You need no introduction to Chandon.
As one of the world’s most recognized wine brands, consistency and quality is paramount. This is where Pauline Lhote comes in. The director of winemaking has known since the tender age of 14 that she was destined for a career in winemaking. Not only does she hail from the capital of all bubbly—Champagne, France, of course—her parents were both farmers and instilled in her a deep appreciation for agriculture, the environment, and the labor of love behind the winemaking process.
Lhote never needed to search for her calling; it found her. What started as a three-month internship at Chandon in 2006 turned into a full-time career, and 12 years later, Pauline has made a permanent impact on Chandon’s business and brand.
Winemaking is a very niche industry. How did you get your start?
Winemaking is indeed a small but mighty industry! I actually grew up in Champagne, France, and knew I wanted to be a winemaker since I was really young (maybe 14 years old)—but not just any winemaker, I knew I wanted to make bubbles. My parents are also both farmers, so I grew up in this environment where grapes and agriculture were so important, and I became so passionate about the industry and process. I eventually ended up applying to local winemaking schools, and was fortunate enough to attend one of the best for Sparkling Wine, the University of Reims in Champagne.
You’ve been with Chandon for years. How did you climb the corporate ladder and eventually become a leading female winemaker?
I left France for California back in 2006, for what was supposed to be a three-month internship at Chandon. From the moment I arrived, I knew that this was the perfect place for me. Three months turned into 12 years, and I climbed my from intern, to assistant, to head of winemaking. This happened I think due to a combination of my existing passion, relentless work ethic but also the support and encouragement I received to explore my own view point. There is something so unique about American culture and maybe even the entrepreneurial spirit alive in California, that encourages the freedom to create and push boundaries in a way I didn’t find back home.
If you could have a meal with someone, living or deceased, who would it be and why? What would you eat?
It would be with my grandma, who I miss dearly. I would love to catch up with her. For me it is not so much about what we would eat but what we would drink.... I would share the bubbly I make with her of course!
What do you crave in life?
More time to be home and spend with my family. I travel a lot so time home is really something that I look forward to.
What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?
I love that my vision for pleasure and epicurean experience gets shared with people all over through something as fun as bubbly. Aside from that, I am most fulfilled when I see my team grow and work together. I have a very special team that I am very proud of.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
To stay true to myself and trust my instincts.
I am most fulfilled when I see my team grow and work together. I have a very special team that I am very proud of.
What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?
I was extremely honored to be recognized by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as a 40 under 40 tastemaker! It’s a great recognition within the industry.
Where does your passion/drive come from?
I feel extremely lucky to have found my passion so early on in life, in a way that was very organic. I didn’t search for it…I was kind of born into it, but there’s no other place or circumstance I could imagine wanting to switch for. In terms of my drive, parts of it are inherent and other parts I’ve had to develop in order to move forward. Perhaps it has something to do with growing up with all brothers and wanting to prove I could do just as much and more…or being a woman in a male dominated wine industry, you have to have conviction and be true to yourself in order to stay the course.
What keeps you up at night?
I must say that I am typically a good sleeper! What keeps me up at night are probably the weight of decisions I need to make. In winemaking, you realize the results of your decisions after waiting some time; at Chandon specifically, I have to wait an average of 2 years for the wine I make to age, before I get to taste the end results. So decisions I’m making today will impact wine you get to taste in 2021! I’m a perfectionist and so pressure to make the best decisions are probably what keep me up at night.
Whose career really inspires you?
My greatest mentors and role models have been the generations of female winemakers who came before me and blazed a trail to prove that women can do this job. Dawnine Dyer was the first female winemaker for Chandon back in the 70s and one of the first in the entire Napa Valley region. Her work revolutionized sparkling winemaking for Northern California and I very much admire her career. When I came to Chandon California, I felt great pride in reigniting that torch, carrying forward a strong female legacy for the estate, which is such a young, female-forward sparkling wine brand.
What has been your biggest opportunity or biggest challenge as a woman in the winemaking industry?
Like everyone, I have had many opportunities and challenges, but personally never felt that being a woman has driven them. I do think that as a minority, both as a woman and because I’m younger than most in my field, it’s been especially important to be confident and assertive. Not backing down and believing in my vision have helped me navigate the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities along the way.
There aren’t many female winemakers out there. How can we get more women into the field?
There are actually many women in wine, but maybe few in leadership positions. Much like other industries, it’s so important to encourage those under you and give them the opportunity to succeed when you can. Mentorship is our responsibility!
When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?
I go back to the reason why I am doing it in the first place, armed with new information I’ve received from the hurdle and re-approach it from a different angle. I think about what’s changed, what new opportunities or options have been created, and maybe even redefine what success looks like. Mistakes are usually what propel you to get better and reach new heights.
What are you toasting to in 2019? What are you most excited for?
I am toasting to what is most important for me, Family!
And I am most excited for the opportunity to create something new. 2019 means a new season, a new harvest, new wine ready to taste, new ideas and flavor innovations—and the possibilities are endless!