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Persona: John Vincent Saego

John Vincent Saego

GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH

“Artisan wines that express a place,” says John V. Seago, owner of Pontchartrain Vineyards. And no phrase better describes the wines that Seago creates on 13 producing acres in Bush – located just north of Covington.

His wines are much like the region  – strong, full-bodied, but with a lingering flavor. That isn’t to say that some of his wines don’t have a flirty side. But as he succinctly states, “It all starts in the vineyard.” It may also begin with a name that seemed to create a destiny in which Seago became, as he says, a winegrower.

“There is no word in French that translates into winemaker. There is a word for winegrower, that is vigneron,” he says. Who is the patron saint of wine? St. Vincent. Seago’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name? Vincent. “They were French Huguenots.”

“Maybe these things are in the cosmos – it was meant to be,” he says.

For Seago, his path as a winegrower – beyond that of having a longtime interest in wine buoyed by his journeys through Europe in the late 1960s – started in the fall of ’91, when he planted the vines. His first harvest was in ’93, and in ’94, Seago began marketing the wines to New Orleans and Northshore restaurants. Since that initial 200 cases of wines in 1994, the vineyard now produces many more cases of wine, with such lyrical names as Le Trolley and Roux St. Louis (both whites), in addition to red wines monikered Zydeco Rosato, Rouge Militaire, Dah Red and Criolla Rosso. And yet, despite the whimsy, the vineyard’s wines have won serious awards from the American Wine Society, Florida Grape Growers, the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, the International Eastern Wine Competition and the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, to name a few.

Seago, as it turns out, is carrying on a winemaking tradition in Louisiana that has it roots in the Florida Parishes (notably, St. Tammany Parish), in the late 19th century. It ground almost to a halt with Prohibition, which was passed in 1920. Today, there are five vineyards in Louisiana, including Pontchartrain Vineyards.

The vineyard, nestled amongst the rolling hills across Lake Pontchartrain, is like a mix of time and space travel: you can easily imagine it being here in the 19th century with the grape vines all lined up in rows and a Tasting Room that looks like it was transported from France. A more modern day occurrence, perhaps, is Seago personally pouring the wines for tastings (How many vineyard owners do that?) and guiding those who know nothing about wines, as well as those (on my visit there), who need to be convinced on why they should try a Louisiana wine over a favored California blend.

The vineyard is also the location for “Jazz’n the Vines,” a music series – celebrating its 10th year – held at the vineyard held spring to early fall.
“Wine is a study of balance,” says Seago. And what better way to enjoy the balance of Louisiana food and culture with a Louisiana wine?

Age: 66
Born: New Orleans. In what was then called Baptist Hospital
Resides: Covington
Education: St. Martin’s Episcopal School; University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill where I got a degree in English, then went to Tulane Law School
Family: Wife, Sue. We were married in 1978
Favorite book: I like to feel I’ve learned something, but also entertained. Recently, I read the Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell by Rachel Herz. I also like Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, the Master and Commander series and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.
Favorite movie: This has been a black hole in my cultural experience – and I don’t know why. I never think of going to the movies. I did see Bottle Shock. [Ed. note: A movie about the early days of winemaking in California.]
Favorite TV show: Truly, none! College football is great, however.
Favorite food: Triple cream blue-veined cheese (Bresse Blue)
Favorite wine: Pontchartrain Vineyards 2006 Le Trolley – Blanc du Bois, St. Tammany Parish
Favorite restaurant: It’s a tie between La Provence and Galatoire’s. The former for the food quality, the latter for the overall joie de vivre of a hedonistic fine dining experience.
Favorite music/musicians: Bluegrass. Early Country Gentlemen with the late Charlie Waller, lead singer. And, the Del McCrory Band.
Hobby: Bluegrass singing and guitar playing, tennis and fly-fishing for trout – none of which I have time for these days.
Favorite vacation spot: Can hardly remember taking a true vacation. Leisurely travels through the wine country of northern California have been memorable.

What type of person goes into the wine business? Generally, an optimist, perhaps somewhat of a romantic, who gets caught up in the wonder of wine. Although there are surely exceptions, a desire to make lots of money does not appear to be a common trait.
On the production side of things, for example growing and making wine, my experience has been that these people are very passionate, sensitive, have a healthy respect for nature, interest in details, are intelligent, inquisitive, unpretentious, disciplined and possess a strong work ethic. Overall, they seem to balance things well, have a good sense of values, maintain long-term perspectives and while success oriented, are not particularly driven to make money.

With respect to the financial and marketing and sales aspects of the business, I really don’t know what type of person might be attracted to the wine business. There seems to be a big ego thing about being associated with running or owning a vineyard and/or winery, so there are a surprising number of people who have been extraordinarily successful in business in other lines of work who take great interest and satisfaction in getting involved in the wine business. They are apt to be quite adept at bringing in consultants and otherwise outsourcing a lot of the technical aspects of winegrowing and winemaking while staying more closely involved in marketing, sales and the financial side of the business.

For some, this just remains a hobby with perhaps a prestige factor associated with having one’s family name on the label.

What are the challenges of growing wine in Louisiana?  Everything is a challenge. Sometimes it’s a soil-based problem. Pierce’s Disease is a problem (it affects the vascular system.) The heat of Louisiana isn’t a problem – where we are isn’t as hot as north Napa Valley in terms of extremes.
What types of grapes do you use? Native varieties such as Blanc du Bois (white) and Cynthiana/Norton (red).

What is the greatest reward being a winegrower? In addition to apparently keeping me in reasonably good health, I would say the greatest reward has been to be able to be humbled, but not defeated by, the forces and vicissitudes of nature and having the opportunity to craft something distinctive, personal and worthy that is an honest expression of place and has the capacity to enhance the experience of people gathering to enjoy the society, and pleasures of well prepared food.

Where can someone buy or have a meal accompanied by Pontchartrain Vineyards wines?
Since Louisiana law was changed in 2005 to eliminate a vineyard’s right to self-distribute its wines, I really don’t know which of our wines are available, where. I do know that our wines are substantially less available in restaurants and wine stores since 2005. And, the volume of our wine being sold through all retail outlets has declined by more than one-half.

Wine stores in the French Quarter that normally carry some of our wines include Vieux Carré Wine & Spirits, Sydney’s and Joe’s. Dorignac’s, Martin Wine Cellar, Rouses and Whole Foods Market usually have some of our wines, as do Aquistipace’s in Covington and the Rouses stores in and around New Orleans, including Slidell. In restaurants, some of our wines may be on the list at August, Tujaque’s, Palace Café, Bourbon House and The Gumbo Shop in New Orleans, and La Provence on the Northshore.

We can sell directly to consumers through our Tasting Room at the winery. We can also ship directly to any consumer of legal age in Louisiana. A few but growing number of states are permitting direct sales to consumers in their state. Anyone interested in ordering any of our wines can go to our Web site to review the tasting notes for each of the wines, and then call us for information regarding ordering wine.
True Confession: I am almost two inches shorter than I was in high school (and still have an unremarkable vertical leap), but weigh about the same.
Pontchartrain Vineyards:

81250 Old Military Road (Route 1082), Bush, (985) 892-9742; www.pontchartrainvineyards.com
The vineyard is open to the public for wine tastings and to buy wine Wednesday through Sunday from noon until 4 p.m. For Jazz’n the Vines 2009 full schedule, visit the vineyard’s Web site.

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