Chartrand Imports matures with balance
Rockland — Inspired by harvesting grapes on a French vineyard, Paul Chartrand of Rockland pursued a niche that made him the second organic wine importer in the United States, now a vogue market.
Chartrand now sells in 25 states and one of his imports, a Guy Bossard Domaine de L'Écu Muscadet, was recently featured in a The New York Times blog, The Pour, as a "memorable bottle" for a reasonable price.
Chartrand said his wines are distinctive because they are produced by distinguished, small growers he works with directly.
Chartrand said his interest in wine matured during college. Following graduation, he decided to try a more sophisticated bottle. "I thought, I want to find out what a good wine tastes like — I somehow got inspired," he said.
The wine that altered his tastes was a Pouilly-Fuissé Chardonnay, a dry white from southern Burgundy. He describes it now as a standard, decent wine.
"It was eye-opening," he said. "It was really was good, I was like, I finally see what this is about. It was totally different than anything I ever had. It was much cleaner, dryer and had a real grip to it."
From that sip came a life surrounded by the culture, tradition and pleasure of the vine.
In 1982, Chartrand traveled to Europe to work as an apprentice on an organic farm in the north of France. During the grape harvest that fall, Chartrand traversed to the Champagne region. He worked in the town of Mancy, where the champagne grape is the identity of the town.
"The only thing that happens in that town is growing champagne or crushing champagne. There may be a bar, a store and a post office, but the whole town is just hills with grapes," he said.
Nobody in the United States was importing organic wines at this time. Chartrand identified the niche and decided to develop an American market.
"There was this community of organic-minded wine makers and grape growers in Europe that nobody else knew about. The consciousness of organic wine in this country in 1982 was zero," he said.
Before starting his business, Chartrand was the director of the Common Ground Country Fair. Interest in organic and natural foods was not a novelty for Chartrand. "It was a direction I had taken for concern for health and good food instead of mass-produced food. I applied that same criteria to wine," he said.
Chartrand said well-made organic wine tastes better, although he admits there are many variables that affect wine, such as the land, the year and the experience of the farmer.
"The raw materials are there to make better wine with less after-effects," he said.
Most of the vintners in Europe producing organic wine come from a wine-making lineage. They live on the land for generations and practice the farming methods their grandfathers used.
Types of wine Chartrand particularly enjoys include "a good dry rosé from southern France in the summer, wines of the southern Rhône area of France with syrah and grenache grapes and a good burgundy."
Chartrand said he tends to favor European wines, adding champagne is another favorite. "It's hard to say, it's like choosing which of your children you like best," he said.
Because of France's unique geographic situation, Chartrand said the most diverse and best wines in the world are made by the French. "For such a small country, there's a very diverse range of geology and climate conditions within the band that's good for grape growing."
This precise geographical positioning produces full-bodied reds, great sparkling wine and light delicate whites. "You can get any kind of wine in its best expression in France," he said.
Chartrand has met and in some instances maintained lasting friendships with growers he imports wine from, 50 in all. There are two growers he hasn't met, in countries he has not traveled to before, Argentina and New Zealand. Most growers Chartrand is in business with make their own wine.
"It's a different kind of person when you met the farmer that makes wine, which are these guys I work with. They live right on the land so when I visit them, I'm in the vineyards, eating food from the land."
"The people and the culture of the vine" is what draws Chartrand to wine, adding that his relationships with growers has kept him in business for more than 25 years.
The elitist image wine purports is something Chartrand hopes to change. "It's [wine] not something you're going to die over or pay a week's wages for," he said.
"Fashion, art and wine fall into this world where people use it to impress each other and spend money to impress somebody else and use it for status," he said.
To Chartrand, enjoying wine is not about impressing people, it's about connecting with a farmer across the world.
Chartrand wants people to remember wine comes from the ground, that it's earthy. "It's a perfect reflection every year of the combination of the earth in an area and the sun and weather that affect it. All the places where wine is grown are unique and beautiful places," he said.
Chartrand said grape growing and wine making in Maine is a great venture, and he hopes to visit the wineries and taste more Maine wines, adding there are great apple and blueberry wines in the state.
"The fact that these grapes can grow and produce all on their own whatever is needed to make this fermented beverage — the yeast is there, the sugar and the acid, all in a sense given to us as a gift is why people think highly of it."
He said a lot of wines aren't that interesting, having too much sugar and fruit to impress the palate or demonstrate a complexity in the finish of the sip.
Chartrand said there is often a wine that "wakes up taste buds" and he encourages people to seek out those wines by following recommendations from store and restaurant owners.
"The wine in the bottle is a captured essence of that year and that place," he said.
Visit chartrandimports.com for more information.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.