Banker Robert G. Wilmers, owner of the Bordeaux estate Château Haut-Bailly in Pessac-Léognan, died of a heart attack on Dec. 16 at his home in New York City. He was 83 years old.
Wilmers always took the long view. He was strategic, deliberate and patient, be it finance, fermentation or education. And the results prove that perseverance pays.
“Patience and a long-term vision are my assets,” he once said. Wilmers, who preferred to be called Bob, knew something about assets. For nearly 35 years, he had been the head of M&T Bank Corporation, one of the largest U.S. commercial banks and one of only two in the S&P 500 that didn’t cut its dividends when the financial crisis hit. On his watch, assets under management grew to more than $123 billion as of March 2017, up from $1.8 billion in 1983.
His idea of long-term was not unlike that of fellow billionaire and stock picker Warren Buffett, who has always said his “favorite holding period is forever.” Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. owns just more than 3.5% of M&T Bank stock.
“The bank’s only been around for 160 years, but the vineyard’s been around 600 years,” Wilmers once told a reporter. Wearing well-worn jeans, a striped-shirt open at the collar and a small smile, he added, “and I realize that it will probably be around 600 years from now. So, I’m just the manager of the property. I have a responsibility to make it as good as possible….
“That’s true of the bank as well, but I’m thinking in historical time. (…)You can’t think short-term with a vineyard because it will screw it up,” the Legion of Honour holder said.
“The Spirit Of The Vines”
Wilmers bought the winery in 1998, the same year he married Elisabeth Roche. It was the second marriage for each, and while he joked with friends that it was a wedding present for his wife, the truth is that he had been looking for a vineyard for a while. “It was more a question of her saying if that’s what you want to do, go ahead and do it,” he said.
Veronique Sanders-van Beck’s family had owned Haut-Bailly since 1955. She became the fourth generation of the family to take care of the Grand Cru Classe wine and Wilmer said it was Sanders’ agreeing to take the job of president and generation manager of the winery that sealed the deal.
Over the next six years “we had executed, step-by-step, a plan,” Sanders recalled. “We started with the agriculture. We did the cellars, the Château … All of this brings Haut-Bailly into the 21st century.”
The results were the Cabernet Sauvignon-driven wine regained its near-cult status and spurred typically blasé wine writers to take notice, and even dress for the tastings. London Telegraph wine writer Victoria Moore recalled how a few years ago when Sanders led a tasting of Haut-Bailly vintages from 2000 on, she along with at least one other wine writer, Oz Clarke, felt the need to dress up. She swapped flip- flops for high heels. Clarke, the Englishman who wrote the book on Bordeaux and only rarely wears ties, did that day explaining he too felt the need for a touch of sartorial splendor.
Haut-Bailly’s terroir—sand mixed with white Pyrenees gravel sitting atop fossil shells and stones on a high hill on the Garonne’s left bank—gets the lion’s share of the credit for producing wines with precision and grace. Its micro-climate has long been known
At the En Primeur Futures tastings of the 2015 vintage, Wine Enthusiast‘s European Editor Roger Voss named the Haut-Bailly the Wine of the Vintage.
“We kept the spirit of the vines. We updated the technologies. But we didn’t change the soil or the soul,” Wilmers said. “So, it’s a wonderful way to have kept tradition. And we are very fond of tradition.”
A Legacy Of Philanthropy
That includes a tradition of philanthropy. In Buffalo, where M&T Bank is based, he committed the company’s foundation to focus on education. “First of all, we were the bank that was doing well in a community that was not doing well. I think we were the third-poorest city in the country,” he said in an interview. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College and Harvard Business School, Wilmers followed the adage that to whom much is given, much is required.
Decades ago, he committed not only money—$800,000 a year for 39 years—but also his time and that of his executives to mentor the children of one school in Buffalo, which went on to become one of the city’s better schools. Wilmers also knew the importance of public service having served New York as chairman of New York’s Empire State Development Corporation, director at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and head of the state’s Bankers Association.
In Bordeaux, he was instrumental in funding The Thomas Jefferson Auditorium in La Cité du Vin, the museum and exhibition hall opened last year. It was Jefferson who is credited with introducing French wines, especially Bordeaux, to his fellow founding fathers. Wilmers was a strong supporter of Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin.
In France, he was seen as a great friend. President of the New York branch of the Alliance Française and an active fundraiser for the Partner University Fund exchange program between the French government and private American donors.
Wilmers is survived by his wife Elisabeth, son, Christopher and two grandchildren.
Additional Reporting by Roger Voss.