Philippe Sereys de Rothschild Brings Business Savvy and Impish Humor to a Wine Empire

Bordeaux is transforming itself. Change was widely on display during Vinexpo, the biennial trade fair held this month at the city’s Parc des Expositions with satellite parties at chateaux throughout the Left and Right Banks. The visible changes were magnificent new cellars at several wineries, including Chateau Margaux, which hosted the international press dinner to showcase its new facility adjacent to the iconic chateaux, and Chateau Montrose, which hosted the Fête de la Fleur at the end of the week.

There is also generational change. A prominent example is Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, who took over as “Chairman of the Supervisory Board” of Baron Philippe Rothschild SA last October following the death of his mother, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Born in 1963, the Harvard-educated Sereys had a successful career in business and international finance before joining the family company in 2006. I had the pleasure of meeting Sereys and his companion, film actress Carole Bouquet, at the Margaux dinner. They added a little celebrity glitz to the old-fashioned glam of Bordeaux during Vinexpo.

And he has an impish sense of humor, I learned. At the dinner, I told Sereys my story of having met his mother, the Baroness, at the same function in 2009, on my previous visit to Vinexpo, and how my poor French and a functionary gatekeeper thwarted my opportunity to have lunch with her the next day.

Philippe Sereys de Rothschild at the Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA pavilion at Vinexpo, June 15, 2015.

Philippe Sereys de Rothschild at the Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA pavilion at Vinexpo, June 15, 2015.

“Well you must come have lunch with me tomorrow then,” he said. “My mother would insist.” When I told him I had a lunch appointment at a chateau in Pauillac, an hour away up the Left Bank, he exclaimed, “Cancel it!” We eventually negotiated a 2:30 meeting at the Baron Philippe pavilion at Vinexpo, and when I showed up out of breath at 2:45, he upbraided me: “You’re late!” I half expected to hear “Off with his head!” but he doesn’t seem to take the royalty part too seriously. I noticed the staff referred to him as Monsieur Sereys rather than Baron Philippe. Apparently he is crafting his own identity and leaving the royal moniker for his famous grandfather.

I asked Sereys about the challenges facing Bordeaux, from complaints about the high prices of the futures market (Mouton Rothschild struck a moderate stance in this year’s en primeur campaign) to a perception, here in the US at least, that Bordeaux is passé.

“There’s no perfect market,” he said, drawing on his business perspective. “Every market over-reacts, either up or down. For the moment, the futures market is as good as it can be.”

Globalization has created challenges, he said. “The routes to market are becoming more diverse. The market itself is more diverse, more global, more immediate. And people are looking for service. How do we adapt to those changes? At the end of the day, you have to get the bottle into the customer’s hands.”

Adapting to those changes may not be easy for an industry focused on its main task – making wine.

“People forget how our business is a long-term business,” he said. “It’s not private equity. Which is a luxury, because in a world where everything goes faster and faster, we cannot rush the climate. We cannot rush the terroir. Opus One took 30 years to develop, but now it is terrific. We started Alma Viva in Chile in 1998 – it’s halfway there. And there’s still a lot of work to do at Mouton. When you are at the top, you need to work hard to stay there.”

That led me to mention the visible transformation underway throughout Bordeaux, with significant investment in new production facilities and a focus on “precision viticulture” – a focus on specific soil types and small-lot fermentation to give vintners more flexibility in blending their final wines.

“Since the market has become more global and Bordeaux remains at the center, we have to reinvest to maintain and improve quality,” he said. “Although we do have to sell it, our core business is the production of wine. Speaking of which, are you thirsty?” He ran over to a nearby tasting bar, and a few minutes later a waiter brought two glasses of Mouton-Cadet rosé. He wasn’t being cheap, but playful. This referred back to our conversation at the press dinner the night before, where we had Clerc Milon 2006 and 1988 along with Mouton Rothschild 2006 and 1995.

He took a sip, smiled and shrugged. “It’s rosé.” And indeed, it was fine.

“I notice you had it placed as the exclusive rosé of the Cannes film festival, right in the heart of Provence,” I said.

He giggled and said, “Isn’t that cool?”

As I stood to take my leave, Sereys shook my hand and said, “My mother will be happy now. You made it inside the Baron Philippe pavilion.”

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Solving the Riedel of Coke

“How do most people drink their Coke?” Maxilimian Riedel asked as he popped open a can and placed it in front of me, alongside a plastic cup.

“From the can,” I said.

“Right! Take a sip – what’s the first thing you notice?” Not being a regular soda drinker for many years, I took a swig and remembered the impression of sweetness and the vague dried fruit flavor. But before I could say anything, Riedel continued his explanation. “You didn’t smell it. You can’t smell it from a can.”

We were at the small Riedel booth at Vinexpo, the biennial wine trade fair in Bordeaux. I was surrounded by other vendors offering first growth this or grand cru that, vintage Armagnac, almost any exclusive alcoholic beverage in the world, and this man was offering me a Coke.

IMG_0294He poured some into the plastic cup and directed me to touch the can, then the cup. “Notice the can is cold, but the cup is warm,” he said. (He didn’t give me the chance to point out that the can had been refrigerated.) “The plastic cup actually warms the drink.” He produced a glass – not just any glass, but a Riedel Coca-Cola glass, designed specifically for the famous soda and with a shape reminiscent of the iconic Coke bottle. He poured some into the glass, and a thick foamy mousse formed on top of the soda. “Notice the bubbles,” he said. “Yet the drink in the plastic cup has gone flat. The cup kills the effervescence.” The glass was also cold to the touch, reflecting the temperature of the drink.

I smelled the cup. There was that prune flavor again. But when I stuck my nose in the glass, I was hit with the sting of carbonation, a Proustian moment that took me back to childhood, a time when we drank soda out of a glass rather than a can or a honking-huge cup with a straw poked through the lid.

When the Riedel Wine Glass Co. unveiled its Coca-Cola glass in early 2014, I just shook my head. Was there nothing they wouldn’t try to sell us a special glass for, I wondered. (Yes, Riedel makes water glasses.) The skeptic in me has always balked at the idea that we need a special line of glassware for each grape variety, for instance. I recognize glassware does make a difference in the way wine tastes, but have always felt an expensive stem is most appropriate with the finer wines where nuance is crucial, and expensive. Riedel is the aristocrat of wine glasses; why would we need a Riedel for something a proletarian as Coke?

I took a sip from the fizzy glass and hiccupped loudly.

“Only two people in the world supposedly know the formula for Coca-Cola,” Riedel said. “But here you can taste lemon, lime, cinnamon and maybe some clove.” So much more interesting than sugary prunes.

Max Riedel may not have figured out the secret formula, but he reminds us of what we’ve lost in our modern craving for convenience over flavor.

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Traveling the World at Vinexpo

Greetings from Vinexpo! I’m in Bordeaux for only my second visit to this biennial trade fair, having first come in 2009. That was the year Bordeaux was chasing the China market; Asia is much less prominent this year, and in fact the Bordelais are once again wooing Americans. More on that to come.

Just walking through the immense hall at the Parc des Expositions is overwhelming. Within a span of two hours, I was able to whipsaw from Patagonia to Portugal to Champagne and then Austria. I tasted a savory Malbec from Portales del Fin del Mundo, then the exquisite White Stones and White Bones chardonnays of Catena Zapata, from select vine rows high in the Andes foothills of Mendoza.

Minutes later I was sipping a tawny port from Taylor Fladgate vinted in 1863, the year of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, and the year Ford, Royce and Peugeot were born, according to Adrian Bridge, Taylor’s executive director. Then a Champagne tasting – comparing not wines but the glasses they are served in. (For the record, Lanson Gold Label 1995 is delicious in any glass, but more expressive in a white wine glass rather than a traditional Champagne flute.)

Maximilian Riedel comparing glasses for Champagne

Maximilian Riedel comparing glasses for Champagne

After scarfing a sandwich of pata negra jambon on a crusty baguette, I was (in spirit) cruising the Danube tasting the electrifying Grüner Veltliner and Riesling wines of Gobelsburg and Bründlmayer. A few more steps took me back centuries in history to the very beginning of wine and the racy rkatsiteli white and savory saperavi reds from Georgia, fermented in clay amphorae called qvevri.

And just to wrap up the day, I did an espresso tasting with Maximilian Riedel – and even more enlightening, a Coca-Cola tasting. More on that in a future blog post.

Still, there’s a sense of ennui here. Many producers say the buzz and the crowds are thicker at Prowein, the annual fair held in Dusseldorf in March. That seems to be easier for the East European market to reach. And perhaps Vinexpo has diluted its brand by holding its fair in Hong Kong in alternate years (though it has always been every other year in Bordeaux).

But I’ve seen signs that Bordeaux is aware of the competition and is mobilizing — or has mobilized — to respond. This is still be the center of the wine world — albeit a more broad and diverse wine world than ever before — and producers here sense the competition and know they need to adapt to the changing global market. (That realization may not yet be reflected in en primeur  pricing for the latest futures market.)

There’s much to learn about and explore here this week at Vinexpo. Stay tuned.

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Vive la France!

Saturday’s D-Day commemorations and salutations on Facebook and other social media reminded me of my first visit to France, in 1997. We saw Ugly Americans treating the French poorly, and on one or two occasions we experienced anti-American sentiment. Mostly, we learned the French will treat you wonderfully if you merely extend the simplest courtesy. As in saying, “Bonjour!” and “Merci!”

My most compelling memory of that trip was our cabbie who drove us from Paris to CDG for the flight home. Catching a cab that morning proved to be a challenge, but as we laughed it off in the back seat, our driver turned to us and said, “Americans?”

“Oui,” I answered, somewhat guardedly. But we obviously weren’t Germans, so what could I have said?

“I am from Normandy,” he said, in good if somewhat stiff English. “I was five years old on D-Day.” Then emphatically, with a period after each word, he proclaimed: “I. Love. Americans!”

Vive la France!

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Tasting SLV and Mouton with Warren Winiarski

During my recent visit to California, I had the pleasure of visiting Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and a Napa Valley pioneer whose Cabernet Sauvignon won the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. We first met a few years ago when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened its exhibit Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, and I interviewed him for an earlier piece on Napa Cabernet.

Warren Winiarski with his 2006 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

Warren Winiarski with his 2006 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

We were to meet for lunch at Bistro Don Giovanni, but at the last minute Warren invited me to his home first to taste the Stag’s Leap 2006 SLV, the last vintage he harvested before selling the winery in 2007, and the 2006 Mouton Rothschild. One does not decline such an invitation.

When I arrived at his home, perched on a hill behind the winery with a panoramic view of the Fay Vineyard, Warren seemed perturbed. The Mouton, he explained, was damaged. He showed me a half bottle he had purchased from a well-known online purveyor. Unfortunately, it arrived with the cork protruding half an inch from the bottle, nearly poking through the foil. The tissue paper wrapper was stained with wine, and the label also showed signs of leakage. The wine had obviously been improperly stored.

My first thought was, what idiot would put an obviously damaged bottle of Mouton into the mail, especially when the customer name on the label was Winiarski? Reflecting on this experience later, I wondered about the reliability of any wine purchased over the Internet, especially older rare wines. (Note the comment below that the seller gave Warren a full refund.)

The Mouton was indeed cooked. The color was brown, it tasted of stewed fruit compote and lacked virtually any aroma. The SLV, on the other hand, was still quite young and vibrant. It was just shaking off its youthful tannins and beginning to show its potential to develop into a truly classic Napa Valley Cabernet.

Even though we couldn’t make the comparison with the Mouton, the chance to taste the Stag’s Leap with the man who grew it and helped establish Napa’s reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon nearly 40 years ago was memorable.

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Drinking Local with The Wine Curmudgeon

BAV 2010 Chardonnay

The wine of the week?

My wife and I had the pleasure last week of hosting Jeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, while he was in DC judging a preliminary round of the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition. (Jeff posted his impressions of the judging here.)

Since Jeff was here to taste Virginia wines, we started with Thibaut-Janisson’s Xtra Brut bubbly, which I was confident would not be in the competition because of small production. Then we focused mainly (though not exclusively) on Maryland. Jeff said he was unfamiliar with Black Ankle Vineyards‘ white wines, so we tried the 2010 Chardonnay. The wine was somewhat golden, reflecting age (most of it in my imperfect cellar), but it was by no means over the hill. It was rich, creamy and oaky, and we each enjoyed a glass before moving on.

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A Chance to Live the Luxury Wine Life in South Africa?

It was only a matter of time before wine auctions go online, like everything else. This year’s Cape Auction in South Africa may not be the first to try this, but they’ve gone virtual in a big way, with a month of online bidding preceding their auction February 13-14 in Stellenbosch.

Online bidding began today, and is aimed at the U.S. market. Big spenders, of course, as most auctions are. And this isn’t eBay, where a package shows up in the mail a few days after your successful bid. For most of these lots, you’d better be planning a trip to South Africa’s wine country. But if you are, and if you have deep pockets, this would be a great way to jazz up that trip.

Will it fit in my carry-on?

Will it fit in my carry-on?

Most of the lots include private tours, dinners, spa treatments and luxury lodging, including at Sir Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle estate. The Môreson & Le Quartier Français lot includes a barrel of premium chardonnay and a weekend of private partying, including accommodations for 42 people. The Warwick Estate lot includes “an incredible summer party for 100 friends.” (These South Africans know how to have a good time!) If you’re not heading to South Africa, one lot includes a Loire Valley trip, and another includes grouse shooting in England.

Most lots include wine, of course. And lots of it. If I had the money and the cellar space I’d be tempted by the Swartland Revolution lot, which includes Balthazars (12 liters, or 16 regular bottles) from some of Swartland’s hottest producers: A.A. Badenhorst, Sadie Family Wines, Porseleinberg, and Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines. I would need those 100 friends to help drink those! These names featured prominently when I wrote about the excitement in South Africa’s wines last fall. (The wines would be delivered through an importer, such as Broadbent Selections, which imports A.A. Badenhorst, Sadie Family, and Warwick Wine Estate to the U.S.)

The auction hopes to raise more than $1 million this year, according to Mike Ratcliffe, managing director of Warwick and Vilafonté wineries. Proceeds support educational charities in South Africa’s wine lands.

In an email, Ratcliffe even referred to the auction by its Twitter handle #CWA2015, showing the importance of social media and the online bidding. About half the people who attended the auction last year came from outside South Africa, many from the United States, so the organizers decided to try to attract more “U.S. punters,” he said. “Bill Harlan, Charles Banks, Garen & Shari Staglin, Bartholomew Broadbent, André Shearer & Zelma Long amongst many others are representing the USA in our efforts,” he wrote.

Like most auctions, I’ll be watching from the sidelines. But if you have trouble filling out your 100-person guest list, give me a call.

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