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A Wine Baroness Rebuilds a Brand
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TWICE in its long history, Château Margaux has been rescued by women.
The first, Laure de Fumel, acquired it in 1795, during the turbulence following the French Revolution, and managed to save it and its vineyards. But after a series of forgettable vintages she despaired of making great wine and auctioned it off in 1802.
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Christophe Calais for The New York Times “I’m a very competitive person. I ski, I windsurf, and in school I had better grades than the boys.” — Corinne Mentzelopoulos The second, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, had far better timing, coming to the chateau in 1980, after a string of disastrous vintages and just before a series of fabulous years in the 1980's, beginning with the legendary 1982's. It helped make her a novelty in France, where women serve and drink wine, and even help harvest the grapes, but are a vanishingly small minority among chateau owners.
Château Margaux is one of the five first-growth wine-producing properties in Bordeaux, along with Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Haut-Brion, and thus one of the most important in France. But it was in shambles in 1977 when Ms. Mentzelopoulos's wealthy father, André, a Greek immigrant, purchased it from the Ginestet family of Bordeaux wine merchants for $15 million. He knew little of winemaking, but began restoring it.
"In some ways my father was more French than the French," Ms. Mentzelopoulos said. "He used to say how on a flight back from London he read in the Financial Times that Château Margaux was for sale. We were invited one day for lunch with Pierre Ginestet. I went with him. I was a student. I was amazed by the beauty of it all. The cellars, the chateau."
When her father died three years later, Ms. Mentzelopoulos stepped into his shoes. "Without thinking, I came here," she said, sipping a Coke in a sleek 1970's office building that her father built along elegant Avenue Montaigne here in the capital. "You know, my heart belongs to Daddy."
In the ensuing years she moved far beyond her father's shadow. She now spends much of each year traveling in Europe and beyond, an ambassador of Bordeaux wines. In recent years the French have begun shipping wines to China, hoping to find future markets among the emerging middle class there. When President Hu Jintao of China visited a few years ago, she asked him why he had chosen Château Margaux. "But you are so famous, madame," she said he replied.
That fame was hard won, coming only after years of restoring the chateau and its reputation for making great wine. Relying on local experts, particularly the longtime managing director, Paul Pontallier, whom she hired, Ms. Mentzelopoulos tore up and replanted about 30 acres of vineyard and rebuilt storage vats and cellars. The chateau itself was restored inside and out, and within a few years a succession of superlative vintages came forth.
TRADITION may be a cornerstone of Château Margaux, designed by the architect Louis Combes in 1810, and it was by reviving the tradition that Ms. Mentzelopoulos made it work again. In some ways, her career reflects the recent history of the French wine industry. Once insular and hidebound, the industry gradually awakened in the 1980's and thereafter to the challenge of well-made, cleverly marketed wines from places like Australia, California, South Africa and Chile. Producers gradually updated their equipment and winemaking techniques, and began thinking seriously about how to compete in global markets.
It is perhaps appropriate that Ms. Mentzelopoulos, who comes from a family that contradicts many of the rules of French society, would be the one to shake up a great Bordeaux chateau.
Not only was her father Greek, he was self-made, having amassed a fortune in commodities and real estate. Her mother was a mix of Italian and French. She takes delight in that mixture, and her office reflects the contradictions: a line of Château Margaux bottles on a window sill and a print of the chateau, with its distinctive colonnade, on one wall; a fourth-century B.C. Greek statue from her father's old office against another wall, a large portrait of Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol on another.
Ms. Mentzelopoulos, 52, finds it difficult to explain why she chose the path she did. An avid reader, she first toyed with the idea of doing something with literature, then focused on the classics in high school.
But, she confesses, it was "Caesar's Gallic Wars in school, and at home the Dow Jones." A distaste for teaching steered her to the faculty of political studies, and after graduation in the mid-1970's a job at the Havas advertising agency, then a supermarket chain controlled by her father and, finally, the chateau.
Women were then, and remain, a rarity in the French wine world, a fact that obviously rankles Ms. Mentzelopoulos. "I'm a very competitive person," she said. "I ski, I windsurf, and in school I had better grades than the boys." Traditionally, she said, Frenchwomen who succeeded outside the home were still thought of as someone's wife or daughter. The grand dame of Bordeaux wines, May Eliane de Lencquesaing, the 81-year-old owner of the great chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, also inherited the estate from her father. "The one main difference is that today, you are a woman by yourself," Ms. Mentzelopoulos said.
OVER the years, she had been forced to sell off parts of her stake in the chateau to raise cash. Perhaps her shrewdest move came in 2003, after the Agnelli family of Italy, which had acquired a controlling stake in Margaux in 1991, decided to sell. At a time when Bill Gates and the Duke of Westminster were scouting for choice Bordeaux properties, Ms. Mentzelopoulos leapt into action, acquiring the Agnellis' 75 percent share for $440 million, giving her complete ownership. Over the years, Margaux has become "a part of the overall French luxury world," she said. "And I'm part of the status symbol."
Château Margaux wines are luxury products, she says, but with a close link to nature. "Today we're picking grapes with a potential alcoholic degree of 14.5 percent, which we haven't seen for decades, so we're very excited," she said. "But if it starts raining now, and we have dilution, our turnover and our luxury product are out there." It is reassuring, she said, that "contrary to other luxury goods products today, nobody today can create another Château Margaux in the world, even if you spent millions in Argentina, millions in California."
For the long term, she said, growth is constrained by limits on the amount of wine the chateau and its vineyards can produce. Yet, it is quality, not quantity, that poses the greatest challenge, she says.
"Margaux 1900 is a legend, but what about Margaux 2000?" Ms. Mentzelopoulos asked. "In 50 years, if Margaux is as famous and as wanted, and people drink it like the 1900 vintage, then I'll say, 'Somebody up there liked us. We did a good job.' "