Jean-Luc Barde: What is it that determined your particular paths?
Michel Rolland: I was born into a family of winemakers. As a child, I thought the world was covered with vines. The insistence of my father that I go to school led me to oenology. My life was never about anything else.
Jean-Claude Ellena: My story is roughly the same. I lived in Grasse, a city devoted to perfume. Desperate, my family pushed the poor student that I was to go into perfume-making. I started at 16 as a workman, found hospitality and kindness, and so I stayed on.
J.L.B.: What are your first olfactory memories?
J.-C. E.: I was 4 years-old. Perched on a chair, I grabbed a tin of cookies that gave off a slightly musty smell when opened. This was strictly forbidden, of course, and I think that the existence of this prohibition has fostered my memory, which is more active in forbidden situations or moments of intense pleasure.
M. R.: I’ve always preferred the smell of fennel to that of chalk on the blackboard. My family are people of the earth, the countryside delivered its scents. I remember my grandmother making tomato preserves; I would go pick the fruits which I loved eating in all their glowing freshness. I also loved the smell of herbs. The aromas of wine came a little later, as offered by my father and grandfather in reasonable quantities, which is why I can just about walk straight.
J.L.B.: Do you have any special gifts?
J.-C. E.: I’ve got a perfectly ordinary nose, though perhaps a little larger than average, but we are all provided with the same nose. Mine is simply educated, I trained it; I exercise it. This is a matter of curiosity, of culture, of imagination. I’ve created a language of odors which is my own and which I practice. If sight is the privileged sense of our time, I see life through my nose. More accurately, I feel life through the nose. With it I decode, decrypt, I use this sense to comprehend things. By doing so, I feel myself being more alive.
M. R.: We do indeed all have the same nose. After that, it’s a matter of work. For ten years when I first started my laboratory I tried all the samples that came my way. It was a beautiful exercise, a necessary curiosity, I learned by smelling, by tasting. As with all great athletes, training plays its role. Someone once said that talent is eighteen hours of work per day; I’d like to add that passion seems to be the major determining factor if you want to progress.
J.L.B.: What is your concept of taste?
M. R.: Regardless of where in the world vines are willing to grow and give grapes, my goal is to achieve the best I can. It’s not about defining a notion of taste, per se, but to get as close as possible to what can be done under optimal conditions. This produces a wine that has a flavor, but it isn’t mine, it belongs to the union of earth, climate and fruit.
J.-C. E.: It's a question I keep asking myself, therefore I do not have an exact answer, only that good taste is similar to what is beautiful. These are cultural issues. It differs from country to country. I have a certain attraction for Japan, for the sophistication and aesthetics of that country. When I am in India, the notion of beauty escapes me. Based on this lack of understanding, I created the fragrance “Un Jardin après la Mousson” by taking elements which are specific to India; the monsoon, ginger and others. I played with these signs; it's really based around signs. They allowed me to translate my personal notion of India, with the surprise and curiosity it arouses. But my notion is only imaginary; it is not that of the Indians.
J.L.B.: Do you picture your wines?
M. R.: Never! I am face to face with raw material; it’s the grape that speaks. I try to guide production through the vine toward quality fruit. Picturing a result would be a mere aestheticism. I note its possible beauty through the end product.
J.L.B.: What about nature?
J.-C. E.: I’ve always thought that oenologists were a part of nature, that they’d add themselves to the equation and that the result was the wine, whereas I withdraw myself from it in the sense that I strip it bare, I only take what I’m interested in. It is a form of murder; I cut heads, a finger here, a foot there, another piece elsewhere. I make it my booty and the result is a composite being derived from scattered elements. My job is akin to an artistic approach; it’s all in the abstraction.
J.L.B.: How is a fragrance made?
J.-C. E.: Scent is a word, fragrance is literature. The problem is the choice of words, the order in which one wants to arrange them and, most of all, the phrase which one wants to write. The idea exists but it can take a long time to implement it. Or, sometimes it might just take very little, three days. This is exactly what happened in the gardens of Leila Menchari* in Hammamet, Tunisia. I had a mission to create a fragrance called “Un Jardin en Méditerranée”, that was all. I got rid of the clichés - jasmine and orange blossom - and I found myself facing a blank page, sleepless nights and uncertainties. There was also Giono’s writing, a familiar companion, acting as a talisman against anxiety and which I use as a benchmark for everything I do; he’s like a benevolent father. That period is very uncomfortable, but it is necessary in order to find something, an olfactory sign that makes sense, that clearly evokes the Mediterranean. That day, over a glass of champagne, a young girl crushes a fig leaf with a smile and suddenly, it's a sign. This smell is a strong symbolic sign and it makes sense. Fig trees are present all around the Mediterranean, their smell brings men together. Once I found a way in, I only needed to tell the story. I feel like a "perfume writer" of sorts, it seems more accurate to me than being compared with a composer or a painter. There are ten thousand molecules in the dictionary of scents; music only needs a scope of seven notes, painting requires the three primary and the three complementary colors.
J.L.B.: What is luxury?
J.-C. E.: Luxury is sharing. When I create a fragrance, I’m not thinking about the elite. The fact that people are wearing Hermès might place them within a certain category but in my mind and in the spirit of Hermès, fragrances are for everyone, their prices can vouch for that.
M. R.: There is a certain sense of beauty, of rarity, that is linked to luxury. On top of that, there’s also a speculative aspect that makes certain wines inaccessible. That’s the downside of luxury.
J.L.B.: Is an assemblage a creative process?
J.-C. E.: With Cezanne, the color layout is the result of a superposition, each color slides under the other while letting its own color shine through, it’s extremely subtle. You see yellow, you see blue, and you see the union of the two, it’s both an overlay and a detachment which allows you to see how the construction is done. For perfume, it's sort of the same; years of experience, of mental construction, of reflection, in order to get a result from this knowledge, this proven technique. What interests me here is not the idea; it’s the initial subject, the construction of the phrase.
M. R.: Sometimes we invent from observation, from history. I thought of green harvesting and leaf thinning by digging in the past. To evoke quality in the 20th century, we talked about the years 1928, 1929, 1945, 1947 and 1961. These are five great vintage years spread out over seventy years and it’s not much for a career that I hoped would span thirty years and during which I had hoped to experience three "big ones". I asked myself about the common qualities of those years: they were warm, the grapes were ripe and in small quantities. When you make less of it, it matures and when it matures, it's better. I had this idea that one must pick grapes when they are ripe. So we’d have to agree on a notion of maturity, and disagreements are plentiful, it’s the salt of the business. As we do not have a powerful method of analysis yet, we must try skins, pulp and seeds, the three components of a grape berry. I surprised a lot of people, especially in America, when I requested to taste the grapes before giving any advice. When Jean-Claude creates a fragrance, he looks for a common thread and selects from the huge range of aromas in the world of scents. We only have a few samples that nature gives us, it is less free, more limited, but I have to find the best assemblage, the most beautiful harmony while keeping aging in mind. Great wine is harmony.
J.L.B.: Is it also the case when it comes to fragrances?
J.-C. E.: Yes, but it may not be sufficient. We must keep in mind things like contrast, resonance, dissonance, which all take part in the expression of a perfume.
J.L.B.: Is there a Rolland and an Ellena style?
J.-C. E.: It would have to include chamber music, up to concertos, but no opera, no Wagner. There is also a notion of elegance, of sincerity, of exactness as well as an oxymoronic duality of lightness and presence, without flourish, something seemingly simple yet complex. I expect a fragrance to be a base for intimacy and for a connection with you. When I was doing “Voyage d’Hermès”, I wanted the smell to be taut. The fragrance didn’t come out as long as I didn’t get that.
M. R.: I have a certain taste, therefore a style. I’ve done wine in twenty countries, style is influenced by origin. To compare it with music, I’d say all the partitions are played; they come from the diversity of the land where wines thrive. Those who say that I’m doing the same wines everywhere show their lack of understanding on the subject. The origin is stronger than the man who makes it. If there is such a thing as a Rolland style, it evolves according to the influence of origin. The art of making wine calls for something clean, a shortcut; the whole enterprise must become denser.
J.L.B.: Are wines and perfumes ephemeral?
J.-C. E.: When people buy a fragrance, they would like it to be immutable. But nothing stops the passage of time, a fragrance evolves, but it can change along with us, it’s not as sensitive. If you look at yourself every day in the mirror, you won’t see yourself getting old. I am in the business of the ephemeral, but over the long run. What I bring you will be expressed over a short period of time, but it will live on in your memory. We’re like a part of the Ego: “I’ve come to tell you that you’re here, but you won’t be around forever, so enjoy it while it lasts”.
M. R.: In order not to offend anyone, let’s talk about a vintage that has yet to exist: 2012. We cannot think of a wine without also thinking about the quality of the grape, without also making a fake wine to be aged. It must be in it for the long run, and draw from its abilities. There are no written rules for this, it’s purely intuitive. For “Le Bon Pasteur 2007”, a small vintage, I looked for lightness and elegance, fruit quality and drinkability; I knew this wine wouldn’t age well. The Merlots did not have an exceptional maturity, they were somewhat diluted due to high humidity, they didn’t give very tasty juices, they weren’t concentrated enough and were also inclined to give rough, rustic tannins. In short, it was a wine whose chances of evolving positively with time were reduced. The Cabernets francs were harvested a little too early. We shouldn’t have extracted when we did, in other words, leave the grapes in barrels for too long, in order not to risk extracting seed tannins rather than film. We should have settled for elegance and fruitiness. We shouldn’t try to sample a 2007 in twenty years’ time, whereas 2009 will be enjoyed well beyond that. Once they’ve been opened, we are trying to create an entire destiny for these products; they should leave an enduring impression, even if the fragrance is long gone.
J.L.B.: Are your wines and your perfumes a sign of the times?
J.-C. E.: I’m not interested in nostalgia; it’s a cheap seduction trick. I remember a day back in the 1990s when a colleague presented me with his work which smelled of the 1970s. That is simply impossible; our work must be in line with our time. My biggest fear is to be out of touch with the present, to be blinded by my own way of wearing a perfume.
M. R.: We’re the same age and we both have the same fear of being locked up in our ways, to miss out on what surrounds us. However if we’re still professionally active, it must be because we’re still relevant to the world we live in.
J.L.B.: Taste uniformity, globalization, standardization and trends. Is this very now?
J.-C. E.: The present is all about global standardization. France and the US bear the shared responsibility of an olfactory imperialism, both countries have imposed their tastes in terms of perfume and they dominate the market. I am opposed to this, I am resisting this, I’m an advocate of distinction, of difference, I want to oppose uniformity. The notion of a universal taste which is seen everywhere leads to boredom, which, in the end, leads to rebellion.
M. R.: This phenomenon of standardization and industrialization exists, sure, but wine is so diverse given its origins that inquisitive wine-lovers are forever safe from being bored.
J.L.B.: There’s a lot of talk about acidity and mineral quality. Odd, isn’t it?
M. R.: These are trends which are brought about by words. The word mineral was used to describe the great Chardonnays from Burgundy. Today it is applied to reds. Not sure this is appropriate. The word is lovely, so people use it. Acidity or sugariness are not necessarily justifiable either, once again it is a matter of balance and harmony. If they are found, we no longer speak of acidity and of that mineral quality. What matters is to bring about a sensation and I think that is more difficult to achieve.
J.L.B.: What about the importance of travel?
J.-C. E.: Moving about is not important in itself. What matters to me is the promise at the end of the trip. It’s about giving the other time to get to know him. I’m in need of Japan. This culture is so different from ours, yet I feel close to it. I need to decipher it. The closer I get, the more it eludes me. This provokes an intellectual and sensory shift of the nose which allows me to question my ability to understand how they think about perfume. The haiku is a type of shortcut which I’m particularly fond of and I’ve noticed that the more I abbreviate, the more stories I tell. To shorten is not to simplify. I think that if I would have been drawn to Sub-Saharan Africa, my conception of perfume would have been a lot more carnal, sensual - erotic even. There’s a philosophical dimension to Japan which is more attractive to me. You see I can’t change the world very easily; I’d only scratch the surface.
M. R.: I’m not particularly fond of airport lounges; it’s my natural curiosity that is the motivation for my trips. Traveling to South Africa, the Americas, India, China, France, means accepting the challenge of doing the best I possibly can in a place I haven’t picked. There’s an obvious frustration that comes from not being able to get to the bottom of things, but discovery still fascinates me. I’m also going back to basics because I’m about to travel to Armenia in order to immerse myself in the story of Noah and of Mount Ararat, the cradle of wine civilization. This connection to the memory of man, to traditions, the ideas of our elders – which were often good ones – all this fascinates me.
*Leila Menchari is Creative Director at Hermès
Photographs: Michel Rolland and Jean-Claude Ellena were photographed by Jean-Luc Barde during their conversation