Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on French-born winemakers in Napa Valley.
When Thomas Comme moved to Napa Valley from his hometown of Pauillac, France, in early 2016, he had never been behind the wheel of an ATV.
To the young winemaker from that famous — and quite flat — Bordeaux wine town, the concept of driving nearly sideways through a mountain vineyard would have seemed as foreign as drinking Zinfandel or watching a baseball game.
Today, Comme is the estate manager at Pym-Rae, a 20-acre property in Napa Valley’s farthest corner of Mount Veeder. After a couple years’ practice, he can handle a 45-degree slope in his Honda ATV with confidence. It’s a useful skill for a guy whose life is a full 180 degrees removed from anything he’s done before in the wine business.
Comme, 29, arrived in Napa three and a half years ago to manage Pym-Rae, the large home and viticultural estate near the top of the Mount Veeder AVA that was owned by the late comedian/actor Robin Williams.
Comme’s employer is Alfred Tesseron, a successful Cognac merchant and proprietor of the highly regarded Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac. He purchased Pym-Rae from Williams’ family in late 2015.
Back in Bordeaux’s Médoc region, where Pauillac is located, Pontet-Canet sits across the road from one of the world’s most famous wineries, Mouton-Rothschild. The equally renowned Château Latour is just a few kilometers away down D2, the “Route des Châteaux.”
Tesseron’s Napa property is a bit more remote. At the end of Wall Road on Mount Veeder, Pym-Rae skirts the edge of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and straddles the Napa-Sonoma County line, but the place is miles from the closest winery. The far-flung estate that Comme, his wife, Samantha, and their young daughter call home is Napa Valley’s equivalent of being on the moon. It is a world away from Pauillac.
Comme’s father, Jean-Michel, has been Pontet-Canet’s winemaker since 1989. Both in France and internationally, he is known as a forceful practitioner of dry farming and biodynamic viticulture. While Jean-Michel Comme has had a clear influence on his son’s approach to grapegrowing and winemaking, it came close to never happening in California.
In the summer of 2015, Jean-Michel and Thomas Comme were at the end of their California rope. With Tesseron’s backing, the father and son were looking for a Napa Valley property to purchase and develop according to their own biodynamic standards, but after five years had come up empty.
“We visited a lot of properties in the valley,” the younger Comme said on a sunny July morning, standing on an east-facing balcony of the main house at Pym-Rae, a spectacular Mediterranean home that could easily fall into the château category. The business school graduate speaks accented, but perfect, English. “We were looking for something specific. We had something very specific in mind. We wanted actual soils and an already established vineyard that could handle the dry farming.”
In contrast to the topography of Pauillac, Comme and his father had mountain vineyards in mind when researching the AVAs of Napa Valley.
“Being from France, it took us a long time and a lot of studies to realize where we wanted to go,” he said. The property search included looking at “pretty much every Napa AVA that has mountain vineyards, and after more research we realized that it was only Mount Veeder that can match what we wanted.”
What they wanted was no small ask of Mother Nature: to locate a Cabernet-friendly vineyard in the Mount Veeder AVA with deeper soil than the ubiquitous red, volcanic type spread across many of Napa Valley’s elevated sites. By the Commes’ reckoning, such “hot” soil would prevent them from producing a Cabernet Sauvignon of depth and finesse.
Frustrated but sticking by their own strict conditions, they caught a lucky break when their Napa property agent emailed them in France to tell them about Pym-Rae coming up for sale.
“We looked online, and it was just a massive property with a massive house,” Comme said, motioning out over the infinity pool. “It was not what we wanted, really. But we learned the story, and it was Robin Williams’ estate. And so we’re like, ‘OK. We’re going to go check it out, because it sounds like a beautiful place.’”
For all the beauty of the Pym-Rae site itself, both natural and architectural, the real draw for the Commes was the flavor of the Cabernet and Merlot already growing in the vineyard. Block-by-block over 20 steep acres, Thomas and his father did a methodical survey of the property in late August of 2015. From there, it was an easy decision.
“We walked every single row, and [the fruit] from this place was something we’d never tasted,” he recalled, “even though the farming was different, and everything was done differently than how we do it now. The profile of the fruit was just something different from anywhere else in the valley.”
He credited Pym-Rae’s soil, which he described as “this little pocket of Mount Veeder, where we have sedimentary soils. So we have a different bedrock from the rest of the valley.”
They got on the phone immediately to Alfred Tesseron, who, according to Comme, “came over and fell in love with the place. And so that was the beginning of our journey” in 2015.
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Conveniently, the 2015 harvest was the last at Pym-Rae in which grapes were sold to other Napa wineries, as had been the case since the vineyard was planted in 1990. A friend of Comme’s, Frog’s Leap Winery Vice President Jonah Beer, was one of those last clients. For their own boutique project, Pilcrow Wine, Beer and his wife, Sara, made their first two vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon from a few vine rows near the top of Pym-Rae, purchased from the previous owners.
The couple are also friends with the elder Comme and have visited him at Pontet-Canet on numerous occasions.
“Jean-Michel has described to me a tension and a severity in fine wines that come when they have to be a little bit closer to the edge of ‘could have been tragic/could be glorious,’” Jonah Beer said recently. “And in the mountains for them here was a chance to kind of get to a little more severity. Not quite the plush and lush opulence of the valley floor.”
To the Frog’s Leap veteran, the pull of difficult mountain viticulture for the Commes made sense because it paralleled “the severity of how you have to farm in Bordeaux with the challenges of rain and hail and weather and Mother Nature quite not working with you as easily as here.”
Under his father’s direction, and from his own training and experience in Pauillac, Comme set about changing vineyard practices in early 2016. Biodynamic farming, such as that carried out at Pontet-Canet, was the main goal, with an eye towards making the best possible wine at Pym-Rae.
“We took over in January ‘16, and the first thing we did was to convert everything to organic and biodynamic,” he said. “For 25 years, the vineyard was farmed conventionally, with everything you can imagine, the cover crops and irrigation and stuff. So that’s what we did. It doesn’t sound like a lot when you say it like that, but it requires a lot of work. It takes a long time for us to rebalance the vineyard and to bring it back to what we want to do with the vineyard.”
The changes followed what his father was doing in Pauillac. But, having arrived in Napa Valley not knowing anyone, he had to figure out the transformation on his own.
Comme hired a vineyard management company from Sonoma that specialized in organic farming. He eventually brought on a dependable crew of five vineyard workers. They remain with him to this day and have fallen in line with his philosophy.
“What I’m trying to do here, I’m trying at every level. I want people to be able to answer the question of ‘why?’ Why everything. So it starts with the vineyard. Obviously, I want the guys in the vineyard to know why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
“I hired them to teach and train them to be able to take some distance and understand why they’re doing it. So, for instance, when they’re pruning, everything has a meaning, and it’s really important for me that they understand that.”
For the vines themselves, Comme started with a drastic change: he removed all of the irrigation lines and initiated 100% dry-farming to, as he put it, “push the roots deep down to where the freshness is and where the water is.”
“Everything we need is deep down,” he said. “There is a freshness, there is the water, there is nutrients, and that’s part of the thing: when you irrigate the vines, they’ll make zero effort. And the roots will just stay at the surface, and they will just stay superficial. They’ll just wait for you to give them everything they need.”
Leaving the balcony, Comme grabbed his keys and led the way through the house to his ATV parked in the shaded driveway. Along the way, he noted that Robin Williams combined the middle names of two of his children to name the estate. It might have ended up as “Tesseron Estate,” but his employer has adhered to a Bordeaux tradition of keeping intact the original name of a vineyard property. Hence, Pym-Rae.
His two rescue dogs, Iris and Pym — the name is a fantastic coincidence —followed behind at first. Pym soon jumped onto the Honda’s flatbed for a ride around the vineyard.
Comme gave a bumpy tour of some paths and rows in the lower of the vineyard’s two large sections, passing a spring fed pond and a number of cows. In the first year of Tesseron’s ownership, he brought in 30 head of Black Angus. The animals graze up and down the property’s steep hillsides and help control erosion through the deep, water-trapping holes they leave with their heavy hooves. In Pauillac, his father is admired for the large draft horses he has introduced at Pontet-Canet to replace tractors. The low-impact use of farm animals is another parallel.
“I’m very happy to have my son living and working [at Pym-Rae] and myself being involved in that wonderful project,” Jean-Michel Comme wrote in an email. “I discovered Napa more than 30 years ago as a young intern, and its spirit remained in me. So, I share my experience with Thomas, and he provides his passion, youthfulness and improving experience for the benefit of the final result. We have to learn from the place, be dedicated and humble.”
Of the inaugural 2016 Pym-Rae Cabernet Sauvignon to be released in the U.S. and abroad this fall, the elder Comme wrote, “We have a pretty clear idea on the wine we seek from Pym-Rea. A wine dense, ripe and fresh, combining freshness, depth and elegance and produced with ethics regarding earth preservation (biodynamic and dry farming), respect of the place and the people. We selected Pym-Rae to be fitted to those goals.”
For a project of this size and scope, the sub-2000-case production is relatively tiny. When Comme pulled away from the vineyard rows to a picturesque spot with a long, clear view to the east, he was asked a question he will no doubt hear again: is there an eventual plan to grow Pym-Rae?
He thought for a moment. “I mean, not right now honestly. It takes so much time to work with the vineyard to get to understand it. You set a goal, and then you reach that goal, and then you set another one. It’s kind of an endless process, you know, to work with the vineyard. Because the vineyard is growing old and evolving, but we as persons evolve too, and we change, and so it’s kind of an endless process.”
“I don’t think we’ll be able to plan before the next generation,” he predicted, before firing up the ATV again. “It’s really not the plan. So right now we really want to focus — and this is the very important part — we want to focus on what we have and make it great. We have the potential; it’s a beautiful place, and it’s a beautiful vineyard. We have the potential to do something grand for this vineyard. And so we need to stay focused on what we have.”