This is the amazing story of food, wine, and friendships that led one of the greatest wineries in the world to be brought to America and into our cellars and glasses.
The journey begins, like any good story, when two people fell in love.
Lulu met Lucien. They married. It was 1936.
World War I had ended, but WWII was on the horizon. Life in Provence was rural, poor, and difficult. But Lulu and Lucien got a leg up in the form of a wedding gift from Lulu’s father: a farm that had been in the family since the early 1800s near the ancient city of Bandol.
Bandol is located on the Mediterranean, due east of Marseille. Today it’s a city of yachts, of fancy restaurants, and of great wines. But in the early 20th century it was all about farming and scraping together some sense of a living. Olives and grapes were the mainstays, though from the fertile soils further north a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and herbs filled the markets in the small towns.
Young Lucien Peyraud knew of the great history of wines from Bandol, but during the replanting of the region after the phylloxera outbreak of the late 19th century, the great old grape Mourvedre was avoided. Mourvedre didn’t take well to the new American rootstocks, and even if it did the yields were low during a time when quantity mattered far more than quality.
But Lucien was determined to bring back the greatness of Mourvedre and the Bandol region.
Working tirelessly for decades, he and Lulu slowly built up Domaine Tempier. They worked the vineyards by hand. They made the wine by hand. They finally got running water and electricity to the farm, but of course, kept the massive fireplace in the kitchen.
They slowly brought forth the greatness of the nearly lost Mourvedre grape. Lucien led the charge for the establishment of the Bandol AOC, achieving his goal in 1941. Hardly anybody had Mourvedre in the ground, so the new AOC demanded only 10% of the blend be the great old variety. (It soon went to 20%, then 30%, and eventually leveled off at 50% minimum Mourvedre for red Bandol wines.)
Then the stars started a slow alignment.
In 1951 a 24-year-old from rural Iowa named Richard Olney moved to Paris. He was an artist who worked hard on his craft of painting but found another path entirely. Over a short time, he became not only enamored but obsessed with simple French cooking, which would later become the title of his most famous book (a must have for anyone with an interest in French cuisine). He visited Provence whenever he could, and finally found an abandoned farmhouse with possibility.
After moving to his Provence hilltop house with no electricity or running water, and after hand digging a wine cellar in his back yard, Olney befriended his nearby neighbors, the Peyrauds.
Lulu and Richard hit it off, sharing stories and cooking for legions of fans as they visited Domaine Tempier. He refined his techniques and taught Lulu. She shared her love of tradition and history and taught him. Their meals at Domaine Tempier became the stuff of legend and planted the earliest seeds of the food movement that was about to hit California.
In 1972 a young Alice Waters, a fan of French cuisine, a rather good chef, and one to explore the world, arrived in Provence and via Richard Olney was introduced to Lulu Peyraud. The year before, Waters had opened up a restaurant like no other in America: Chez Panisse in Berkley.
The cooking of Richard and Lulu, combined with the wines of Domaine Tempier, won over the young Alice Waters, shaping her vision of what her new restaurant would be, and without yet knowing it, planting the seeds for the food and restaurant revolution in America.
Meanwhile, Richard Olney made another connection with a fellow American, a wine importer named Kermit Lynch. In 1976 Olney brought Kermit Lynch to Domaine Tempier for his first visit.
And the rest, they say, is history.
From the Kermit Lynch website: “Of all of the domains we represent, no other serves more as our cornerstone, stands more in the defense of terroir, and is more intricately interwoven with our own history, than that of the iconic Peyraud family of Domaine Tempier. The pages that Kermit has written about them alone rival those of his dear friend, Richard Olney, who wrote the definitive history of the domain and was the first to introduce Kermit to the family in 1976.”
These are wines with such an amazing history, and amazing history simply makes the wine taste better. It’s a wine to seek out and savor slowly.
Lucien passed away in the 1990s, but Lulu continues on. She celebrated her 100th birthday in December of 2017. Twice a day she swings 50 times on the swing in her backyard. That’s living, and I hope we can all do the same at that age!
** UPDATE: Sadly, we lost Lulu in 2020, after publication of this essay. Read the New York Times obituary.
And Richard Olney? He sadly passed in 1999 but remains one of the great forces of nature when it comes to traditional French food. You can read more about his life in Provence and the cooking of Lulu Peyraud in his classic book, Lulu’s Provencal Table.
And the way things wrap together can be surprising. After years of loving Domaine Tempier, reading the words of Richard Olney, and enjoying the wines of Ridge Vineyards, did I discover that his nephew is none other than John Olney, the winemaker at Ridge Monte Bello!