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Mon Cher, We Will Never Be Second: Phillipe de Rothschild’s Wine Bottles and the Beauty of Capitalism
Wine is an art in France. And a business. Considering its dual nature, perhaps there was no one better to revolutionize both aspects of the French wine industry than a Rothschild. One from a family that has been entwined for centuries in Europe’s money and its art, as patrons and creators.
Nowadays, to the extent that he is remembered at all in the Anglophone world, Baron Philippe de Rothschild is remembered as a race car driver or the husband of style icon Pauline. However, the Baron was also a poet, film and theatre producer, playwright, translator, and vigneron of almost unparalleled success.
Château Mouton Rothschild, a wine estate located in Pauillac, southwestern France, has been in the Rothschild family since 1853, when it was purchased by Nathaniel de Rothschild and renamed from Château Brane-Mouton. Nathaniel was actually an English, not a French, Rothschild, though he spent the majority of his life residing and working in the country with the French branch of the family, and Phillipe believed that this is why the vineyard was denied Premier Cru status despite meeting the price standard. (The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 was based on each château’s trade price and reputation, which at the time was closely related to the quality of the wine that it produced. Even in the face of significant criticism, the classification list remains in force today). Despite Nathaniel’s love of it, Château Mouton Rothschild little interested James Mayer de Rothschild, the heir, or his son Henri.
WWI was what saved the estate from another generation of neglect. Phillipe was sent from Paris to live there in 1914, when he was twelve, by his father, who was intent to keep his youngest son as far away from the fighting as possible. During his years in Pauillac, Phillipe fell in love with both the countryside and the vineyards. Only eight years after he was first sent there, Phillipe took full control of Château Mouton Rothschild. Showing typical flair and creative intelligence, he decided to take a path with the 1924 harvest unheard of among French vignerons. General practice was to sell the wine (really casks of semi-fermented grape juice and whatever additives producers might have seen fit to add) directly to merchants, and for them to allow it to mature and bottle, label, and market the final product. While the château would probably keep its hands on a portion to do this to itself, either for in house consumption or small scale sale, it sometimes led to wild variations in quality and end result from the same winery’s grapes.
Phillipe, instead, kept the entirety of the ‘24 stock, and set up a production process. From then on, the shrewd future Baron surmised, Mouton Rothschild would be regarded as a brand, with consistent quality among its years. Premier Cru producers quickly began to follow suit. Rather than waste grapes that did not meet his high standards, or risk lowering the quality of the house wines, he created a separate brand in 1932 under which to make and sell a second-string vintage. Mouton Cadet, the result of that venture, is the most sold red wine in the world.
In 1940, Château Mouton Rothschild was seized by Phillipe Pétain’s Vichy government, and Phillipe de Rothschild’s French citizenship was revoked. Upon his release in 1941, he escaped to London to join de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. By the time he finished his service in 1945, he had earned a Croix de Guerre, but lost his wife, Élisabeth de Chambure. The two were separated, estranged in a passionate and tempestuous marriage by the death of their son Charles Henri shortly after his birth in 1938. Phillipe was struck by the bitter irony that the only member of the most famous Jewish family in the world was a Catholic who converted to Judaism a few months before her wedding, and haunted by imagining how she might have suffered, and died, in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Despite their separation, he was still deeply in love with his wife, and turned to repairing the vineyard, damaged by German occupation, to soothe his grief.
The château took in a 1945 harvest, and returned to production in the early 1950s. Despite his joy in reviving the château, though, Phillipe was still greatly angered by the fact that their wine remained under the 1855 Deuxièmes Crus designation, something which even some contemporaries of the original list thought smacked of anti-Semitism. Considering the price his wines sold at, and its international reputation, the Baron’s upset was justified. He launched a one-man crusade to have his château’s designation made Premier Cru. Finally, after decades of lobbying, Georges Pompidou’s government changed it to First Growth status in 1973. (Pompidou began working at Rothschild & Co in 1953, and only left in 1962 to serve as de Gaulle’s prime minister, having achieved the status of general manager). It was the first time, with the exception of the 1856 addition of Macau’s Château Cantemerl to Premier Cru, that the Official Classification was changed.
The winery’s motto was Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis (“First, I cannot be. Second, I do not deign to be. Mouton I am.”), and that same year it was changed to Premier je suis, Second je fus, Mouton ne change (“First, I am. Second, I used to be. Mouton does not change.”) During the Baron’s lifetime, the winery continued to grow, and even add vineyards, while he worked with Robert Mondavi in the 1980s to form the Opus One Winery in Oakville, California. He died in January of 1988, at the age of 85, still fully engaged with the business he had helped to become a world leader.
However, I think the beauty of Phillipe’s chapter in the story of Château Mouton Rothschild goes beyond his dazzling display of the family’s typical acute business acumen, and talent for innovation. Phillipe saw the intersection between art and capitalism, and represented that in a charming, creative way. In 1924, the future Baron commissioned Jean Carlu, a well-known poster designer, to create a label for that year’s vintage. Every year since 1945, a famous, or up and coming (and Phillipe could certainly spot them), artist has designed the grand vin’s label. Among the Rothschild alumni are Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dalí, Lucian Freud, César, Jeff Koons, David Hockney, the Prince of Wales (Charles), and Pierre Soulages.
Naturally, Phillipe meant for the high quality, exclusivity, and excellence, of his product to be reflected even in the art that adorned the bottle. From day one he showed clearly that he understood the power of a brand. But Phillipe was not only a consummate businessman, he was an artist in his own right. The beauty of the wine as an art form and a craft was meant to be reflected in the labels. Likewise, the labels represented his creation’s existence as part of a high culture, one which encompassed the best of enduring literature, food, cinema, music, and art. A rich man who bought the wine might learn something of that culture, and be drawn to patronize it with his wealth, or an artist that saw the bottles could begin to understand how his art might enter a world beyond galleries and museums. As much as anything, the labels represent an effort and an act of mutual understanding, a celebration of the profundity and connectedness of human creativity in all fields, whether the end result was a painted canvas or a bottle full of Bordeaux.
Phillipe’s message is especially wonderful when one stops to consider the history of his family. Before the advent of early modern capitalism, the vast majority of art was in the hands of kings, princes, lords, and abbots. Artists worked at the pleasure of their patrons, and mostly produced what those patrons desired. We hear much nowadays about how art was stifled by capitalism, and while quite a bit of beautiful art was produced in the early middle ages, it was capitalism that really helped to set it free. As bills of exchange and long-distance trade started to build a merchant, and from there a middle, class, the market for potential buyers exploded. Artists certainly still had patrons, but they could also create works in line with their own brilliances, and sell them to a much wider potential clientele. The Rothschilds first arrived on the European economic scene in 1567, one of the heights of early modern capitalism, and helped to build the banking and financial world as we know it today. They assisted in creating and sustaining the market which grew a freer, more innovative art world.
It seems fitting that more than three centuries later, one of the family’s greatest descendants would so perfectly encapsulate the idea of capitalism as a thing of beauty.Published in General
Fascinating. Thank you for an interesting read for a rainy Saturday morning.
Excellent post, KW, and fine history! Wine drinking in the USA has come a long way since that year of victory, 1945. When I was a kid, adults regarded wine as either snobby or vaguely ethnic. The poor drank beer, the rich drank cocktails. In my young adulthood, a mere, oh, half a century ago, people in their twenties largely dropped cocktails for a couple of decades and switched to wine. We weren’t very sophisticated about it; as we rose into mature life, we began to take more interest in better stuff, not what the British would call “cheap plonk” anymore. You’re providing the education that we missed!
Great post! Though I do not recall buying any Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac is not far from my in-laws’ place on the northwest side of Bordeaux. I’m sure my late father-in-law took me through there in one of our country rides. Naturally, various samples of the region’s wine have always been on a rack here. Though my stock is close to gone, thanks to Covid. ):
Wine appreciation is one of the fields wherein I’m largely ignorant, and, considering the price of education is likely to remain so.
Still, I can appreciate strategy. Interesting read.
The Mouton-Rothschild Grand Cru Classe, depending upon the year, can retail anywhere between $550 and $16,000 (the ’45, which apparently is exceptionally good), and tends to sit in the $1,100 and up range, so I think even most people that live in or near Pauillac won’t have had it. The Mouton Cadet, on the other hand, is everywhere.
I’m sorry about your stocks, that’s no fun. I miss traveling in France so much.
I actually grew up making wine with my dad and my aunt, and I’m decently knowledgable about good wineries and years. But, of course, I cannot stand consuming wine. The most I can tolerate is 1/2 glass of dry Prosecco, and that was at my hair dresser’s, when one of his friends who had just returned from Italy brought a bottle and I didn’t want to be impolite.
Someone give this lady contributor status already. Another piece of history I didn’t know I didn’t know, but glad that I do now.
Interesting opinion. I’m in a weird place vis-à-vis this subject. As a Libertarian I’m a champion of capitalism and its ability to bless the people who live under it. As a punk kid and enthusiast of all kinds of underground art, I’ve been acculturated to eye skeptically the encroachment of commerce onto art. And as a terrible snob, I look at much of what is popular with disgust, and rue what looks to be the society-wide loss of appreciation for fine art. We’ve all seen movies that were focus-grouped to death, heard soulless pop music, watched garbage YouTube videos with views in the tens of millions.
I respect creators who retain artistic integrity at the cost of big paychecks, like YouTubers RedLetterMedia who don’t stop their videos to hawk products like almost everyone else on the platform (and don’t even ask viewers to like/subscribe), or the various bands who continue playing music that will never be commercially viable, though thinking about it now, all these people’s work benefits from capitalism. In RLM’s case, they have ads on their videos (just not integrated into them), they sell merch, and have a healthy Patreon. The creators far outside the mainstream don’t have to rely on the patronage of some aristocrat (though the idea of a patron of a black metal band is intriguing); they can find the people who do want to support them–capitalism is great at creating avenues for people to share their work where others can find it–and they can make money, even if it’s nowhere near the amount popular artists do.
There’s also the fact that sometimes the money-minded movie producer is right and the auteur’s ambitions need to be reined in. I’ve listened to a number of attempted sellout records that completely fail. Selling out is harder than it looks, one might say an art unto itself. Dang girl, you got me rambling and with just 87 words.
It’s a great point. In reality, no country has a fully market economy, and thus there are elements of control, and even monopoly, which pop up and can stifle creativity, among other things.
Vis-a-vis pop junk and underground art, I think my best argument would be this. Capitalism, as opposed to crony capitalism, goes hand in hand with a certain degree of social and political freedom, and tends to encourage more. There were underground rock artists in the USSR just like the US, but their parents weren’t shaking their heads at them, they were being rounded up, imprisoned, or shot by the state. Dreck and kitsch appear in every human culture, and at the end of the day it’s probably a values and education question in turning people away from them as much as anything. Free markets aren’t perfect, but they’re much better than anything else human beings have ever tried for an economic arrangement.
Basically, to steal (and slightly modify) a turn of phrase from a man who very famously enjoyed a good wine (and bourbon, whisky, brandy, and many other inhabitants of the liquor cabinet), “Capitalism is the worst form of economic arrangement, except for all the others.”
That label is just beautiful.
As a point of reference, the wine store I patronize has a 2015 bottle for $649. And you better not drink it for awhile, which I would not be able to do.
There’s also Lafitte-Rothschild that’s likely even pricier, and run by a different branch of the family.
Yes, and yes. Château Lafite Rothschild (also located in Pauillac) was awarded First Growth in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, so they’ve always been pricier just by virtue of that designation, and it tends to build on itself. It also has a much longer history as a winery of note than Mouton, going back to the 18th century when it was in the hands of the marquis de Ségur and he made himself into the wine merchant of European royalty. Really, Mouton is more of an upstart brand, and it’s impressive that Phillipe did so much in his tenure to bring some of its products even near the price and reputation of Lafite’s.
I’ve never had either. There’s a Duhart-Milon that’s basically next door and quasi “affordable,” depending on how far one would expand that definition. I aspire to that at some point. And maybe Carruades Lafitte, the second wine from Lafitte. I’m gonna stop before the eye rolling starts if it hasn’t already :)
Thanks again KW
On a whim, I was motivated to see if there is a book of these wine labels, and found one at Bezos land for six bucks used that purports to be in VG condition. Labels are 1945-1981.
A buddy of mine down here in the Keys, had a small business seminar going on in Tampa while I was there for a counterterrorism working group at MacDill. He kindly offered to take me out to dinner at Bern’s steakhouse. I had mentioned that establishment one night when we were outside grilling, as one of the techniques I was using was gleaned from BBQ USA. Bern’s steakhouse is one of the stories told in the book/barbecue guide. This guy loved Bern’s, so he offered to take me out to dinner there.
My friend was bankrolling the dinner, and I’ll ever be grateful for his fundage, but I (being a plebe) was acutely uncomfortable because the menu had no prices listed. I know the whole trope about if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it, but my paisan was paying for the dinner and I didn’t want to take advantage. How does one go the el-cheapo route when there’re no prices on the menu? Screw it, I ordered what looked good.
But my friend had also arranged for us to take a tour of the establishment. Bern’s has the highest paid wait staff in the country. It takes years to get through their training program. The aspiring waiter has to work on their farm, on their ranch, in the bowels of every piece of the establishment. I had read that it takes a year to pass muster as wait staff, there. Our guide laughed and said, “That’s an urban legend. I don’t know anyone that passed the program in a year.”
Anyway, Bern’s wine cellar has more than a million bottles. I asked (like all pikers do) what their most expensive bottle was, and was told it was a Rothchild’s ’45. And, when a Tampa sports team had won a great victory (sorry, I’m not a sports guy) they had sold ten bottles of the ’45 at $10K per bottle.
Bern’s Steak House yes! When I started at Price Waterhouse (this was way before all the mergers), a rite of passage was getting a Senior Manager or Partner to take you to dinner there. Why Tampa? Our training center was located there.
My great achievement there at age 27 was ordering an expensive bottle of wine ($100 or so in 1987) and noting that it tasted off. I asked the sommelier to taste it and he agreed. I was so pleased to have been trained by a good friend in graduate school.
One other feature of Bern’s is that desert is served in another part of the restaurant. The brandies went 10 pages and the scotches more than that.
I was told at the time that the wait staff only got tips. And that was what one worked to achieve. To live well on tips at Bern’s.
Thanks for the reminder of a great memory Boss Mongo!
There was an article about Rothschild wines, or perhaps about French wine making in general, in National Geographic in the 1980s or 1990s. I remember a photo of old man Philippe, in his slippers, sitting outside. He was quoted as saying something like “Rothschild will be Premiere Cru!”.
Then there’s Rothschild champagne. This is a real lesson in capitalism, in which three branches of the Rothschild family made a project to produce bubbly. This is a new product, introduced in just the past decade. They had to get terroir around Reims, of course.
“The name Rothschild is a guaranty of excellence in more than one field, starting with that of wine. Associated with some of the most prestigious wines in France and in the world, the three branches of the Rothschild family allied to associate know-how and innovation. Champagne Barons de Rothschild, a Champagne born from an original alliance, appears such as an illustrious reference, bringing to the Champagne an exceptional product. Nowadays, Baron Philippe Sereys de Rothschild (Château Mouton), Baron Eric and his daughter Saskia (Château Lafite), Baron Benjamin and his wife Ariane (Château Clarke – Edmond de Rothschild Group) are joining their talents, in accordance with their motto: Concordia – Integritas – Industria, to produce a Champagne worthy of their name.”
When it first came out it was priced around $150 a bottle but has come down to half that. We bought a case in 2015, early in our marriage, and would open a bottle under duress, like getting a promotion or marrying off one of our kids. Now only one bottle remains, gently tucked in among the Saint-Hilaire and other bubblies in our cellar. I am saving it for the day, which I hope will come soon, when I return to full-time employment.
Responding to Clavius in #15, my greatest wine moment was going two years in a row to a local champagne tasting, where we always sipped the Rothschild first. Pouring the wine was a native Frenchman who had come to New England to run a wine distributorship. The second year, I commented that it seemed more mature, more settled than it had last year (whatever that means). “Aha”, said my Frenchman, “that’s because it’s the same wine, the same lot of champagne, but a year older.” Score one for Doc Robert! My girl friend was suitably impressed, and as the man said to Dick Van Dyke in the song Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, “And now me girl’s me wife! A pretty little thing she is, too…”
And don’t knock Saint-Hilaire. It’s a $17 bottle but Thomas Jefferson thought enough of it to bring it to Monticello.