Working for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
For 15 years, I aspired to work with Domaine Romanee Conti. It was my lifelong dream. I wrote handwritten letters for years, expressing my passion and dedication. I told them that working for them would be my drive. I offered to work without pay, whether harvesting grapes or making coffee.
I directed my letters to Aubert de Villaine, the owner and then CEO. He's regarded as one of the most significant figures in the world of wine. Each year, his colleague would respond in his name, kindly informing me that they remain loyal to their longstanding harvesters, and unfortunately, there was no position available for me.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti produces some of the most prized wines in the world. On average, they produce roughly 5,000 bottles of Romanée-Conti annually. To put that into perspective, Château Pétrus produces 30,000 bottles, while Tenuta San Guido releases over 200,000 bottles of Sassicaia.
I've always been fascinated by Domaine Romanee Conti. A vineyard is so discreet that it's not open for public visits, with limited available information, yet consistently produces one of the finest wines. This exclusivity and mystery drew me in. Some experiences and privileges cannot simply be bought. While one might acquire a bottle of La Tache on the secondary market for 5,000 euros, with some bottles even fetching over 500,000 Euros, the privilege of direct distribution or visiting the vineyard is truly unique. Such opportunities are reserved for a select few, an inner circle of trusted individuals.
After persistent efforts for years, they finally responded positively. Their message was: "You have three days to arrive here to work and bring your birth certificate." The next day, I embarked on my journey to France. Upon arrival, I shared a room with two others, a floor with fifteen, and we all shared a bathroom. It was a great setting, and I cherished every moment. It's a point of gratitude for me that I was the first and perhaps the last to be accepted in such a unique manner. Although I can't share photos or delve into the intimate details of the domain, I can share general knowledge. For instance, restaurants with distribution agreements must adhere to a specific "codex": once a bottle is emptied, it must be destroyed, the cork returned, and a photo taken of the shattered bottle displaying its number alongside the date from a daily newspaper. In this manner, they aim to control sales in the secondary market, ensuring that even the most modest Auberge, with a longstanding relationship with the domain, can continue to offer wine at its original price.
Before this experience, my knowledge of French was minimal. Besides having co-built Revaia Fund I and spending time in France—where Elina graciously let me stay in her former apartment—I was relatively unfamiliar with the culture and language. Hence, I chose to observe quietly. My days began at 4 AM, followed by communal breakfasts, and then we'd commence work at 5 AM, harvesting until 3 PM. Those days were among the most fulfilling of my life. The warmth and acceptance of everyone at the vineyard humbled me. When I worked with Elina at Revaia, I was constantly amazed by the genuine care and hospitality of the French - the same at DRC. The harvesting season was brief, lasting only 15 days, but the memories and lessons will stay with me forever.
Here are some insights I'd like to share while still respecting the secrets I'm bound to keep.
1. A Day to Remember: We woke up early one day...
One day, we woke up early, boarded buses, and drove for 45 minutes to Montrachet, Cote de Beaune, France. We harvested a tiny parcel from the "Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru." It's a unique location, with the sun rising over green grapes — white wine, making the harvest particularly special that day. Afterward, we drove back to harvest another parcel. That day, Aubert allowed me to take a photo with him. Later, he asked me to sit next to him during lunch. He shared, “We all have our weaknesses. We need to help others weaken their weaknesses and strengthen their strengths. The greatest gift in life is to trust someone and to see them strive.” At 83 years old, with a lifetime of experience, being one of the most respected figures in wine, any restaurant would reserve him a seat. Every billionaire and influential person would cherish a moment with him; this was the wisdom he imparted. I understood that when we discover our passions, our "why" becomes about supporting others once we've found self-love. Trusting someone demands vulnerability and effort. Yet, witnessing others' successes becomes a deep joy when we muster the courage to embark on this journey, especially after achieving personal milestones. I deeply cherish this lesson and will always be thankful for his shared wisdom that day.
2. Lasting Impressions and Sustainability: Bertrand de Villaine, now director...
Bertrand de Villaine, now director, graciously drove me home on our drive back from Montrachet. We operated like one family, sharing everything. He mentioned that harvesting holds immense responsibility. The harvester leaves an imprint on the wine as the last to touch the grape before it's processed. Bertrand was always contemplative, caring deeply about the environment and discussing sustainable practices like eco-friendly baskets. Yet, he also stressed the importance of human connection, emphasizing that the best products arise from collaboration and individual responsibility. The harvesting process is paramount in winemaking since the harvester is the last human touchpoint for the grape. This involves more than technique and tradition (which is very important); it's about bonding with nature and others.
3. The Reality of Blue-Collar Dedication: Blue-collar work is grueling...
Blue-collar work is grueling. I once dreamt of bartending in San Sebastian, surfing each morning, and playing games at Plaza Mayor with friends in the afternoon. But the reality is that farm work, restaurant jobs, or bartending are demanding, and many might falter early on. As the saying goes, if you love a flower, you water it daily instead of picking it. DRC doesn't seek wine aficionados from Paris; they want diligent workers with the "courage" (buen courage) to persist, come rain or shine. Often, we romanticize blue-collar jobs and develop misconceptions about product origins. Wine production is fundamentally farming. It demands love, resilience, and commitment to a cause greater than oneself. DRC is discerning with its hires, seeking individuals with passion, responsibility, and unmatched dedication, and they come by trusted referral. When I completed my row, I would shift to the one on the left, and rather than harvesting upward, I'd work downwards to assist those who were slower. We began together, and we finished together. This bond was so strong that we always gave our utmost to support every colleague, ensuring no one was left behind.
4. Authentic Leadership in Action: Leadership means being hands-on...
Leadership means being hands-on. The entire family, irrespective of age, would harvest and be involved in wine production. They would work as hard, if not harder, than anyone else, always supportive. Aubert's presence was always palpable, even from a distance. After harvesting, he'd offer a refreshing glass of water and later join the harvesters for dinner, bringing wine for all. His family exemplifies authentic leadership, caring genuinely for each individual and wishing them the best. He always started a conversation, interacting as an equal, fostering a sense of unity and belonging among everyone.
5. Bonding Through Shared Purpose: When you bond deeply with coworkers...
When you bond deeply with coworkers, striving collectively for excellence, you become part of a community, a family, experiencing a sense of belonging. Harvesting demands concentration and physical stamina. It forces you to be present, clearing your mind of extraneous thoughts. Over time, this deepens your connection to nature and colleagues, fostering an indestructible, nurturing team spirit. Such unity and shared love contribute to making the wine exceptional.
6. A Timeless Legacy: In conclusion, the combination of fertile soil...
In conclusion, the combination of fertile soil, time-honored knowledge, tradition, legacy, and more makes DRC arguably one of the best wines globally, but all of the above makes it one of a kind. I'm eternally grateful to the family, Aubert, and my co-harvesters, with whom I maintain close ties, sharing experiences as part of the DRC family. Working for DRC is an immense honor, and I eagerly anticipate returning next year for another harvest. Thank you for everything, and a special thank you to the “Auberge” for always having me and taking me on!
PS: A heartfelt thank you to Perrine Fenal and Philippine Fenal for your guidance. I'm grateful for the rows we shared, the daily support, and the countless laughs we enjoyed together.