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.
“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.”