From California to free life making wine in the 'Kansas of France'

Running an organic vineyard was never on the cards for this American until she travelled to France and fell for a Frenchman

Jennifer Buck and Didier Ferrier allow a natural balance to establish itself in the fields
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When native Californian Jennifer Buck turned her back on the US for a new life in France, she had no idea a career in the wine business awaited.

She is now co-owner of a successful organic vineyard in Aude, but back in 2001 she had only been in the country for a year when she fell in love and decided to stay.

“We both wanted the same things,” she says of Didier Ferrier, who hails from a tiny village called Douzens, near Carcassonne.

“To be independent in France, to make our own lives, that was our choice. I had to come from very far away to get it and he just kind of came home.

“In America, it’s very much less of a choice. You feel like you’re letting the next generation down if you don’t assume the same yoke.”

Initially, the couple had no plans to make wine

“It was really about agriculture, about working together and transforming four hectares of what we had inherited from Didier’s father,” says Jennifer.

“He called us up and said ‘All right, I’m retiring, who wants what?’. This is an area where land is not very expensive – it’s like the Kansas of France.”

Their project began in the vineyard. They worked for several years on reshaping and making it exactly how they wanted: “Letting grass grow everywhere, pruning hedges and making sure there was life everywhere,” says Jennifer.

“Then we could grow organic grapes, reduce yields and allow a natural balance to establish itself in the fields.”

Read more: What is the future of organic wine in France and do consumers care?

Read more: Dangerous pesticides found in areas around French vineyards

No pressure to sell all their wine at the start

“We didn’t have any investment we had to pay off because we were living in a little rented house, our kids were small and all our friends were farmers.

“We didn’t spend any money and we did everything by hand, by ourselves and with our friends.

“It meant that there was no stress to be immediately financially viable. We had enough to live on by selling wine through word of mouth.”

However, when a friend invited them on a holiday of a lifetime to Cape Verde, they realised that to afford the occasional extravagance they would have to make more money.

“We went out with the family and it was amazing. We came back and said: ‘Okay, we made that choice and now we have to sell some wine.’”

Online wine retailer Naked Wines approached them

From 2018 to 2019, Jennifer left the outdoor work to Didier and his father and stayed in the office to try to “build up some serious sales”.

During this time they were approached by online wine retailer Naked Wines, which Jennifer describes as a “miracle client” that gave them “a giant pile of money”.

The couple also started attending a wine fair in Montpellier.

They had initially dismissed such events as too big and commercial, but quickly realised they could be a big help to their business.

Read more: French vineyard dream - equipment needed to turn your grapes into wine

Identity of two grape varieties remains a mystery

These days, Colline de l’Hirondelle is firmly established as an artisanal winery, although Jennifer is quick to dispel any notion that success comes easily.

“It’s a wonderful life, but it’s like every life: it has all of the complications. But I do love it, I love working for myself.”

The couple have created two ranges of organic wine: the bottle-aged Les Classic[o], which includes a free-run rosé made from the little-known Chenançon grape, and Les Magnific[o], a unique set of limited-run ephemeral wines.

Included in the latter is La Joupatière, which blends 15 heritage varieties, all planted in a one-acre plot after the grape phylloxera insect devastated vines across France in the 1880s.

When asked if it is common for so many vines to occupy the same small space, Jennifer says it is usually found in very old vineyards.

“These were people who had their garden plot, who made their own wine and planted what was there. When phylloxera came along, a lot of these plots died.

“Châteauneuf-du-Pape has all these vineyards that have a million kinds of varieties, but here it’s very rare.”

There are two varieties of vine they have yet to identify. “We’ll have to do some sort of genetic research,” she says.

Freedom to experiment

The mystery around them, however, has given Jennifer and Didier an excuse to be creative with their winemaking and take a few more risks, such as using indigenous yeast.

“In a smaller cuvée [the name given to a particular blend of a wine, and typically of more than one grape variety], you can change whatever you want, because there are only 2,400 bottles.

“If it doesn’t do what you want it to do, you haven’t messed up 10,000 bottles,” Jennifer says.

“The thing I really enjoy about those ones is that I can drink what I made last year, so I see immediately the results of the choices we made in the winery.

“With the other, older wines that you’re ageing, you can’t see the results of your vinification so easily.”

Read more: A guide to the winemaker’s calendar in France

The couple are now keen to build on their success

“We have a bit more money so we can try stuff that requires a little investment,” says Jennifer.

“We’re working on plans to put solar panels on the house to get off the nuclear grid and to be part of a bottle-washing scheme. We’re going in that direction.”

However, she insists there is still lots to learn.

“I feel like with each step we’re starting out. I’ve taken over the winemaking for the past four years and still feel that I’m always picking up new things.”

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