Huntsville winemaker aims to make French wines more approachable

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - It wasn't an outdoor bistro on a cobblestoned plaza in Provence, but on Saturday in Huntsville dozens of wine enthusiasts got the chance to transport themselves to the south of France. Their passport? Their tastebuds.

Huntsville winemaker Bjoern Lanwer presented three new French wines to customers at Church Street Wine Shoppe.

  • 2015 Mode de Vie White
  • 2016  Le Prince White
  • 2015 Le Prince Red

Despite it being a world debut, there was little fanfare. Just a casual ambiance and the murmur of friendly conversation filled the shop.  As the first wine - Mode de Vie - trickled into glasses, Lanwer described the white blend of 70% Grenache Blanc and 30% Roussanne - grapes grown in the south of France. "Both grapes are grapes that are not overpowering. Easy to drink. Easy to enjoy. It's a really good summer wine," Lanwer said. "It's like a wedding wine. Not much not to like."

Translated Mode de Vie means way of life. "We want to make French wines more approachable," explained Lanwer. "There’s a reason why it comes in a screw cap. So, you can just open it and enjoy it with your friends and just make wine part of your life."

In addition to easy access, the Mode de Vie label suggests a relaxing afternoon is in store - a cruise-style bicycle outfitted with a basket and charming black & white pup perched in it. You sense the absent rider may be off procuring a baguette for the day's picnic.

The simplistic label is intentional - all part of Lanwer's goal of making French wine more approachable. "I think a lot of people are a little bit wary ordering French wine at the restaurant or picking French wine at the grocery store."  He added, "The labeling is in some ways more American. More customer friendly. And, we’re trying to target the millennials that way. So it’s not like your old school French chateau label."

Another aspect that makes it approachable is affordability. At just $12/bottle, Lanwer's philosophy is to make his wines available to everybody not just a select few. "I think that’s a price point that people appreciate. I don’t want people going to a store and spending $50-60 on a bottle of wine. I want people to go out and spend $15 on a bottle of wine or $12 for the Mode de Vie."

As more wine poured, customers inquired about Bjoern Lanwer's background. Besides his obviously European name, his foreign accent solidified he's not from around here. "As a German in Huntsville, you are either an engineer or your wife is from Huntsville and I'm not an engineer," Lanwer grinned.  Lanwer's wife, Sara, was born and raised in the Rocket City. The two met while attending school in Germany. The couple settled in Huntsville more than a decade ago and are now raising three children of their own here.

Lanwer travels regularly to the French Rhône and Rousillon regions to sample and blend wines but doesn't stay away too long - otherwise he would miss the myriad of dance classes, recitals and competitions that his young daughters are so heavily involved in.  The office for his Ingenium Wines is strategically located in south Huntsville within a roughly one-minute drive to where his daughters take their dance lessons.

Lanwer's winemaking concept allows him to have the best of both worlds.  Produce French wine while living in the United States. But, he doesn't own a vineyard in France. "We team up with the wineries. Basically, working with the winemakers there. Showing what we want to have in the wines. Working on the blends with them and then providing the labeling and everything to them. And, they put the total package together that we then pick up. So for us, it makes it much easier rather than owning vineyards and having the overhead.  From a business perspective, it’s a much easier approach."

As customers sampled the third wine, Lanwer sashayed around the room, entertaining questions and engaging in conversation.

If a world debut for a wine can be compared to a stage performance, this was like opening night jitters for Lanwer. "It’s always a big step for people like me to go out and show the wines for the first time," remarked Lanwer.  "It’s like anything if you paint a picture and then you show it to the teacher and you’re all excited and the teacher is not so impressed. It’s the same thing. You watch people closely to see how they react. I think their reactions were pretty good today."

Judging by the register receipts printing out, I'd say more than a few customers were applauding and silently shouting, 'Bravo.'

Pre-orders for Lanwer's three new wines can be made at Church Street Wine Shoppe which is owned by Matt and Stephanie Mell. The shop was recently named one of the top 8 wine bars in Alabama.