Interviews 19 March 2020

Interview: Michael Baum, Château de Pommard

After making his money in tech, Michael Baum bought Burgundy’s Château de Pommard and is now converting it to biodynamics

Words by Peter Ranscombe

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Château de Pommard was founded in 1726 and sits at the heart of Clos Marey‑Monge, Burgundy’s largest “monopole”, with a two-metre 19th-century stone wall encircling the estate’s 20 hectares.

This separation from neighbouring farms allows Silicon Valley entrepreneur Michael Baum – who bought the domaine with his wife, Julie Carabello, in 2014 – to switch to organic and biodynamic farming and winemaking, alongside converting the historic buildings into a new winery, wine school and five-star hotel.

When and where did you first become interested in wine?

When I first came to Europe on my honeymoon many years ago, Julie and I visited France and experienced the wines of Burgundy, the Loire, the South and Alsace. We fell in love with this Old World, lighter, more elegant, and nuanced style of wine.

How did a tech entrepreneur from Silicon Valley end up owning one of Burgundy’s historic properties?

For the love of wine. Anybody who comes to Burgundy comes for the wine – it’s definitely not for the weather. Although I’ve spent the past 30 years in California, I never really took a great liking to New World wines with their stronger alcohol, bigger tannins and more fruit-forward characteristics. I’m more of an Old World wine person. When we lived in Paris for a year, we searched intensely to get involved in the wine business in France. Two weeks before returning to San Francisco, a financial industry friend of mine told me about this opportunity.

I found biodynamic and organic wines scored higher than conventionally produced wines

What’s the welcome been like for the first American owning a Burgundian domaine?

In Pommard, everyone makes wine – the mayor, the dentist, basically every household has a winemaker. There are two parts to Burgundy: the people who are very protectionist and backward-looking; and the ones who look forward and embrace change. We’ve had tremendous support from the latter; we tend not to interact with the former.

Why have you chosen to focus on organic and biodynamic viticulture in Pommard?

It all started as a way to make better wine. Our winemaker, Emmanuel Sala, began his career 25 years ago making biodynamic wines in Alsace with Josmeyer. When he approached me about converting to full organic and biodynamic production, I went out to find research. The Journal of Wine Economics studied 74,000 reviews and ratings of fine wines, and found biodynamic and organic wines scored higher than conventionally produced wines that were already scoring 85 and above. This was a big deal. Over five years, through tasting and experimenting in the winery with different levels of sulphur, for example, we found that the difference was clear.

You’re known for licking rocks to ‘taste’ the soil and terroir of vineyards – what does this achieve?

Yeah, I went out into the vineyard and licked the rocks. As Julie says, we’re farmers now, so the soil matters to us. We found Burgundy has high alkaline soils; you don’t just have clay, sand or limestone, you have this mille-feuille of ten or 20 substrates of soils. The rock-licking started when I was in the Rhône. I was interested in these giant quartz rocks and wondered whether I could taste it in the wine. I convinced myself that I could.

What kind of experience will you give the growing number of tourists at Château de Pommard?

Our vision is to turn this into a serious wine place. We started our own professional wine school – even the maintenance staff here have their WSET Level 2 qualification – and opened it up to customers. In January, we’re opening a branch of our school in Paris because we’ve had a lot of demand from people who want to study in English.

You need bad weather to make great wine

Do you have any plans to bring young winemakers on board at Pommard?

Not only winemakers, but also people who want a career in wine. With the school, we’re launching a scholarship fund – named after Jérôme Aucourt, our head of commercial, who passed away this summer – for wine professionals who want to study for the WSET diploma. We also have our Rootstock association, which mentors young musicians and sponsors them to produce their first professional album.

Is there anywhere else in the world that you’d like to own a vineyard?

I love the Willamette Valley in Oregon; it’s the one place in America that I’ll drink wine from. In terms of topology and geology, it is fascinating; Canadian minerals washed down by ancient floods, and the decent amount of volcanic activity has created one type of soil right next to another. Like Burgundy, it’s on the 47th parallel so gets similar weather. You need bad weather to make great wine.

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