Bordeaux - Remy Poussart. Tom is quick to explain, “That’s all Damian, not me.” Damien is breaking new ground with his use of Genodics, playing music to vines. “It will take awhile to change people’s minds. I am very interested about water memory.Sound and vibration to heal and strengthen, reduce stress and to not be impacted by big, chemical companies like Monsanto.” The song Tom and Damien are piping into their terroir is a piano piece put together by physicist Joel Sternheimer, who is also a musician and biologist. “He started with tomatoes in Senegal.” Tom jokes. "Wine is much more interesting!” After three weeks the tomatoes were thriving and heartier in one part of the field where the music played than where not. Damien extols, “If you live close to a forest, every morning in spring and summer the birds are singing when the sun is starting, helping plants to hold the morning water.
”Healthy living and cultivating a people and earth-friendly product is high on Tom’s list. His family are all organic, including wife and precious children who were scampering around the gorgeous Château Gaby during the recent primeurs event (an elegant affair Tom hosted in March with a knock out live performance with Robyn Bennett) which gives the wine world a sneak peek at the quality and personality of upcoming vintages. He has been eating organic since age twenty-five and loves food and wine that make you feel good! “France, in winemaking, is more carefully protected and pure.
”Tom knows what he wants and Damien knows this territory inside and out. “We are all on the hills. We have North and South facing. South facing is better for colder winters. Northeast facing wasn’t as interesting twenty, thirty years ago. That’s changing.” The weather is changing and that is favoring this terroir. Tom’s vines represent 10 percent of Canon Fronsac within Fronsac (an appellation within the appellation). They have a special selection of good soil and good wine. Damien insists, “There is an importance in terroir, wine quality.The classification of wine in Medoc and St. Emilion which are well-known and historic. When you are young and just making good wines for 25 years, you have to wait a little bit. Everyone is trying to make their best wine here, so marketing and communication will make the difference. We want to be the best of this appellation and area which we can do, but you have to market and communicate.
”Time to bring in team member Charley McPherson, President - U.S., Vignobles Sullivan. He has the challenge of getting a great wine into a sexy marketing push and onto tables and in restaurants and bars around the country. “It comes down to differentiation and having a story. The Genodics part of it is compelling because no one else is doing it. I continually comeback to nature: the connection of the wine, the land and the human aspect. The wine making practices of Bordeaux are metaphoric for life. You have to take what the earth is giving you, year in year out. You can’t even irrigate, water the fields (as soon as you irrigate, you lose AOC and the ability to call it Bordeaux). The thing that struck me most about Tom and Damien goes right back to nature.
”If people are the soil of our lives, then the Vignobles Sullivan terroir is rich indeed. Mother Nature writes a new story every year. This is the story of TomSullivan who has the business savvy and drive to take on challenges and Damian Landouar, the grape-whispering steward who brings to fruition wonderful wines, who speaks to his horses and vines like a lover and friend. Of the times the vines may need rest saying, “It is a romance, give her a year to recover.”Both consider their team their family. The Vignobles Sullivan family know it is time to stop homogenizing.It is time to take these seasons we are seeing become more extreme and work with them. Time to allow them to guide our practices across the fields of architecture, design, landscaping, medicine, horticulture. Damian“knows the exact character of each barrel” made of only French oak. Tom knows the word oak in French from his years of flooring experience and much more.He is a mastermind of knowing a great buy. And his wines are a great buy now with a quality that far exceeds the price tag. Clearly the passion is present for both Tom and Damien. So what is the dream? “The dream is selling the bottles for Petrus prices”, Tom laughs, “No...just coming here it is like a dream, you see it and you know.” They make an unlikely and perfect pair. We will watch this racehorse of vintage speak; if Mother Nature wills it. This team is certainly at the ready to harvest and share the rewards and the secrets of the soil.