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Day April 11, 2013

A Life in Wine: Frederic Panaiotis, Chef de Caves for Ruinart Champagne

Talking with Frédéric Panaiotis

“There is a French saying,” Frédéric Panaiotis tells me. “Help yourself and the sky will help you. I like this. This is my motto.”

Frederic Panaiotis

Frédéric Panaiotis, the Chef de Caves for Ruinart Champagne

I met Frédéric Panaiotis after arriving embarrassingly early to a private Ruinart dinner due to a mix-up with my driver. He and Nicolas Ricroque, the champagne’s brand director, welcomed me warmly and offered bubbles to set me at ease. We began with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and their dinner’s good view. Later, with food, we’d also step back into older vintages of Dom Ruinart paired with courses made for us by the talented chef Michelle Bernstein.

Ruinart began as the oldest established champagne house in the world, founded in 1729, at a time when bottling the beverage had been illegal. With its forbidden nature, so the story goes, it was desired and enjoyed at the court of Versailles, where the original Ruinart family was friendly. Over drinks one evening with the king, Nicolas Ruinart had an epiphany. His champagne would please. The Ruinart “wine with bubbles” business began September 1, 1729 with the intent of offering unique gifts to Nicolas’s fabric customers–the family owned a cloth company–but within six years of founding the bubbles venture it dominated the family interests and by 1735 they shifted entirely to champagne.

Now, a little less than 300 years later, Ruinart persists, founded on blending strategies with a focus on chardonnay. Today, Frédéric Panaiotis serves as the house’s Chef de Caves, or chief winemaker, in charge of nursing the grapes from vineyard to vin clair (champagne’s first step still blend), to bubbles, all with the intention of maintaining the Ruinart house style.

It is this willingness of the winemaker to give over to something older and longer that gives champagne its persistence and brilliance both. Panaiotis recognizes he is part of this longer tradition. “When you join a champagne house,” he tells me, “it is important to understand my name will not stay.”

Panaiotis emphasizes the importance of this history. “In California, a winemaker can make their mark on a house, and that is understandable. But, in Champagne, it is different.” He continues, “In Champagne, you should never remember who was making the wine 40 years ago. He is just one of the guys making sure the wine style is the same.” The comparison highlights two different models of success–one of persistent innovation, on the one hand, and one of established grace, on the other, both to be valued but for different contexts.

Panaiotis discusses the history of Ruinart w Morimoto's help

Frederic Panaiotis discussing Ruinart champagne at a special demonstration with Chef Morimoto, Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2013

Panaiotis strikes me as a man full of grace, and gravitas both. As much as he regards himself well integrated into a larger team–both historically and currently–he also acts as the facilitator of that team’s larger goals.

It is in listening to Panaiotis, I am struck by how the two models–California and Champagne–showcase not only different ideas of history, but also differing examples of leadership. He appreciates the value of both approaches, having resided in Mendocino for almost three years between 1989 and 1991, assisting in the production of sparkling wine for a California label.

Now as chief winemaker for Ruinart, Panaiotis emphasizes the strength of the house band. “When it comes to winemaking, a well-honed team is so much more efficient and reliable. There can always be someone that is sick, but not all of us. So, the response, the assessment of the wine has to be done by the team, not one person.”

Successful focus on the group together, however, depends on also recognizing each individual’s talents. Creating that well-honed contingent, Panaiotis explains, comes from smartly utilizing each person’s abilities. “I must understand who on the team is more competent, more sensitive on certain areas than others.” In describing his meaning, Panaiotis uses himself as example. If he is feeling off one day, it’s necessary for him to recognize who around him can be more effective. “Everyone has expertise, skill in something.” He says, “I have to recognize that. Then I can trust you. Then the team responds. Whoever from the team for each part of what we’re doing.” Panaiotis emphasizes the advantage of this approach, “it’s very satisfying and more fun when we all work together.”

Nicolas, Michelle, and Frederic

Brand manager, Nicolas Ricroque, Chef Michelle Bernstein, and Frédéric Panaiotis doing final preparations for dinner

Getting Panaiotis to discuss his time in California uncovers an aspect of his character I suspect is foundational–curiosity coupled with systematic study. His education focused on the sciences, taking him through a career that has included chemical wine analysis, years of research on cork taint, and several positions making sparkling wine, in both California and Champagne. Talking about his work in Mendocino, Panaiotis tells me about his studies. “I took Spanish while I was working in California. Wine is great. With wine, you learn something everyday.” He references an idea we both agree upon–the more you know, the less you know. “But with me, it is not enough, so I study languages.” Currently Panaiotis is getting started with Mandarin.

It is not just a thirst for more knowledge that drives Panaiotis, it is also an interest in deeper understanding. We touch on the idea of food and wine pairing, a subject common to the world of wine. But with Panaiotis it blooms into a conversation about culture, recognition of values and ideas. Panaiotis’s thinking is multi-layered throughout. To understand food and wine pairing more effectively, he studies other languages.

He explains his reasoning. “Language is a key aspect of learning how people think,” he offers. “I am always interested in food and wine pairings. Language is key to understanding a culture’s ideas.” By recognizing the ideas of another culture, you gain new insight into flavors and food relationships as well. The various forms of study, then, all circle back, even while revealing something new in themselves. It is both that are true.

In discussing Panaiotis’s wealth of experience he reveals again his blend of grace, and gravitas, coupled with what I recognize as genuine humility, a trait he already revealed through his discussion of team work and leadership–a person of genuine humility, I believe, recognizes what they are genuinely good at, while understanding too there is always more to learn.

Through the Ruinart dinner, and the next day’s Morimoto cooking demonstration, Panaiotis showed his talent for pairing food and wine, an ability clear throughout our discussion as well. But he understands the source of his own strengths. “I am not gifted.” He explains. “People think I am gifted in food and wine pairings. No. No. No. I am not gifted.” As he speaks he is utterly sincere and to the point. “I work very hard all the time to keep learning.”

The hard work Panaiotis puts into his job he also does with clear gratefulness and joy. “I don’t make champagne,” he tells me. “I make something to make people happy. Putting a smile on people’s face, that is my job. How many people can say that?”

***

Thank you to Frederic Panaiotis for including me, and taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Nicolas Ricroque.

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