September 23, 2009

A Head for Wine

Peter Hahn, A86, ditched a career in business to run a vineyard in France

By Helene Ragovin

A decade ago, Peter Hahn, A86, seemed an unlikely candidate to transform himself from an international business consultant to a professional winemaker—in France’s Loire Valley, of all places.

“When the word got out during the harvest, we had all these local winemakers come watch what we were doing,” says Peter Hahn, sampling his wares at his vineyard. “They were amused, and bemused, but also impressed and enthusiastic.” Photo: Courtesy of Peter Hahn

True, he had a passion for enjoying fine wine, acquired some years earlier during his study-abroad experience in Europe. But he didn’t speak French; he’d never worked on a farm; he had little of the in-depth knowledge of viticulture required to run a commercial vineyard. And the French wine industry itself was in crisis, facing unprecedented competition from New World wines—not exactly the place to gamble one’s life savings.

There’s a fine line between self-confidence and self-delusion—and some of Hahn’s friends suspected he had indeed crossed it. But today, the expat from New Jersey is succeeding at one of the most French of endeavors: cultivating chenin blanc grapes in an area where they have grown since the 4th century and producing a top-quality Vouvray. In fact, Hahn’s first vintage was singled out for mention in Revue du vin de France, a prestigious and widely read French wine journal—a significant accomplishment for any beginning vintner, let alone a foreigner who insists on farming with organic techniques and pressing his grapes by hand on a renovated 60-year-old press.

“Here I had this amazing, crazy idea that this American is going to show up in the middle of nowhere and make wine,” says Hahn, whose 10-acre micro-winery, Clos de la Meslerie, is located in Vernou sur Brenne, in the Touraine region, near Tours. “I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. I guess it’s something about my personality.”

But the dream did not come true overnight; it took years of painstaking effort and careful planning. Hahn was working in the London offices of the Monitor Company, a global management consulting firm, when, motivated by visits to a Parisienne girlfriend, he decided to move to France.

Once settled in Paris, the girlfriend was eventually out of the picture, but another love continued to flourish. “When you live in France, you can’t escape wine,” Hahn says. “I did some good, hard thinking—what was I really passionate about? And this notion of being involved in wine somehow came to the fore.

“At first I started talking to people about the business side of wine; I thought about working for a big winery, in marketing or business strategy. But underneath it all, I knew that wasn’t going to do it. I had to get back to the earth.” And so began an ambitious—some would say quixotic—journey.

Hard Pressed

In the mid-1990s, the French wine industry was undergoing considerable economic upheaval, particularly among the small producers. “There were vineyards for sale, at prices that weren’t too prohibitive,” Hahn recalls. “So I thought, if I want to make a go of it, this might be the way to do it.”

He found a small Loire Valley vineyard with a wine-making history dating back to the 17th century. Never mind that the house was about to collapse, and that wine hadn’t been made on the property for about 15 years. The vines, in fact, were under lease to other winemakers and it was five years before Hahn could even get the rights to the vines back.

He threw himself into the physical labor of renovating the sprawling house, with some two dozen rooms; eight years later, he’s only about two-thirds finished. He also transformed some out-buildings on the property into holiday cottages, to ensure himself some rental income.

With the help of some local “old-timers” he even restored a mechanical hand-press and used it to press the grapes for his first vintage in 2008—a rare practice nowadays, when even the smallest of vineyards rely on mechanical, steel presses.

“It was insane, absolutely insane,” he recalls of the harvest. “It was the most physical exertion I’ve ever had in my life.” The advantage of the manual press is that it brings forth only the “first-run” juice; the main disadvantage is that it has a much lower yield than a mechanical model.

“We had about a quarter of the average yield per acre,” Hahn says. “That’s a big difference, and you can’t sell this type of wine cheap; obviously, it’s all about aiming for a quality, unique product.” It’s also a labor-intensive method of production; “if we grow, I don’t know whether we’ll be able to continue pressing all the grapes this way,” he says.

“When the word got out during the harvest, we had all these local winemakers come watch what we were doing,” Hahn says. “They were amused, and bemused, but also impressed and enthusiastic.”

A similar skepticism from his wine-making neighbors greeted his decision to use organic methods of grape-growing, which rely on practices such as planting native grasses between the vines to control pests, instead of spraying, and plowing the earth under the vines to get rid of weeds and oxygenate the soil. “You’re planting native grasses? What’s wrong with you?” the vignerons asked.

Being an outsider didn’t help. “There’s always this love-hate thing between the French and the Americans,” Hahn says. “Obviously, I was trying to be very sensitive to cultural issues, and always tried not to come across as an arrogant American; I was here to learn, and I respect the French tradition of winemaking.

“There were definitely times when I would get looks from the local winemakers, and I knew they were wondering, ‘what does that guy think he’s doing?’ But I was good friends with a lot of young, organic winemakers, who are seen as somewhat revolutionary, and I kind of got bunched in with them, and that helped mitigate that I was an American,” he says. “Sometimes you’re not sure if they’re laughing at you or with you, but I never felt that I was not basically welcome.” 

When in France…

The physical labor of restoring the property and working the vineyard isn’t the half of it. Hahn, who studied German at Tufts, had to learn a new language (“The French are not crazy about speaking English,” he notes wryly) and earn a professional diploma in enology, the science of winemaking and viticulture.

“In France, because of the extreme regulations concerning food and wine, you’re not allowed to make wine commercially unless you have certain qualifications,” Hahn said. He attended an agriculture and viticulture institute part-time for two-and-a-half years—supporting himself in the meantime with freelance consulting work—to earn a Brevet Professionel Agricole, the certificate he needed to operate the vineyard.

“I have to say, I’m almost as proud of that degree as I am of my bachelor’s degree from Tufts and my M.B.A. from Dartmouth,” he says.

“It was a real challenge. I had two young kids and I’d come home; study my winemaking; do my homework, and at the same time, I’d be on the phone to New York or wherever, working on my consulting; keeping the whole thing afloat.

“My friends who are still in banking and consulting can go off to Tahiti for a fancy vacation—well, at least before the current economic crisis—and I’ve had to stay here, work on the house, tend to the vines,” he says. Yet, he says, it’s a choice he does not regret.

“It was a big gamble, but with each little step I took,” he says, “suddenly it seemed not only possible, but it was giving me more and more pleasure and joy.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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