Columnist, Food


Wine importer Martine Saunier: “Whenever the dollar is strong, everyone wants to be an importer.” (Martine’s Wines 2009)

When Martine Saunier began importing French wine to the United States nearly half a century ago, she helped create a market. Americans were discovering their love of wine and food, and California’s wine industry was embarking on a renaissance. We were ready for something new.

It was 1969. Saunier, born and raised in Paris, had moved to California five years earlier. She longed for her favorite wines of Burgundy, having spent her youthful summers at her aunt’s property in the Macon area helping in the vineyards and with harvest. The burgundies available in California were disappointing.

“They were all from the negociants in Burgundy,” she recalled during a recent visit to Washington, referring to the large brokers who used to dominate the market. “It was mostly bad wine.”

A San Francisco importer hired Saunier and sent her to France to search out small, family owned wineries. Over the next decade she combed through Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. With a mailing list she called “Martine’s Wine Cellar,” she introduced American oenophiles to the burgundies of Henri Jayer and Lalou Bize-Leroy and the Chateauneuf-du-Pape of Chateau Rayas. Those are iconic wines now, in part because Saunier discovered them.

In 1979, Saunier went into business for herself, as Martine’s Wines. She joined a Bay Area food and wine revolution. Kermit Lynch had begun importing wines from small family estates in France to sell at his store in Berkeley, and Chez Panisse was defining California cuisine. Martine’s Wines quickly became a label of quality, with national distribution.

Saunier sold her company in late 2012 but remains as a consultant and the face of the business. The company’s portfolio today remains France-centric but includes wineries from Italy, Portugal and the United States. Saunier has also produced and starred in three wine documentaries. “A Year in Burgundy” debuted in 2012, and subsequent films on Champagne and port completed the trilogy.

Saunier, 83, displays a classical elegance, with a permanent, comforting smile that seems to say, “Drink this, you’ll feel better.” Her wines share that classical elegance. They remain true to an Old World sensibility, resisting market trends favoring power and impact over finesse. Saint-Chamant Blanc de Blancs Brut, a champagne she added to the portfolio in 2008, resembles spun gold in the glass and tastes like a fine white burgundy with a spritz. The bubbles are an accent rather than the main show. Garnier et Fils 2014 Chablis from the premier cru Fourchaume vineyard is stony with a hint of smoke and a long, citrusy finish. The Domaine Monthelie-Douhairet-Porcheret 2014 Monthelie from the monopole vineyard Clos du Meix Garnier is light, fresh and focused: It knows what it is and what it will become, and seems determined not to stray from its path. A 2013 Cote Rotie from Domaine Burgaud seems perturbed to be pulled from the cellar so young, but with a little coaxing it reveals enticing blackberry and sage flavors as a hint of its future.

I asked Saunier how the wine market and industry had changed since she started her business. She reacted with the French “pfff” that can mean anything from dismissal to disdain to diffidence.

“There are so many wines now,” she said, pointing to California and other regions that have exploded onto the scene since the early 1980s.

“And, of course, whenever the dollar is strong, everyone wants to be an importer.”

Yet as the top wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy have skyrocketed in price, other regions have stepped up. “The Loire Valley is doing extremely well,” Saunier said, “as are the Rhone and Languedoc.”

Before moving to California in the ’60s, Saunier handled public relations in Paris for Japan Air Lines and Swissair. “My experience with the press helped me when I went into the wine business, because I knew how important the media can be,” she said. With the market becoming more diverse, public relations becomes more important.

“You see so many champagne growers who used to sell to the major houses but are now producing their own wines,” she said, referring to the trend in recent years favoring “grower” champagnes. “You see importer catalogues with pages and pages of producers no one knows anything about, and they have no placement in the market. That’s why marketing is so important.”

So what’s Saunier’s formula for success as a wine importer? Hard work, good timing, a dedication to quality — and a flair for the market.

food@washpost.com

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave Martine Saunier’s age as 82. She is 83.