Article – Wine, Women & Wrongs

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Wine, Women and Wrongs
By Elizabeth Sagehorn and Don Lipper

The history books are wrong, the French Revolution isn’t over quite yet.  In a little corner of Burgundy a quiet rebellion is brewing.  At the Domaine Serrigny Jean-Pierre & Filles, two attractive, unassuming, young sisters Francine and Marie-Laure Serrigny are turning the Cote d’Or on its collective ear, for the simple reason that they are women who own and run their own vineyards and winery.  This may not sound extraordinary to Americans, but in France it is nothing short of revolutionary.

“We are the 4th generation of winemakers” proudly proclaim Francine and Marie-Laure Serrigny.  It started in 1834 with their great-grandfather Ellie who was a talented sparkling wine-maker.  Not even the devastating Phylloxera epidemic of 1880, which destroyed all the vineyards in Burgundy, could dissuade them.  “For the next five years, [while the new immune, grafted vineyards were maturing], the men worked on other people’s farms or in factories in order to hang onto their land,” says Francine.

As the women grew up, they helped in the usual ways.  According to Francine, they and their mother did the more traditional female tasks, “helping in the vineyard during harvest time, stomping grapes, pruning and tying branches, making food for extra workers, labeling bottles by hand, etc.”

With four daughters and no sons, their father Jean-Pierre knew that a change would come with the next generation.  Either the operation would be sold out of the family, or one of the daughters would take over.  At that time and in that culture, both options were equally unimaginable.  “Our grandfather used to say, ‘if a woman comes into the winery while you’re making wine, it will turn into vinegar,’” says Francine.  Nonetheless, one day their father lined up his four daughters and asked “do any of you want to make winemaking your career?”

Two sisters opted out, but Marie-Laure and Francine jumped at the opportunity.   “We’d never even thought about another career,” says Marie-Laure. After earning their diplomas from the prestigious winemaking school in Beaune, they worked with their father and understudied winemaking until 1995.  That spring, both of their parents died.

It is a centuries-old tradition in Burgundy that when a member of a winemaking family dies, the rest of the community pitches in.  Without being asked they will simply show up and keep the harvest running smoothly.  When Monsieur Serrigny died, not a single neighbor offered assistance.  The sisters were completely abandoned by the friends and neighbors they had known all their lives.

Pretty soon the men in the neighborhood started pressuring them to sell their land.  Not only did their competitors see a rare opportunity to buy scarce vineyard land, but they considered it impossible for two women to run the whole operation.  Feminism has been slow to reach the viticulture industry.  Ten years ago there were no women running wineries.  Today, there are five.  The Serrigny sisters are the only ones who also own the vineyards and do all the hard labor in it, as well.

As it turns out, the fieldwork was the most difficult part of taking over.  When faced with the necessity of going out and trimming the vines, neither Francine nor Marie-Laure was enthusiastic about running the tractor.  Vineyard tractors are very tall and narrow and they bounce like crazy.  Their high center of gravity makes them prone to tipping over, as well.  Unfortunately, Marie-Laure lost the coin toss.  The only friend willing to teach her how to drive it was a local field hand who did so in secret so that the other men in the neighborhood wouldn’t know.

Francine and Marie-Laure knew that it was crucial for their first harvest to not only be as good as their father’s, but better.  As a result, they made one slight change in their process.  Instead of squeezing every last drop of juice from the grapes, they avoided unnecessary acidity by pressing them more lightly.  (Less contact with the skins meant less tannin.)  Their first vintage was lighter and fruitier, “More feminine” the critics said.  And more popular.  Their negociant (Boisset) gave them a score of 18/20.

Boisset also sent around a press release to the local wineries to make sure that everyone knew that the Serrigny sisters were serious and accomplished professionals.  Today, the same men who pressured the women to sell out slap them on the back in public. “Now they say, we made the right choice,” says Francine.

Domaine Serrigny produces four red wines:
·         Bourgogne Rouge
·         Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru “La Dominode”
·         Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru “Les Peuillets”
·         Savigny-les-Beaune

and three white wines:
·         Bourgogne Aligote
·         Bourgogne Blanc
·         Savigny-les-Beaune Blanc.

They are almost sold out of the 1997 vintage and have limited quantities of 1998 left.  They, like the other Burgundy winemakers, are finding that the 1999s are maturing very quickly.  They are fruity and ready to drink immediately.  Their per bottle prices range from 30F for the regional appellations to 72F for the Premier Crus (about $4-10).

Francine and Marie-Laure are planning on putting up a web commerce site in the near future.  In the meantime, if you’d like to order their wines, their address is:

Domaine Serrigny Jean-Pierre & Filles
Rue de Bouteiller
21420 Savigny-les-Beaune, France

Or they can be reached at:
001-3-3-80-26-11-75 Phone
001-3-3-80-26-14-15 Fax


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Last modified: November 29, 2007