Alain Graillot, Influential Rhône Valley Winemaker, Dies at 77

Alain Graillot, who had never made a drop of wine when he arrived in the Crozes-Hermitage region of the Northern Rhône Valley in France in 1985 but became one of its leading producers, raising the reputation of its wines internationally, died on Friday at a hospital in Grenoble. He was 77.

His son Maxime said the cause was an aneurysm he had while skiing at Courchevel.

Mr. Graillot was a 40-year-old chemical engineer in Paris who had spent a few years working in Guatemala and Costa Rica when the winemaking bug hit him. He had no experience producing wine, but he was good friends with some of the leading winemakers in Burgundy, among them Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Morey-St.-Denis and Patrick Bize of Domaine Simon Bize et Fils in Savigny-lès-Beaune.

Burgundy was not a feasible destination, though, so he began looking for a place to make wine in the Rhône Valley to the south.

“The price of land in Burgundy was already very high, and the opportunities were rare,” said Jean-Pierre de Smet, a longtime winemaker in Burgundy who, along with Mr. Seysses, met Mr. Graillot while ski racing in the 1960s. “His grandparents and uncles were from the Rhône.”

While searching, Mr. de Smet said, Mr. Graillot found a vineyard in Crozes-Hermitage. Its owner had died in the middle of the 1985 growing season, and the heirs were looking for somebody to buy the grapes.

Uncertain about what to do, Mr. Graillot reached out to his Burgundian friends. Mr. Bize traveled to Crozes-Hermitage and surveyed the situation, Mr. de Smet recalled. He persuaded Mr. Graillot to buy the crop and helped him rent a winery there to make the wine.

Crozes-Hermitage at the time was a humble appellation that lived in the shadow, and the reflected glory, of its neighbor Hermitage, which was known for its majestic, long-lived wines — and from which Crozes had borrowed the illustrious part of its name.

The red wines from both regions, like almost all those from the Northern Rhône, were made from the syrah grape. But while the Hermitage vineyards were on a magnificent granite hillside, Crozes-Hermitage was a large, unprepossessing area, mostly flat and fertile, often better for fruit trees than grapevines.

“The odds were stacked against him,” John Livingstone-Learmonth, the author of “The Wines of the Northern Rhône” (2005), said in an email. “The wines of Crozes-Hermitage were cheap and of dodgy quality. It had just one wine, Paul Jaboulet Aîné Domaine de Thalabert, known outside the region.”

When the grapes were harvested, it was time for Mr. Graillot to make the wine. With no experience, he again called on his friends. Mr. Seysses sent Mr. de Smet, who had been working at Dujac.

“It was just the two of us,” Mr. de Smet said. “It was so difficult and exhausting, and the winery was in bad condition as well.”

They petitioned Mr. Seysses for more help, and in a few days others arrived to join the crew.

“The wine turned out excellent,” Mr. de Smet said.

One of the crucial decisions facing the novice winemaker was whether to destem the grapes before crushing and fermenting them or simply to process whole clusters of grapes, stems included. It was an aesthetic choice that would contribute to the character of the wine.

Mr. Graillot chose to crush the whole clusters on the advice of Mr. de Smet, who cited his experience at Dujac, where whole clusters were used. This choice, which went against the style then popular in Crozes-Hermitage, became a defining feature of Mr. Graillot’s earthy, savory red wines.

Within five years, Mr. Graillot had purchased a vineyard; built a winery; established his estate, Les Chênes Verts, though his wines were known as Alain Graillot; and moved permanently to Crozes-Hermitage. He farmed his grapes organically, and his wines soon came to be seen as benchmarks for the region.

Mr. Graillot was skilled, charismatic, energetic and humble, characteristics that helped make him highly influential in the Rhône, drawing dozens of other ambitious winemakers to try their luck making Crozes-Hermitage.

“In a little over 10 years, he powered Crozes-Hermitage into a respected, internationally recognized name,” Mr. Livingstone-Learmonth said, “led by his own brand of charm, dynamism, foresight and hard work.”

Alain Jean-Jacques Graillot was born on Dec. 10, 1944, in Lyon. His father, Daniel, ran a cement factory near Lyon, and his mother, Jeannine, was a home.

He trained as a chemical engineer and worked for a series of international companies before settling into a desk job in Paris in 1980. It was not for him.

As well as his son Maxime, Mr. Graillot is survived by another son, Antoine, five grandchildren and a brother, Denis. His wife, Elisabeth, died in 2019.

In addition to his Crozes-Hermitage wines, Mr. Graillot made an excellent St.-Joseph, from four acres he bought in another Northern Rhône appellation, and a little bit of Hermitage.

With his sons, he also made an extraordinary Moroccan wine, from a syrah vineyard he discovered while bicycling between Casablanca and Rabat. It was called Syrocco, a play on the name of the grape and sirocco, the wind that blows from North Africa to Southern Europe. In recent years, the two sons also made the Alain Graillot wines.

Just last September Mr. Graillot published a book in France, “Parcours de Vignerons: Éloge de l’Entêtement” (“Winemakers’ Journey: In Praise of Stubbornness”), a tribute to winemakers who struggled financially but were nonetheless dedicated to their craft.

Though he became a pillar of Crozes-Hermitage, Mr. Graillot always kept up with his friends in Burgundy, regularly skiing and cycling with them.

“He was instrumental to the group,” said Daniel Johnnes, the American sommelier and Burgundy expert. “He was called the ‘mouton noir,’ or black sheep, for being a Burgundian spirit in a Rhône body.”

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