Vérité’s Father-Daughter Team On Making Wine Together

Food & Drink

Sixth-generation French vigneron Pierre Seillan is the winemaker at Château Lassègue near Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, as well as at Vérité in Sonoma County, where he works with his daughter Hélène Seillan, assistant winemaker.

As members of the Jackson Family Wines tribe, the Seillans have a unique perspective on making wine in California and France, teasing out prevailing commonalities and differences in their efforts to make wine appreciated on a global scale.

These partners represent two generations in a long line of winemakers, a father and daughter team with distinct skills and visions, both of which benefit the wine they make: La Muse, La Joie and Le Désir. The outcomes have been successful: Vérité wines claim fifteen 100-Point Scores from Robert Parker Wine Advocate, plus the recent addition of 100-point score from Jeb Dunnuck.

Meanwhile, this month Vérité announced the construction of a new winery facility on the current property near Healdsburg, California. According to a statement from Barbara Banke, chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines: “It is our hope that the continued success and evolution of Vérité, with the opening of the new winery, will be a source of inspiration for this generation and the next.”

This combination of generations and genders, cultures and coasts makes for an intriguing package. Here, father and daughter share their outlook on defining elements and how they work together:

Jill Barth: How is a family approach relevant for working as a winemaking team? Are there subtle (or giant!) advantages of working with people one knows so well?

Pierre Seillan: Working “en famille”, within a family, for a brand like Vérité is an advantage for the style. It’s key to keep the style of the wine and the style of the communication consistent.

Hélène Seillan: There are so many advantages of working with my family. In life and at work, we trust and respect each other, and I really believe that those are the fundamental elements to being successful as a team. We know each other very well. We can detect each other’s weaknesses and strengths, which means we can rest on one’s shoulder and help one another face challenges. Because there is no ‘turnover’ in a family, we always work for the future, transmitting the information, knowledge, and secrets…

 J.B.: How can members of the same family open up possibilities for one another to new experiences, horizons?

P.S.: When there is a good harmony within the family, working together allows everyone to comfortably express new ideas.

H.S.: It is much easier to be open minded to a new idea when there is trust and respect, whether it is from a family member, or even a colleague. 

J.B.: Working on both sides of the Atlantic, how does a multi-generational team enlarge perspective?

P.S.: Because we are a family that splits our time among multiple places it means we don’t have to always taste the same wine each time. This is ideal to “re-calibrate” the palate and it makes us learn to adapt to diverse climates. In this way, we are able to stay in touch with Mother Nature and not rely on protocols. 

H.S.: My father has always been a pedagogue. He has 50+ years of viticulture experience between France and California, and the fact that he enjoys teaching the young generation is key. One of the reasons we are such a good team is because he has an open mind to new technology and our new modern world.

On the other hand, he comes from a generation who worked with limited technology, a generation who did not necessarily go to school, and therefore had to work their way up their way up the chain in a more traditional manner. It’s a generation that had great common sense and often relied more on their instincts for making decisions. It is very important for me to live my life and work with this perspective in mind.

J.B.: Do you think it is a challenge to communicate about wine made by multiple generations?

P.S.: For us, it is not a challenge, it is security. It means our collectors and buyers—globally—are in a safe place when they consider the future of the wines we produce. Everyone, including our distributors and négociants, gets a guarantee for the quality from the Seillan vigneron family. We all work toward the same goal with the same voice.

H.S.: It depends as every situation is different, but in our case, I think being part of a multi-generation family that works together is a strength for us. I often get asked “What do you bring to the Vérité blends, will the winery be different when you are fully in charge? What will you change…?”

My goal is to continue making wines with the signature of Vérité: a wine that reflects the terroir first, and not the “winemaker.” This is one of the most important lessons I have learned, and this is what I hope to continue to do, it’s the vigneron way. I believe this type of information, when shared should be seen as a positive element for marketers, they can explain that the continuity of the estate is secure for consumers and collectors.

J.B.: As a father/daughter team do either of you feel that a combination of male and female influence brings particular layers to wine and winemaking?

P.S.: Working with my daughter brings new nuances. Hélène and I are complementary to one another as she brings particular sensitivities across a range of activities from working in the vineyards, vinification, barrel ageing and blending. I believe that some feminine palates have more sensitivity than male oenologists with high level diplomas. For the work we do, it is imperative to express your own opinion with no stress.

H.S.: My father always told me he believes women have the best palates, that we are more sensitive to certain details. It’s no surprise that my great-grandmother was the one who taught my father how to prune a vine and other important tasks in the vineyard. She was also the first one to taste when they opened a bottle of wine, and everyone in the family knew she had the best palate. 

I believe one of the reasons my father and I work so well together is because he has a lot of respect for women in the field. He often comes to me to double check something he’s thinking, and he trusts me. I feel very fortunate to come to work every day and to be respected as a woman, this brings me confidence and the strength to face any challenge.

J.B: In Sonoma and Bordeaux are there similarities in the way families consume wine together?

P.S.: As we have the pleasure to live and work in both Bordeaux and Sonoma with our children we share often a bottle of wine with our meals. For us wine is part of the meal. Opening a new bottle always brings some emotion, some surprise, and we are always glad to compare our notes and appreciation of the wine.

H.S.: I was born and raised in Bordeaux and was introduced to wine at a very young age. My grandpa used to put a little wine in a glass and would mix in some sugar and water to have me taste. This began at about 5 years old. It was a way to gently introduce my palate and nose to wine. I was always allowed to smell and taste out of my parents’ glass growing up, but I was also made to understand the respect that wine needed to be treated with. It wasn’t about drinking, it was about educating the senses. When we are young, we capture and soak up information so quickly.

Many of my friends at school had parents that did the same, so I think the culture in France is very open to introducing wine at a young age. This is a way to teach the children to respect this product, to learn how to drink it in moderation, and therefore to respect themselves.

Pierre and Hélène Seillan shared their perspective with me earlier this fall, before the outbreak of wildfires that currently threaten the region. As of the writing of this story, all members of the Vérité team are safe.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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