Frédéric Picard, Huff's Winemaker: A Profile (January 27, 2011)
When you're a kid you don't dream of becoming a winemaker – unless you're the child of a winemaker. As a young boy growing up in France Frédéric Picard wanted to join Doctors Without Borders. His father was a doctor, a surgeon, living near Paris. "I liked his job because he was very close with people," says Frédéric.
But now as a successful winemaker at Huff Estates he can state quite candidly that he wasn't a good student and after his baccalaureate his father advised him to think twice about medical school. So he decided to take another route and study management and finance. But this field of study was not fulfilling. So where did the wine connection come from?
"My Dad was from Burgundy and we always had good wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux at home, so I always liked wine but it was never in mind as something really strong in the beginning. And then when I finished my studies I did my army service for a year (in 1996). When I came back I wanted to do something different. I wasn't really attracted to management and finance. I wanted to work outside. I always loved Nature. I wanted to have a link with Nature."
After finishing the fourth year of his MBA in Montreal at Concordia University, Frédéric went to Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, for two months to work on a farm. On his own on the prairies, he had a lot of time to reflect on his future as he sat on a tractor, seeding the fields for wheat, canola and barley. He reasoned, "I like wine; you work with Nature; you're a farmer basically except that there is chemistry involved." When he returned to France he told his mother (his father having passed away) that he wanted to study wine. He went to Beaune at the age of 27 and spent four years there and subsequently he took a further degree in oenology at Dijon. Concurrently he found a job in Vougeot at Domaine Christian Clerget, working with the owner and his wife for almost eighteen months, studying every Friday and working the rest of the week at the winery. And then he began to travel, spending another four years touring the world "to learn how to make wine." His travels
took him to California, Chile, Italy and South Africa. "I was trying to do two harvests a year," he recalls.
The farmer who had hired Frédéric in Saskatchewan, a family friend, wanted to find a vacation home in the south of France. Frédéric suggested to him that since he was heading for the wine industry, why not buy a vineyard which he would look after and his former employer could vacation there. Returning to France after his global experience he was ready to get involved in the vineyard project. It took six months of research to put a financial plan together. The year was 2002 and vineyard land in the south of France at that time was getting very expensive. They never did find what they were looking for.
But a chance meeting in the south of France with the daughter of a family friend set Frédéric off in an unexpected direction. The woman who would become his life's partner deflected him from his vineyard quest. Since the woman in question, Jennifer Hardenne, who used to work at the Globe & Mail as assistant editor on Report on Business magazine, was returning to Toronto and he had no job, he decided to follow her to Canada.
Frédéric's first job in the wine industry in Canada was with Peninsula Ridge in Niagara, working under a compatriot, Jean-Pierre Colas. He did the harvest with Jean-Pierre in 2002 and when that was done he was ready to return to France since there were few winery jobs available in Niagara. "Then Lanny Huff (the proprietor of Huff Estates) came to Peninsula Ridge," he recalls, "and Norman Beal told him we've got a French winemaker here who's looking for a job. That's how I met Lanny. A few months later I came to the County after Christmas. Lanny showed me where he wanted to build his winery. I was not really keen at the beginning. When I came here there were three metres of snow, minus 20°C and nothing to do here with wine. So I was not super-sold on the idea; but I liked Lanny's enthusiasm. Lanny is a visionary and he has the tools to be a visionary. And after working in countries where wine has been made for so long I thought, at my age, this
could be an exciting challenge. So I said to Lanny, I'll give it five years to try to build the reputation, the quality, the winery. And here we go, I'm starting my eighth harvest." And Frédéric's partner Jennifer Hardenne is well settled in the County too, having given up financial journalism to start her own local business, Amarais Artisans, making natural soap.
What is it about the County that keeps Frédéric Picard here? "I think the way of life here is extremely attractive. Not only because it's a good location. We're between the triangle of the three big cities in Canada, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. It's a beautiful place, especially in the summer with beaches. And it's an island. The island thing makes it something special. If you don't live here you don't feel that. Secondly, the people here have been very welcoming. And third, my job. If I was not happy here at first I'd probably be gone."
When he arrived eight years ago there were two wineries in the County and ten vineyards. Now there are thirty-two wineries and sixty vineyards. "We're the second largest vineyard area in Ontario after Niagara. So there's definitely something happening here. That's the energy which is more exciting for me, being one of the first. It's nice to see people coming now because of all the work we did the first few years, trying to produce wine, going to all the shows in Ontario to promote the County. At first when you were presenting a bottle of County wine people were saying, 'I don't even want to taste it.' So we had to fight that. It took us three years to make people listen. We have a lot of work to do but we went through the first stage pretty well."
And what did Frédéric's Burgundian experience bring to the County? "In Burgundy what I learned was to work more with my mouth and my nose. It was more the farmers' way than we do here. Of course, as a winemaker you have to work with numbers, you have to work with your Brix and your acidity to ensure the balance of your product. But we also know that the grapes show us the direction."
What would he like to accomplish? "Like all of us, I'd like to make our vineyards easier to manage and able to produce a certain amount of grapes that would allow us to produce 100% County fruit. But it's so difficult to grow grapes here I think we'll have to forget that. In Niagara a good vineyard can crop two, three, four tonnes per acre; here if you reach one tonne per acre you're lucky. I'm talking about ripe grapes. Some people produce two or three tonnes per acre but it's not always very ripe."
The Huff Estates South Bay Chardonnay 2007 that Frédéric Picard made won "The Best White Wine" at the 2010 Ontario Wine Awards, receiving the highest score for whites in the competition. "Chardonnay is such an interesting variety and it grows very well here. Whatever we can say, we're a white wine part of the country here. Not only are we a cold climate, we're a very cold climate. So it's always going to be easier to make a good white wine than a good red wine. For the people who make Pinot, I think it's great – and a lot of wineries have shown how Pinot can be excellent here – but I think white wine is going to be our strength here. And I do believe that sparkling wine can be something very special here."
And it is sparkling wine that intrigues him most. Frédéric Picard says he learned how to make sparkling over the telephone – talking to his friend David Henault, one of the winemakers at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte in Reims.