Updated: Oct 20, 2021
First woman Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) Sommelier Lauréate, Meilleur Sommelier de France 2018 and Chefs for Impact Member of the Board.
Pascaline Lepeltier, who grew up in the Loire Valley, is passionate about sustainable agriculture, hospitality, winemaking practices that reflect human care, biodynamic principles, and organic farming.
Photo credit: Cédric Angeles
By Pascaline Lepeltier as told to Chefs for Impact
Interviewed by Olivia Chessé
Where does your passion for wine come from?
Wine came as a savior at a critical time in my life, after a burnout following intense studies in philosophy. One day, when I was 23 years old and I was holding that glass of wine in a special environment with a specific person, it appeared as evidence. I felt both a real organoleptic pleasure as well as an intellectual satisfaction of having found something that could satiate my curiosity about the world. I like the complexity of wine, its connection to nature and people. It allows me to address deep environmental reflections and also to satisfy this idea that we have an ethical commitment and a professional responsibility of being a citizen of the world.
What drives you?
I have no interest in working for the 1%. Wine is a product that fascinates me. There is such an awareness of the need to change consumption habits that all my professional choices are dictated by how I can further this cause. I use wine to satisfy this need for awareness, education, and sharing. It is being able to make an impact in these areas through wine that drives me.
Has your current approach to natural wines always been your philosophy?
I am such a strong critically-minded person that it came to me extremely quickly. Moreover, I come from a wine region that was already at the forefront in this field. The very first winemakers that I met were incredibly passionate people, very committed to returning to another relationship with nature. In the first three months, I understood that the wines I wanted to defend were those produced in a specific agricultural mindset - not only about taking and using the vine as a tool, but about a collaboration good for both the vigneron and the vineyard .
What is wrong with part of the current wine industry and what is the source of the problem?
The vineyard is a monoculture that uses a plant called Vitis vinifera, the most qualitative species of Vitis in making wines. This European species today is sensitive to some diseases that make its cultivation without chemicals possible but much more demanding. For a century, we have been working with this plant and the only solutions that have been offered are chemical interventions or genetic evolution. Historically, there has been an immediate collusion between chemistry and the development of viticulture. There is too much money invested in this embedded system and the financial stakes are enormous. Currently, the research and development in Bordeaux is partially financed by these oenological and chemical enterprizes.
Are there any regulations that allow the consumers to choose more natural wines consciously?
In Europe, wine is the only food product that gets away with not needing to disclose ingredients nor additives. Unlike chefs, sommeliers work with a processed ingredient, in fact a finish product (while historically sommeliers were in charge of bottling the wines in their restaurant from barrels shipped to them - they were part of the process - not anymore). Consumers must be aware that certain wines can have nothing added during their process while others may have up to 70 additives* in their composition. If you include the adjuvants**, the total number could rise up to 110 in Europe, more in the US or in China.
There is a lot of lobbying in Brussels at the moment to change the minimum declaration of pesticides (and their residues) in wines, which is being pushed by lobbyists to make sure that the threshold does not require you to disclose the vast majority of residue products. Europe should impose higher criteria in order to offer consumers more information about the content of their wines. Unfortunately we are far from that. The current legislation was created to protect the non sustainable production methods.
Nowadays, there is so much greenwashing that we mix all the labels and production methods which can sometimes be confusing. Sometimes, Natural wines, organic farming, and biodynamics are put under the same umbrella which is technically not possible. The difference, being subtle, is very difficult for the consumer to determine.
* a substance added to preserve the wine which leaves residual traces
** a compound added to the wine which leaves no residual traces
What is the difference between the different types of sustainable farming practices?
Sustainability can take different paths for viticulture.
First, some of the wines produced in organic farming, certified, have a list of authorized products to use both in the vineyard and in the winery, with third-party control. The idea is to be very careful about your input, both amongst the vine and in your wine, but it is like using phyto-product and not classic medication when you are sick. It is focusing on the cure more than the prevention. The winemakers are following mandatory and legal regulations that are slightly different between the US and Europe.
Another way of farming is biodynamic. It is a forward-thinking aspect of giving back to the terroir and to the plant what it should not have not lost because of industrial farming. Instead of curing the disease, biodynamic processes work to rebuild the system of the plant by reconnecting that plant to the overall environment and energy in order to recreate a real ecosystem. Plants, herbs, and mineral preparations are used throughout the production process where no chemical molecule is allowed. The list of product used and practices authorized is very short. You can find biodynamic farming (which originated in Austria) everywhere in the world but it is not a legal regulation : it is overlooked by private associations (Demeter, Biodyvin, etc.) with also third-party control.
Another sustainable production method is regenerative, also called permaculture, and can be followed by organic and biodynamic vignerons. The idea is to work in a way that you give back to the land what you took by farming it, and you use the natural synergies of nature in the farming - the “do-nothing”. To do so, you have to be very hands-off and work with the natural cycle of plants, animals, and insects. There is no plowing, no tilling and you let the root system of the grass do all the work that is needed to do to decompact your soil.
Finally you have some sustainable practices where the idea is not just focusing on the chemical input, but on the larger input of making wine : carbon footprint, recycling, water et energy management, larger environmental concerns, and of course social aspects while maintaining the economic viability of the business. Some wineries are very committed to all of the above, but may still farm conventionally their vineyards.
It is a very complicated subject, because it concerns so many aspects.
How can the wine industry become more sustainable?
We need to completely rethink agricultural practices. Once affected by phylloxera [an invasive pest], the vine dies. To remedy this, we had to rootstock with plants that were less sensitive to this aphid. Previously, a non-grafted vine could age up to 500 years. Today, the average duration of a vine is 15 years. The vine has become a simple production tool that we let die to replace it with a new one. Today we destroy things that we will be unable to put back in place. We are going to become more and more intelligent and more and more efficient, but at what cost?
According to me, the solution is to train professionals and enlightened amateurs to give them another way of thinking. But the basic problem is that financially and in the media, our message is not getting attention.
The consumer has been used to consuming chemical molecules and his palate has been trained to define taste that way. How to change what our taste buds dictate to us and the information they send to our brain?
There is a lot of education to be done, especially for the two most recent generations. This is where you get out of the criterion of “good”: good is key, but you have to understand that there is an ‘organoleptic good’ and a ‘physiological good’. I believe, from personal experience, that your body can recognize the molecules that are good for it.
Once you start to taste wines, but also ingredients, and food, farm in respect of the balance of the plants, of their soils, of their seasonality, etc. you can’t stop - your body recognizes the difference extremely fast. You don’t need a lot of talk, you need access to better food and better wines - which does not mean much more expensive. But it should start at the youngest age, and at school - this should be a fundamental part of the education system. This is what Jacques Puisais was doing in France...
Has the perception of natural wines evolved ?
At the beginning it was a spontaneous movement launched by people who had identified the problem. Then, unfortunately, it was publicized on the issue of sulfur, which is an additive that you find in many food products including wine. The addition of sulfur allows you to stabilize your wines but it can affect the yeast population, its structure and at the end the taste of the wine and the link to its terroir. The problem is that people today only see the final product and equate it with chicken house smells, because there is no sulfur. Producers are surfing on that because they are not organic or biodynamic, and their clients don’t ask about the vineyard nor social practices … It is just easier to say “no sulfur” for a wine to sell… sadly.
How do you change perception in the eyes of the general public?
The change must come from consumers who must demand more transparency in the ingredients that make up a wine. Consumers must refuse to consume chemical products [that are included in their wines] without knowing. A movement must be created and it must be supported by legislation. At the level of professionals, many prefer to buy the latest fashionable wines rather than questioning the production methods. It is important to know that the sommelier training does not include any technical training module, even though we work with an extremely processed and chemical product. Change will come through education.
Where will you be in 10 years?
My project is to open a training school to have an impact on a larger scale. Currently we are in a reproduction of the educational model that does not evolve, or little, towards more responsible practices, so I want to reinvent it. The problem is that we use resources to make a product whose only validation system is economic growth and profitability. My approach would rather be first about critical thinking and understanding what is behind what is taught (which interests are at stake, which vision of the world is implied, etc.). Tasting, which is key to feeling the difference, will be based on using as much intuition as rationality, which is more accessible to everyone, everywhere in the world, to really understand we need to collaborate, respect what comes from nature in general. It is a win and win. We can continue to over consume the way we do. How can I train the next generation of sommeliers or wine buyers to actively understand the impact of their job - as wine has this special place in agriculture, and is for sure at the forefront of the necessary changes that need to happen.
Currently students are taught to taste industrial wines. Natural wines are usually rejected as not qualitative. I would like to change the system of validation, appreciation and consumption.
I’m dreaming of a place that would reinvent the way we interact with our environment, without the dominating side that humans have had for centuries, so that our production systems allow nature to regenerate itself.
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Photo credit: Adelaide Chantilly during Chefs for Impact Sustainable wine class with Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier