Interview with Jean-Michel Bernard

Jean-Michel, hello



My first question is a practical one: I would like to know how long you have been working at Château Mazeyres, and what position you hold.

I arrived at Mazeyres in May 1999. That makes it 19 years (smiles). To begin with, to get used to this new location, I had some basic responsibilities as a team leader, mostly with permanent staff and then with casual workers during the summer, as we were exclusively doing leaf thinning and crop thinning work.


So you finally arrived at your current position as head of winegrowing, is that how you would describe it?

Yes, that’s right. It happened gradually, as I discovered things and adapted, since I came from a small estate where I was working virtually alone and which had different needs. Alain Moueix gradually delegated a selection of tasks to me. Mazeyres’ needs were evolving. Alain was of course the manager, but he was also gradually putting together a team, and the château needed to develop and become better represented across the world. This growth called for increasing autonomy and a real sense of initiative, always in very clear consultation with Alain. Ultimately it all happened fairly quickly. It was not very formal, but Alain made me aware of my role’s development prospects, and I started to take on increasingly precise and important responsibilities. This growth curve has lasted for nearly 20 years, but has been very intense. There were years and years of strong progress in terms of quality on every front: the quality of the relationships, the staff, the work performed, the grapes, and of course the wine all developed together. We took things on at a certain level and elevated them to a much higher one.


As well as this upward climate, how else would you describe the working atmosphere at Mazeyres?

For my part, I try to establish true teamwork with all that involves. It means voicing your skills, questioning yourself where necessary, learning every day, helping others, and being able to anticipate and let synergy do its work. This is a synergy of expertise, but also of states of mind. We combine personalities in an attempt to bring these unique characteristics together to form a single whole. One person’s problems affect everyone else. Similarly, one person’s errors affect everyone else. If someone runs into difficulty, anyone in the team should be able to tell them so with the necessary level of respect. It is long-winded work and is definitely not easy, but I value it very highly. Everyone is on hand to help others out if they have concerns. It is very important that no-one is left on their own to deal with problems that could adversely affect their life and work. I want people to arrive here with a smile, and not with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach. We are not completely tension-free, but we all have to be vigilant to make sure that this never escalates.


Your vision includes the natural respect for people and things that Alain Moueix introduces everywhere he has a responsible role. You share a way of looking at things that is very rare in a working environment, or rather that is rare beyond the words that we hear all over the place but are often not backed up by reality.

I was brought up that way. When I think about a team, I think of sport, because I did a lot of sports and in particular team sports. My way of thinking in my work comes from this experience. We have a job to do, and although we are not trying to break any records, we are still trying to achieve the best possible results. There is nothing easy about this, and sometimes I can get caught up in the tension of failing to achieve a particular goal. It is frustrating to put considerable effort into something and not succeed. But I calm myself, and above all try to understand why we did not achieve what we wanted to. Sometimes that is down to me and the fact that I have not explained myself correctly, and sometimes the error is not mine and I need it to be identified, as I always want to know where we went wrong so that we can avoid making the same mistake again. It is about working on yourself. It is not easy, but it definitely pays off. And it gives everyone back their own responsibility. And although I can sometimes be harsh or irritated, I am not a fan of treating employees poorly.


Although you could argue that you would take this state of mind with you whatever your workplace or role, would you say that your role as head of winegrowing for a biodynamic estate is different to what it would be on an estate using conventional winegrowing?

Definitely. The transition to biodynamics has been very interesting. It changes huge amounts of our approach, both at my level and for every single member of the team. We have a much better understanding of what we are doing and why. To begin with, there was a lot of laughter. The concepts in question were not something that we were used to. However, despite the slight mocking, the atmosphere was positive and it felt like what we were doing was serious. The person asking us to make the changes was not just anyone, and we trusted him implicitly. We also had the example of Fonroque to follow, giving us tangible support. I personally experienced a major upsurge in my interest in my work and feedback from the team was positive. All of our work was done in the state of mind demanded by biodynamics and in accordance with the intended processes. There is a highly developed link between the actions that give meaning to what we do. Actions on a particular day are not detached from those planned for the following day, and this link allows us to keep moving forward. It has brought passion to my work. I share my knowledge in this area with the whole team, and the questions I am asked prompt me to find answers that are new to me. This transparency and pooling of elements gives everyone a level of autonomy in their thinking and action. I am very present because although I follow a programme of work, this is also based on what is happening in any given moment and may need to be tackled urgently. I am a big fan of this flexibility in accomplishing our tasks, and it is important to me that the team is not made up of implementers who do not want to get involved and react nimbly to whatever occurs. They need to be able to do things and to get things done. Delphine and Mathilde can explain, demonstrate and initiate all kinds of vineyard work. I may need to check that the instructions given and the reality on the ground fit together seamlessly, keep on in order to obtain the desired result, or change method to perform a task, but either way I always listen to what the land is telling me in order to improve what is required. Ideas should not be set aside until they have been tried. Everyone is free to suggest methods, which creates a sense of upward movement. This can sometimes be disruptive, but the further this goes, the more relevant I find the suggestions. It is becoming increasingly stable and we trip up less and less often.


In music, dance and theatre (my favourite genres), once the greatest choreographers, directors and composers have chosen their subject matter and established their aims, they work with the materials provided by performers. Body and intellect do better with things they have designed than with things that are imposed upon them. How you describe your work makes me think of this. You structure the scattered elements brought to you by members of the team like a choreographer weaving together the choreographic phrases offered up by the performers and shaping them into a single piece. This creates a richer entity than the sum of its parts, and a hugely relevant path to the desired result.

I am self-educated, which helped me in this experience with biodynamics. I did not have any set ideas to unlearn before I could understand how things I had never heard of might work. We operate within a framework, but our working method develops depending on how the environment reacts. I do not like feeling straight-jacketed and I like to work consciously. I often push employees to study what is being done and what they are doing, in order to encourage them to determine their own settings for a machine or their own set of actions for a manual task. I invite them to stop at the end of a row and look at what is working or not working and what can be improved, focusing on a solution that they have found themselves. There are numerous parameters that an employee can directly affect. Heading more slowly down the rows and just adapting to a plot that is different from one day to the next or to different weather in the morning or afternoon. There are plenty of possible routes, with the most personal undoubtedly the most effective. Examining your own work and being proud of it and able to constructively criticise it is hugely important.


I hugely admire the generosity of an attitude like yours. It is an opportunity to be encouraged to do the same in your work, because you have that awareness and also cultivate an approach to how you speak to others, cook, or in fact do anything at all. It is an infection of positivity. I am a fan of awareness, because I consider it to be a characteristic of civilisation and a fragile concept that is often in danger of being abandoned in favour of an easy life.

It is true that it can give you inspiration for your everyday life. When I arrived here, I had never worked the land. Unfortunately, the place where I worked before this did weeding. Whilst my colleagues were on a break, I would have a go on the tractor. I spent a long time learning how to use a non-reversible plough. This is one of the most complex tasks to perform and succeeding involves investing a lot of yourself. We do not use this tool very much here, as it takes a lot of time and we have quicker ways to achieve the same result, but at the time I put a lot of effort into experimenting with the freedom we were given to adapt to the situation and how this could significantly change the end result. You can gain a lot by taking time. You have to be flexible, and this is not a skill that all possess in equal measure, but it can be developed. The greater the volume of history, culture, habits and practices that have not been questioned for a long time, the greater the inertia. For example, pruning practices here have changed considerably. Now, we prune the vines with a knowledge of both why (of course) and how we are doing so, whereas before we were simply repeating what we had learned to do without really thinking about developing this crucial practice. We had to tell people to do things differently without making them think that they had spent twenty years doing it wrong. Delicate but necessary. Today, pruning at Mazeyres is exactly as it needs to be. It took time, but we have time (laughs).


And in all of this time that has elapsed, are there one or two key moments that come to mind and you would be happy to share with us today?

There are many of them and it is hard to choose one, but one key moment for me was the year 2005. It was a year when we solved many problems, which of course did not happen in isolation: the change was a very complex one and 2005 was the year when all the stars aligned. The weather, the team composition, the general state of mind, the quality of the harvest – everything came together. It would be wonderful to have many years like that one. Not every year, because the pressures and imperfections that arise are also of interest, but easier years like this one are pleasing. Also because we worked hard to achieve a coming together like this one. On a human level, there was nothing like it. The weather was superb, hot but not like 2003, whose excesses nevertheless also provided valuable experience. The quality of the grapes was so high that at the time, I thought we had reached our peak. But even better things were yet to come.

The second key event was our famous transition to biodynamics, which felt like a huge step into the unknown. Without a parachute (laughs). We could all measure our confidence in what we could do alongside Alain Moueix. We knew that he would not be leading us down a dead end, but sometimes we were slightly flying blind whilst things were utterly clear to him. We moved carefully with small experiments and tests here and there, a few infusions, a few preparations, you could try out whether one thing or another worked, but even in this very progressive atmosphere it was not easy to understand everything. Fortunately we had the example of Fonroque, which had been using biodynamics since 2003. I had fairly regular contact with Laurent Nougaro, technical director of Fonroque, and I was able to witness many things. Sometimes I would be confused and disoriented to begin with, but I was curious and I could see that it was working. I also went all over the place to see other estates that could offer an instructive example. The great thing was the fact that we could act and observe on our own. Alain Moueix relied on our pragmatism and our common sense, and it was gratifying to have qualities such as these recognised to tackle practices as intuitive (and sometimes abstract) as this. We did some vital things that only cost a very small amount of money. Everyone came up with an idea, suggestion, implementation, and were happy and proud to be able to say that we were the ones who set a particular thing up by ourselves without it costing the company a fortune. And if these things remained in place, it was also because they had been implemented in this effective, economic way. This practical and frugal spirit has remained firm at Mazeyres for whenever it can be put into practice. Plenty of sets of specifications have passed through my hands, and when I see the mind-boggling budgets that have been spent elsewhere to achieve objectives very similar to ours in all respects, I am happy with our way of doing things. We started with three and a half or four hectares I think in the first year, then fourteen in the second, and I believe we were going to move to an intermediary stage, but Alain said ‘Don’t you think it’s working rather well, and we would cope OK if we took things all the way?’ So I took a deep breath (laughs) and said OK, if you think so, I agree. And we jumped from fourteen to twenty one, then twenty five and a half with the racetrack plantation. I was given carte blanche to organise things as I saw fit. It was a very important moment for me. I was giddy and happy. I had freedom, and a huge responsibility. In hindsight, I understand that without any rhetoric or lectures, Alain was preparing the ground for what came next: for training us, delegating and taking on the tasks of representing the brand, technical research, and defending our work. When I think that he once did everything, I realise that the development has been huge, and that he gradually created a real structure. A company that opened up thinking for every area of expertise. At the beginning of my career here I saw him doing this and I thought that I would never manage to do the same. Then I learned. He gave me and taught us total autonomy, which was dizzying at times. He showed and still shows us huge trust, which drove and still drives us to say that we want to be worthy of this trust. He may be on the other side of the world. Although he is always reachable, we have to decide what needs to be decided. We inform him about everything that is done and he is in charge of operations, but we are in sync most of the time because it does not occur to me to do anything that would go against the spirit he has created at Mazeyres. He is the boss in all respects.


If you had one idea for how you could enhance or support your work, what would it be?

As head of winegrowing and team manager, I primarily focus on the human side since the equipment side is not of great interest. I have always wanted to find ways of understanding each other even better. This brings greater ease and fluidity.


Do you think this calls for placements, training, awareness-raising, meetings?

Why not, but as long as these opportunities exist they have to be open to all, and I think that some people are less suited to processes with an educational bent. You have to find a solution that works for everyone.


Performances, maybe. Some clowns are excellent at communicating messages. Humour can handle some very serious ideas. Sometimes, breaking things down completely and lapsing into excess and delirium highlights the importance of a framework.

It’s true. I am very rational and I am also drawn to the crazy. A very far-fetched idea can give rise to things that are less so. Doing things seriously without taking yourself seriously is my chosen stance. Also in my non-professional life. And I think that even here at Mazeyres where we have already explored many things, we could take our original approach even further, move away from the burden of ritual, as it is work that comes with its own particular repetitiveness and routine yet also changes all the time with the seasons and human progress.


I know that using words can sometimes make a big difference – giving things back their value via the definition that words provide, like a sort of linguistic programming for phenomena. Remember that effort can be defined as using your strength rather than something that has to be hard, remember that work is not just an economic obligation but also a structure for actions and activities, the tangible and physical manifestation of thought. We know full well that someone who cannot work, who cannot use effort, is not happy but rather is suffering from a loss of freedom. With your knowledge of sport, this must be obvious to you.

Work offers freedom on two levels: the economic level, of course, because you can gain even modest financial independence, and the personal level because you are able to do something that you can nurture and take with you everywhere. We have a choice. This choice may vary in scope, but it is a choice nonetheless. Work also reveals personalities: the meticulous person who wants their tweezers, and the one who prefers to do things more roughly and who needs to learn basic rules of care and attention. We all see how far we want to go. There is a difference between coming to work and coming to earn money. Just like sport, you need to understand the rules, make an effort, get involved, play your part. The concept of enjoying your work is vital. I think about what happens with the casual workers in particular. We give them their objective and offer them a way of working as one method among many. Often they will do very unexpected things and ask me if that is OK. I ask them to remember their objective and see if their way of doing things helps to achieve it. If so, they can work upside down if they so choose, I have no objection. This normally makes them smile, and they feel freer to put unique their take on a task that is not necessarily fun.


Yes, the ability to invent and create is a huge asset in life, whatever you are doing.

I try to pass on my state of mind. There are restrictions, but freedom is crucial. It must endure, and that also depends on us to a significant extent. Our aim is simple: to produce an optimum quantity of grapes of the highest quality possible. Biodynamics has raised the general level a lot and enabled us to revise our targets upwards across the board. The teams are well structured now.


As Alain puts it in a text on the website (in the team section): ‘They are the human element without whom nothing could happen.’ This reminds me of a historical protest movement by performing artists in 2003. Among other things, they brought a whole audience into a national theatre, several hundred people, and when the expected performance was due to start, the lights went out. And nothing, absolutely nothing happened for an hour and ten minutes, the length of the programmed performance. People just sat in the dark. It seems obvious, but obvious elements that cause us to stop thinking threaten every system. People understood that not protecting this profession was something that affected everyone. That without sound engineers, lighting designers, actors or musicians, there would be nothing. Without protection of their particular status due to the intermittent nature of performances, or valuing of the vital nature of their involvement in human community, everything would disappear. That is the human element, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s right. We are also responsible for what we uphold by taking care of our job and for preserving what we have despite conflict. Some roles are also difficult to fill: tractor drivers, for example. Colleagues at other estates ask me how much I pay them in order to keep them working here. I reply that it is not just a question of wages, but of the quality of their working life, awareness of their approach, and the potential for development. People need to feel respected and taken into account, with their skills recognised. When I now look at some estates using conventional winegrowing (and I will offer this image even if it is a violent one), with employees performing treatments in tractors without a cab and teams with protective masks that do not protect them from anything, and ultimately the tractors, people and masks all have the look of a product that is put to use whilst the manager or owner arrives in a luxury car, I see how some people view their workforce.


And yet the workforce is a noble expression.

Yes. Here, Alain never considered the idea of buying a tractor without a cab for these activities, not least because of bad weather, since we do not use heavy chemical treatments. It is a matter of taking value and the quality of work into account. We are never demoted to just doing chores. Biodynamics puts everyone on an equal footing, from vine through to wine. It partially gets rid of that time when winemakers got all of the praise for being involved with a key part of the work, forgetting all the others without whom it would not have been possible.

But if there is one thing I would like, I am interested in winemaking and I have always thought that I would sometimes like to monitor a vat more closely: what it does, what is done to it, tasting it daily and monitoring its direction. I sometimes do tastings to discover a little of how one plot or another is looking, and it is very interesting, even exciting to explore the character that the baby develops after it is born. At this point, I think that maybe I might have done this or that, i.e. things that the grape offers up that I know are due to our work among the vines. I do not want to become a cellar master, but I would like to monitor what we have done from time to time. Tasting wines once they are complete allows me to do this, but there is an intermediary step that happens further away from us. But it is up to me to open the doors and then pass it on to the whole team.


The websites will offer elements about the different stages of work that particularly interest you and where you are not necessarily involved. For you, this will be the ‘winemaking’ section of the lvam (Les Vins d’Alain Moueix) website. And Stéphany Lesaint suggested introducing meetings with Alain Moueix four times a year at the turn of each season to tackle all the specific features of the coming period. This might be implemented in 2019.

Yes, that would be good on a practical level, and it does not surprise me that Stéphany suggested it. We talk a lot and she is a very happy person. In her position at the end of the chain, she asks different questions and is involved in finding the answers. This would also give us information about ‘the other side’. I would like to learn more. I have gradually gained a better knowledge of our soils and how they behave. It is not always easy. Whilst I now truly acknowledge that the soil is alive, I have less of an understanding of its chemistry. I know its organic composition, but I would also like to understand chemical makeup and the transformations that this soil chemistry generates. But this involves various formulations which are not really my forte. Alain Moueix is aware of my interest in soils and of the fact that I put this interest to use in my work. I share my observations with him and he offers me his, then I make appropriate decisions. But I would like to shift more towards soil analysis. I do not feel that I have a deep enough understanding of them. I would like to work on potash, iron and nitrogen, but we work in a complex environment where even the smallest addition changes everything. I need to learn. I arrived at Mazeyres with an ability to adapt. I did not have qualifications, but I had a desire to grow. I have continued to do ever since, and there is more work to be done. By the time I retire I will be a scholar (laughs). I think it is good to step back, try things, ensure that we rise above the bare minimum. You can always make wine with few personal means, but what kind of wine? Today, when I taste the wines of Biodyvin (the biodynamic winegrowing syndicate), which meets every year at Fonroque during en primeur season, I am struck by their expressiveness. I believe that every winemaker in this syndicate has undergone this process of reflection, learning, stepping back and questioning. There is a lot of sincerity. The wines truly resemble their makers. I am delighted to be working at an estate that makes a product designed to be enjoyed. Rather different to making bolts! Wherever I go, it sparks an interest when I say that I work at a wine estate. And whenever I talk about biodynamics, people are genuinely curious. In all modesty, it makes me hugely proud when people spend two hours over dinner asking you questions about your work. It is gratifying. But I limit this, and share the floor (laughs) to find out what they do as well. Wine is a magical product that creates happiness, improves everyday lives, adds a touch intoxication to a very demanding world, and lowers inhibitions. It is far from trivial. I understand that it interests them as much as it enthuses me.


To finish, we would of course like to know which is your favourite vintage?

With a certain level of hindsight, 2016 would be my choice. In my view it is the best representation of the progress and work we have all accomplished. We saw a real development in the wines’ aromas, made possible by our use of biodynamics. We were won over.

After 2015, which was already showing the results of this new philosophy adopted a few years earlier, we have great hopes for the 2016 when you realise that it is still only in the very early stages…


Thank you very much, Jean-Michel.

Thank you, Ambre.