Bernard Magrez : this name can trigger strong reactions in Bordeaux. While some in the wine industry admire the octogenarian’s ambition and marketing savvy, a few eyebrows are also raised over his lavish lifestyle and powerful circle of friends.
The multibillionaire vintner is the dominant estate owner in the wine capital of the world. His properties also span Rhone Valley, Languedoc and Provence in France, to Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Japan, Morocco and California.
“Altogether, there are 41 vineyards,” said Magrez. “In Bordeaux, we have four grand cru classe. We own the largest land area of grand cru classe in the world. The classification exists only in Bordeaux.”
In June, Alibaba boss Jack Ma Yun bought his second and third wine estate in Bordeaux – Chateau Perenne and Chateau Guerry – from Magrez for a reported 12 million euros (HK$104.8 million). The merlot grape harvested at Chateau Perenne is said to be used for French actor Gerard Depardieu’s wine Confiance.
But tycoons and celebrities only make up part of Magrez’s clientele. Ordinary drinkers should be no strangers to his premium labels: Chateau Pape Clement, Chateau Clos Haut- Peyraguey, Chateau Fombrauge and Chateau La Tour Carnet.
Born in Saint Seurin near the city center of Bordeaux, Magrez is a self- made man who accumulated his wealth by selling mainly whiskeys, cocktails and ports through the spirits company William Pitters.
Having survived the German occupation at six, Magrez stopped school at 13 because of bad grades. His father, who had a small building company, decided the boy would have a better future learning carpentry at a technical college away from home.
“The mission of this school was just to teach you how to saw wood,” Magrez recalled of the days in the Pyrenees. There, he met Francois Pinault, another self-made billionaire who founded the luxury goods retailer The Kering Group.
“I started working in several small companies since I was 16. At 20, I started William Pitters. It was a very, very small company with three people. After 30 years, I sold it to a big company at a good price. Then I bought some grand cru classe.”
For a man with “zero experience,” the decision to run a wine making and wine export company seemed like a daunting task, but Magrez said he had long wanted to venture into the export business because of the traditions in his hometown.
Was he not afraid of losing his hard- earned fortune in his middle age? “Why would I?” he countered. “It’s always possible for me to begin again. It’s normal in business to make a bad decision. I know immediately after [a bad decision], I would make some good decisions.”
Over the past 30 years building his namesake wine company, he has made a few bad decisions – such as an unsuccessful vineyard project in Qingdao in China.
“Another one was a fruit juice business. I stopped production after three years and sold the factory,” he said. “But a good decision was to buy Chateau La Tour Carnet in 2000. The terroir is extraordinary.”
This year at the Vinexpo Hong Kong exhibition, Magrez announced that he will introduce in Asia the “Luxury Wine Experience,” which provides guests with exclusive tours and stays at three of his four prime properties in Bordeaux.
He will also open up his private boy’s toy collection. Visitors of the experience tour will get to see his eclectic arts collection, two vintage Stradivarius violins if they are not on loan to musicians, and even take a ride in his helicopters and vintage Rolls-Royces.
“It’s not really a tradition of Bordeaux to share like that, but I am not like others,” said Magrez. “Now, people will see only a part of my arts collection because I have too many. I collect modern art, contemporary art and street art. I particularly like figurative art.”
On new vintages, Magrez said that 2015 is the best year Bordeaux has had in the past five years. Another region which has produced good vintage in 2015 is Languedoc.
Reading through his wine labels, it’s clear that the 80-year-old still has many unfulfilled dreams. Magrez has named one of his latest bottles Jamais Renoncer (Never Give Up).
“I like to win – not money, not to be the first, but belong to the group of people who win,” he said.
The article first appeared in the Standard on August 19, 2016.