18 December 2019
“What do I like least about my work?” Philippe Sereys de Rothschild asks himself. “Tasting bad wine – without mentioning any names. I often taste other wines to acquire a better understanding of the market. The other bad thing is when someone tells me they’ve drunk one of our wines and didn’t get the 100 per cent pleasure from it that I think they should get. It doesn’t happen that often – but I’m very sensitive about that. You know, when you’re an actor on the stage not everyone is going to love your performance. When you expose yourself with any product, you get praise and you get criticism.”
But one might expect that, as CEO of Barnon Philippe de Rothschild - the producer of noted bordeaux wines, among them Chateau Mouton Rothschild - he mostly recieves praise. That’s the wine that became the go-to reference for anyone wanting to express either their oenophile tendencies, their deep pockets, or both. That’s the wine name-checked in the writings of John Updike, Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl. It’s a fine appreciation for Mouton Rothschild wines that allows James Bond to expose the villain in Diamonds Are Forever.
Yet having such a high profile, Sereys de Rothschild insists, is a double-edged sword. “Look at what the most famous wines in the world are and nine times out of 10 ours comes up. That means we’re more widely tasted, draw the interest of sommeliers and so on. We have brand awareness – not a phrase I like. But it also means we really have to shoot for perfection. The difficulty is not getting to the top, but staying there."
The Rothschild reach goes beyond the liquid itself. "Although it’s a little more than just a liquid of course,” chuckles Rothschild. This includes the auctioning of 75 limited-edition cases by Sotheby’s in early 2019 to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles and Notre-Dame. The labels were designed by art heavyweights Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, Giuseppe Penone, Bernar Venet and Lee Ufan, in keeping with a tradition established in 1945 by Sereys de Rothchild’s grandfather. Over the years, labels have been designed by the likes of Dali, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Warhol and Bacon.
“Chateau Mouton Rothschild has always been very much part of a wider artistic domain,” he explains. “My great-grandfather wrote plays, my grandfather was a big art collector, translated the works of Christopher Marlowe and owned Paris’ Théâtre Pigalle. My mother was also an actress, my father the Comedie-Francaise stalwart Jacques Sereys is an actor... There wasn’t any fixed strategy to the labelling – just the love of wine and of art, though, of course, it plays with the idea that making wine is an art, that blending wine is like blending colours for a painting.”
It’s the performing arts that get Rothschild most animated. He runs a foundation which helps school children to experience artistic performances, from ballet to opera and traditional theatrical productions.
“These days, children are very focused on their screens, on their video games,” he observes. “But I believe that it’s essential at some point in schooling that they get to engage with performing arts, to get behind the scenes and see this whole world of know-how – to see the fascination on their faces is absolute magic,” says Rothschild. “I don’t think young people [engage with the arts] automatically, as I wouldn’t have if my parents hadn’t have been actors. You know, education is one thing. But culture is another. And the experience of culture is pleasure.”
Rothschild is, it might be said, in the pleasure business himself. Now 56, he’s had a career in banking, as an investor in various tech and environmental start-ups, and as the chief finance officer of the energy company Dalkia. He’s also the partner of French acting icon Carole Bouquet, whose credits include For Your Eyes Only.
He took over the family firm on the death of his mother in 2014. He knew the day would come and, when finally faced with the choice of whether or not to take up the leadership, he went for it, with his brother Julien and sister Cmille also on the board.
“I’ve always looked at the wine business as an opportunity and not an obligation, though I knew throughout my career that I’d get closer and closer to it,” he says. He also knew it would not be without challenges. “There isn’t room at the top of the wine world for everybody. And the fact is that wine is very fragile – you open a bottle and you don’t really know what will happen. It might not have been well-preserved, or the temperature might be wrong. But my job is not to make the most expensive wine - that’s decided by the market, over which producers have no control - but the best wine.”
Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA is a vast enterprise, incorporating not just Chateau Mouton Rothschild but also the family chateaux of Baronarques, Clerc Milon and d’Armailhac. His grandfather and mother were also smart in building equal partnerships with other family winemakers in Chile and the Napa Valley, producing, in time, well-received brands, likes Almaviva and Opus One.
“Everybody told us that joint ventures don’t work, that 50/50 is a fragile structure. But it’s been working with various ventures between 20 and 50 years now,” says Rothschild. “We’re in no hurry. The wine business is all about growing slowly but surely. But we’re always looking for more joint ventures – with other families. There’s something special in that. Chateau Mouton Rothschild is not 99 per cent family-owned but 100 per cent family-owned – and I think that gives it a soul. Our family history gives us a certain approach to the wine world. Families are around for the long term – and the only way to make wine is to think in the long term.”
There’s even family over the road. Cheek by jowl with the Chateau Mouton Rothschild estate can be found Chateau Lafite Rothschild. One would imagine that there is a little friendly competition – Lafite was first to be granted the esteemed ‘first growth’ status, which Baron Philippe, Rothschild’s grandfather, persistently lobbied the French government to win in 1973 – but he insists that it’s all within the family.
“Sentimentally I’m very close to Chateau Lafite, of course, and to my cousins Eric and Saskiawho run it – and it’s literally only 500m away,” Rothschild laughs. “If I have questions or doubts about something I give them a call. It’s a friendship, not a rivalry, but of course we have the normal disagreements. Frankly the competition for us is not Lafite – it’s the rest of the wine world.”
It makes him very happy, he says, that “more and more people are drinking better and better wine".More people are sensitive to authenticity – they want to know where wines are from, how wines are made, who makes it and how. We have to get that message across with regards to the quality of our wines – that they’re worth the price because they taste better, because they’re better for your health. We work hard to make them cleaner and cleaner.”
It might take a Frenchman to argue that wine is good for you, but Philippe Sereys de Rothschild speaks with a persuasive enthusiasm about the craft that has always been in the background of his life, but which is now its professional focus – and for the continued success of which he’s responsible. Despite his famous family name, he says he’s careful to take nothing for granted.
“My mother always said that because I have this name I have great privilege, but that it also came with important responsibilities and duties. That’s something I tell my children, too. I long wrestled about how I should explain the Rothschild name to them. Do people look at you differently because you’re called Rothschild? Absolutely. So I just don’t think about it. I think if you did think about it too hard you’d end up not trusting your own judgement. You’d stop living.”
If you’re good at what you do, he says, people will respect you regardless of your name. “When I joined Chateau Mouton Rothschild I just wanted to be sure that I could add something. I don’t yet know that I will - but I hope to over the next 20 years or so.”
Chateau Mouton Rothschild is available in London at Justerini & Brooks (61 St James's Street, justerinis.com) and Berry Bros. & Rudd (63 Pall Mall, bbr.com)