Time in a Bottle

In life, as in wine making, patience is a virtue

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Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Christophe Salin started life with a drop of wine, thanks to his grandfather. The champagne vintner reminded his daughter-in-law: “Don’t give him too much milk. We don’t want to raise him like an animal.”

The Frenchman, born in Epernay, grew up to deviate slightly from his grandfather’s expectations. He became the president and chief executive of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), owner of world-famous wine label Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

The first-growth estate in Bordeaux has been in the Rothschild family since 1868. Banker Eric de Rothschild, now acting as chairman, is the fifth generation.

Salin joined the winemaker in 1985 after a stint in construction. Thanks to his job, he has developed a sophisticated palate for red. He only drinks good wines. His most memorable was a non-selling vintage bottled in 1959.

“Bad wines should be illegal. If you find one, you should call the police. Wines have to be good,” the Champagne native joked. “I also like to enjoy a Cuban cigar from time to time. This is my contribution to communism.”

It’s often said that the vintner’s personality has a big effect on how the wine turns out. If that is true, the richness of Lafite will come from Salin’s dry sense of humor.

“Eric de Rothschild went to engineering school. As an engineer, he likes to be precise and as a wine lover, he knows exactly the style he likes,” Salin said.

“But we did not change Lafite. Lafite changed us. You have to listen to the vineyard and follow its advice. Viticulture is a long term business. To get the best out of a vineyard, you have to wait 25 years. We are only viticulturists. God decides and we execute.”

The 30-odd years of Salin’s career has been spent building the Domaines Barons de Rothschild business and its brands. The business has expanded beyond Bordeaux, and now owns chateaux in other wine regions in France, Chile, Argentina, and China.

In those years, the industry has gone through dramatic changes, marked by the rise of China and its voracious appetite for wine. A taste for fine wine, introduced by British merchants two centuries ago to the country, has become a widespread phenomenon.

In 2000, Eric de Rothschild consigned his private collection to Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, sold at US$233,972 (HK$1.82 million) each, became the world’s most expensive wine ever auctioned. The entire lot fetched over US$8 million.

However, that fascination has evolved. “Before, people were buying labels. Now, they are drinking the wines. They are not buying to offer as business gifts. That happened in Japan and Korea. It’s a normal evolution,” Salin said.

“Hongkongers are very knowledgeable about wine. And the mainlanders are fast learners. I have seen them, especially those under 35, moving from all the top chateaux in the 1990s and 2000s to the cheaper wines.”

In 2008, Domaines Barons de Rothschild bought its first Chinese vineyard in Penglai, Shandong province, in partnership with state-owned enterprise, CITIC Group.

“We did our first harvest in September. The quality, so far, meets our standards. Hopefully, we will release our 2016 vintage next year.”

The weather conditions in the past year saw a heavenly opportunity for all Bordeaux winemakers. On the fine wine front, Salin said the 2016 vintage will be a highlight in the history of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Affordable wines from other Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s vineyards will also be carried in local restaurants and wine shops. A case in point are Chateau Duhart- Milon and Chateau Moulin de Duhart – produced in a vineyard near Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Salin has learnt to enjoy a good life through winemaking. And like making good wine, the secret is being true to yourself and having the patience to wait for plans to come to fruition.

“Be honest, be open to opportunities and be balanced,” he said of his philosophy in life. “Whatever you do, don’t be in a hurry. Think twice, and always make your plans long term.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 9, 2017.

Trendy Tipple

His name may be familiar in the fashion world but this luxury goods mogul wants his name to be known for another passion

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Even though he lives in the concrete jungle of New York, Massimo Ferragamo – youngest son of Salvatore and Wanda, the power couple who built the legendary Ferragamo fashion house – keeps himself abreast of grapes growing continent away in Italy.

That’s because he wears two hats. The better known one is chairman of Ferragamo USA, the regional branch of his family’s luxury goods empire. The other is owner of the Tuscan estate Castiglion del Bosco.

Purchased in 2003, the 1,700-hectare estate is the fifth largest wine producer in the heart of Val d’Orcia – a locality known for its indigenous sangiovese grapes that gave rise to the famous red brunello di Montalcino.

Ferragamo does not farm the vines and make wine himself. He has hired a team of agronomists and winemakers to do that.

Yet, the fashion mogul is very much involved in the whole production process.

“Winemaking is a team effort, but in the end, it reflects the character and the desire of the owner in a way,” he said. “Like in every denomination, there are a variety of brunello wines. Personally, I don’t like heavy wines. I like wine that you can enjoy by itself.”

The private winery produces around 300,000 bottles per year. Around 20 to 35 percent of the production is reserved yearly for the Greater China region. China is the second largest market importing Castiglion del Bosco wines, Ferragamo said.

While everyday wine drinkers can also find Ferragamo’s wines in shops and restaurants, the top-quality ones, such as the Zodiac collection that can fetch at least US$1,000 (HK$7,800) per bottle, are brought to Hong Kong and auctioned off at charity dinners.

This month, Ferragamo was here to take charge of the second such auction held since 2013, bringing along 688 bottles of the 2010 Zodiac vintage, dedicated to the Year of the Rooster. The one-night-only event raised about HK$3.9 million for the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation.

“[Hong Kong] is a very important place for wine. It’s also the place we chose to do this special gala event. This year, we invited 310 guests. All the tables were sold out,” he said the day before the charity dinner.

“The wine is the best vintage of the last 20 years in Montalcino. It’s from the 2010 reserve, which is more sophisticated than that we brought to Hong Kong last time. It has been aged for a year longer so the wine is definitely fantastic.”

Ferragamo speaks of his wines with such enthusiasm that you wouldn’t believe he did not intend to buy the estate in the first place.

Granted, he had been searching for the perfect winery for three years. But the more than 800-year-old estate was too big, and had not been managed properly. Its stone buildings were in a sorry state. Only half of its wineries were in production.

“A friend of mine convinced me to take a look anyway. When I saw the vineyard, I saw beauty. It’s unbelievable not only from a beauty point of view, but also from a production point of view. My life changed completely that day when I saw the vineyard.”

He spent the next five years replanting the vines and building more facilities. He also turned the estate into a luxury resort by restoring the rundown buildings into a 23-suite hotel and 10 vacation villas, and adding a spa, two restaurants, a culinary academy, and the only private golf course in Italy.

“It was a big effort, much more than I intended to do. But I am so happy that I did it,” he said. “Real estate is second nature to my family. We love real estate not in the sense of owning it but, take stores as an example, that it is conducive to the business.”

The family owns the Hotel Lungarno in their hometown Florence, and Massimo’s elder brother Leonardo is its chairman. Ferruccio, the eldest of the six siblings and chairman of the Ferragamo fashion house, operates with his son Salvatore the Il Boro winery and boutique hotel in Tuscany.

Ferragamo’s family are frequent guests at his own luxury resort. Everyone is welcome for a short stay. But to claim the full bragging rights, you will need to fork out 60,000 euros (HK$491,828) upon joining, plus 5,000 euros per year as membership fees.

“Hospitality and fashion are a very similar business in a way because they are about service,” said Ferragamo, adding that the resort has all the elements of la dolce vita.

“Nothing in the countryside has changed since the 15th century. The villas are still the same because we can only restore them, not build new ones. So they are in the same shapes and materials as they were,” he said.

“We Italians have a good way to relax. We start with really good food and wine. It’s nice to stay at the table with family or friends. It’s a very nice way of being together.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on November 25, 2016.

Aging Well

Meet the Bordelaise vintner whose purpose in life is to win

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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.