The leading lady of wine—that is the way Baroness Philippine de Rothschild is often characterized, and she more than plays the part. With a formal background in theater—she spent some 30 years as an actress in her native France —and, since 1988, at the helm of one of the world’s most important wine dynasties, the role was written for her.
But though she plays her leading-lady role with flair and seeming ease—indeed, her life might seem enchanted to some—her early years were marked by tragedy. In 1945, as a young child during World War II, she witnessed the Gestapo capture her mother for deportation to Ravensbrück, where her mother later died. “I would have been taken away too, only, for whatever reason, I was overlooked and left behind,” she recalls. Her father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, an art collector, race car driver and lover of poetry, was lucky, too; he escaped from the Nazis and lived to make his mark as a visionary of the wine world. Over his long career, every step taken by the baron to advance premier cru classe Château Mouton-Rothschild rumbled with repercussions felt in vineyards across the planet.
Innovator in the Field of Wine
His daughter, the baroness, recipient of the Wine Enthusiast Lifetime Achievement Award for 2005, has not only filled his shoes, but has taken even faster, longer strides, pushing the company, Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, to maintain its role as an innovator in the field of wine. In the process, it has dramatically expanded its reach and influence around the world.
A watershed year for Château Mouton-Rothschild, based in Bordeaux’s Pauillac region, was 1973—the date the estate was upgraded to first-growth status. It joined the top echelon of Bordeaux’s best, in the company of Châteaux Haut-Brion, Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild and Latour, which had enjoyed first-growth status since the 1855 classification that created the elite designation. Baron Philippe had lobbied furiously throughout his life to gain the designation. Nevertheless, Mouton-Rothschild’s late arrival to the group has in many ways set it apart.
The baroness assumed control of Mouton-Rothschild in 1988, the year the baron died. Under her direction, Mouton-Rothschild, one of the three major Bordeaux chateaus under her control (the others are Château d’Armailhac and Château Clerc Milon, both in Pauillac) has become arguably the most dynamic of the first-growth chateaus. She has modernized the wineries and created new brands, undertaken joint ventures and energized Mouton-Rothschild’s marketing program. Under her direction, a premium white wine, Aile d’Argent, was created at Mouton in 1991, and another, Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild, in 1994. She manages Mouton-Cadet, now one of the most successful global Bordeaux brands, and is overseeing the development of Domaine de Baron d’Arques, a property in the Languedoc. A joint venture with Concha y Toro in Chile in 1997 resulted in the well-respected Almaviva label.
Opus One, a Father’s Dream
And, then of course, there is Opus One. The symbolic significance of Opus One as link between Old World and New World wine tradition cannot be exaggerated. In 1979, the baron and Robert Mondavi unveiled the exciting joint venture dedicated to Bordeaux-inspired interpretations of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The baroness shepherded her father’s dream to fruition, and in 1991, a $26 million limestone and marble winery was built along Highway 29. It has become one of the valley’s best-recognized landmarks. Opus One’s labor-intensive, high-density planting systems were imported from Bordeaux and ultimately raised the bar on quality winemaking in the Golden State and beyond.
In 2004, Constellation Brands acquired Robert Mondavi Corp. for $1.4 billion, and with it, its 50 percent stake in Opus One. Months of speculation entertained two schools of thought: Philippine de Rothschild would either sell her share or buy it all. In the end, she opted to preserve the joint venture as originally envisioned by her father and Robert Mondavi. She agreed to remain part owner of the 30,000-case-per-year-winery with Constellation. “[Selling Opus One] would have broken my heart,” she said at a press conference in September. “It really did not cross my mind. I’m really not a seller.”
Neither is she a sentimentalist, however. From the time the baroness assumed the leadership of Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., annual sales have more than doubled, to nearly $200 million in 2004, from total production of about 2 million cases, including 25,000 cases a year of Mouton-Rothschild.
With her background in the arts, it’s no surprise that the leading lady of wine has continued a custom started by her father of having a noted artist design a label for each new vintage. (The artists are famously paid only in wine: five cases of the vintage in question and five from the artist’s year of birth.) At the start, the labels were seen as too severe a departure from tradition and harshly criticized by the wine establishment. Today, colorful, artistically designed labels are a major component to successful wine marketing, but Mouton-Rothschild’s continue to stand apart. Walking through the chateau’s label exhibit hall is like visiting a miniature art museum. You’ll see the work of Keith Haring (vintage 1988); film director John Huston (1982); Andy Warhol (1975); Picasso (1973); Kandinsky (1971); Chagall (1970); Miró (1969) and Dalí (1958) among others. The baroness also established a visitor-friendly wine tasting room, gift shop, museum and garden tours, making Mouton-Rothschild a highlight of the Bordeaux wine tour.
Two years ago the baroness undertook yet another departure from tradition, when she hired a new head winemaker, Philippe Dhalluin (who replaced the legendary Patrick Léon, Wine Enthusiast’s Winemaker of the Year in 2002). “I think the most important and innovative change I have made is to have hired a winemaker dedicated only to domaine wines,” she said, speaking of Dhalluin. While his predecessor oversaw both domaine (branded) wines as well as négociant bottlings, these two branches of the business are now separate and headed by two different people. Dhalluin supervises the three chateaus in Bordeaux as well as Opus One and Vina Almaviva in Chile.
The baroness has three children, two of whom will become involved in the family business: Philippe, 42, is a businessman who will one day have charge of the business side of the company; Julien, 34, is an artist who will take care of the museums and the aesthetic side of the family business. However, the baroness is still very much involved in the operation: “My job is very different than most. I envy those who run one business. I run about 12 things at the same time,” she says. “We don’t just make wine…we are dedicated to art. Our intention is not to elaborate upon Bordeaux tradition, but to continue with it.”
Spoken like the leading lady of wine that she is.
See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.