Mouton Rothschild: the new generation
After earlier careers in other fields, Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s three grandchildren have taken up roles in the family business. Jane Anson discovers how they plan to honour such a distinguished heritage
In a Decanter exclusive, Jane Anson talks to Baroness Philippine’s three children, who have now taken up the reins at the family business
LA GRANDE PiECE at Mouton Rothschild, with its blue-andred tiled floor, 17th- and 18th-century chairs and artworks including Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculpture, looks almost exactly as it did in a photo shoot for Vogue in 1963. it has been left more or less untouched since Baron Philippe and his second wife, Baroness Pauline (described as a legendary tastemaker by Architectural Digest in 1977) carefully selected the pieces. Much of the rest of their collection is on display downstairs in the Museum of Wine in Art, but these are the private quarters.
Today, Baron Philippe’s grandson Philippe Sereys de Rothschild has chosen this room for our meeting, almost two years to the day since we first discussed his appointment as chairman of the supervisory board for the legendary Mouton Rothschild family estates.
From that first meeting, on a beautifully sunny day in June 2015, i remember a clear impression forming of the serious challenge ahead in taking over from his mother, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who died less than a year earlier and left in her wake an indelible imprint on every part of her estate.
Two years on and Sereys de Rothschild is warm, expansive, relaxed. He seems fully grown into his role as the head of the board, working alongside his elder sister, Camille Sereys de Rothschild, and younger brother, Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild.
This estate has been with the Rothschilds since 1853 – one of only two classified properties in the Médoc to have remained in the hands of the same family since the 1855 ranking – and successive generations have shaped not only their immediate surroundings but the wider history of the region. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when we sit down to lunch with all three, they don’t hesitate when asked if they always knew they would return to the family business.
‘We always knew how profoundly we are linked together and to this place,’ is how Camille puts it.
They are also clear that their roles are very different from that of managing director Philippe Dhalluin and his team, who are in charge of day-to-day decision-making – and, most importantly, winemaking – across what is a large international business. it spans the three Pauillac estates of Mouton, d’Armailhac and Clerc Milon, the Limoux-based Domaine de Baronarques, plus the branded Mouton Cadet wine – the biggest-selling in Bordeaux – and the international joint ventures Opus One and Almaviva (see box, p44).
This year, 2017, is important for the business. For a start it is the 20th anniversary of Almaviva’s launch in Chile, a project begun under Baroness Philippine as a joint venture with Concha y Toro to create a primer orden, or grand cru classé, estate in the Maipo Valley. it also marks the key relaunch of Mouton Cadet, the Bordeaux brand created by Baron Philippe in 1930. For the first time, through contracts with 453 Bordeaux wine-growers, the family has 100% control of the brand’s sourcing across 1,300ha of Bordeaux, overseen by seven full-time winemakers within parent company Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA. Capitalising on this focus on quality, Mouton Cadet has taken on a fresh relevance through sponsorship of the Cannes Film Festival (where its rooftop bar overlooking the bay is a legendary draw), the Ryder Cup in golf and, from 2017, the America’s Cup in sailing.
Taking strategic decisions of this sort, and looking at the overall shape of Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA and its future direction, are quite clearly areas where Philippe Sereys de Rothschild feels at home.
‘i was lucky enough to have a bizarre career up to this point,’ he says cheerfully, referring to his previous jobs that have included heading up Générale des Eaux in italy, running small engineering and technology start-ups, and working in private equity. ‘i have had extremely structured, process-oriented roles and others that involved analysing how businesses worked from the outside, and others that needed creativity and a more hands-off approach. The diversity helped me; i learned how to work across different things and to value people for what they are. it has not been a straight-line career but has been hugely enriching.’
‘Our different skills make it easy to work alongside each other – everyone has their own space’ Philippe Sereys de Rothschild
‘We always knew how profoundly we are linked together and to this place’’ Camille Sereys de Rothschild
This quality has also no doubt helped to establish a successful balance of tasks between the three siblings – not the easiest of things in a family business. Camille Sereys de Rothschild has returned to Mouton after raising seven children, following earlier work in art and auction houses. You can tell as soon as you meet her that she shares with her mother, Baroness Philippine, an ability to see the small details needed to set a scene and to make people feel welcome.
She is ‘open and forthcoming’ as her brother describes her, and plays a key role in communication, both internally – tellingly, Philippe says that staff often go to Camille with any issues that need resolving – and externally. She plays a key role in partnership programmes for Mouton Cadet, hosting dinners and establishing the hugely important family connection that elevates the sponsorship, emphasises the history that stretches back to Baron Philippe, and benefits both sides.
Their brother Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, 10 years younger than Camille, has a different set of skills again. An art history graduate who partnered in the establishment of a fine art dealership in London, Julien has now taken on the mantle – formerly belonging to his grandfather then his mother – of commissioning the artist to illustrate the label for Château Mouton Rothschild. He is also responsible for the visual identity of much of the estates’ communications – a beautiful pop-up book produced to celebrate Almaviva’s anniversary, for example, and the label design for the launch of Château Clerc Milon’s new second wine, Pastourelle.
‘I never felt that the three of us working together would be difficult,’ Philippe says, ‘because we are all such different personalities. We know each other extremely well of course, and share clear values, but our different skills make it easy to work alongside each other. Everyone has their own space, even though there are no written rules.’
The idea of written rules has never been a strong suit of Mouton. This is, as
I remember Philippe telling me the first time we met, ‘the side of the family that likes to do things differently’.
Baron Philippe was the embodiment of this – arriving at Mouton in 1922 at 20 years of age and pretty much rewriting all the rules that existed for château owners at that time. He was the first of the family to spend much of his life living in Pauillac, and was a larger-thanlife figure who evolved from being a motor racing playboy to being one of the 20th century’s great historical figures.
He was a member of the Free French forces who were part of the D-Day landings, an accomplished translator and playwright, and a tireless defender and promoter of his estate – not only did he introduce château bottling and the famous wine labels, but he also spent 30 years lobbying for its promotion to firstgrowth status.
For his grandchildren, their memories of him are almost entirely based around childhood summers spent in Pauillac.
‘My first memory of Mouton is of walking in the vines with my grandfather when I was nine or 10 years old,’ says Camille, ‘with his huge wooden stick in one hand, and a Peruvian straw hat to guard against the sun.’
Baron Philippe taught both Camille and Philippe to drive in the vines here, and they remember clearly that he became more interested in them as they got older. ‘He wasn’t a big fan of babies,’ says Philippe.
Julien was 17 when his grandfather died in 1988, and his memories show a softer side of Baron Philippe, with childhood games of table tennis played at Mouton, although he also remembers a stern disapproval of children being allowed to eat supper with the adults.
Those suppers, however, clearly made a big impression. ‘Our grandfather didn’t necessarily make us taste wine,’ says Philippe. ‘But he always commented on every wine he drank, and that stuck in our minds. He wasn’t a teacher, but you learned through watching. Today it is hard for me to say what is my first memory of a great wine – each time you taste is such a different experience, you get to go back to step one each time with the truly great vintages, and that is what fascinates me so.’
‘I remember my mother showing Mouton 1961 to négociants and being able to taste a small amount afterwards,’ says Julien. ‘It was my first understanding of great wine. I discovered that in the best wines alcohol exists as a discreet companion and support of all the rest, never the engine but the support.’
The desire to honour this heritage is clear in how they approach their work today. Over the past two years, one of the major tasks they have accomplished has been in establishing the Fondation d’Entreprise Philippine de Rothschild. This charitable foundation will begin by helping two local associations chosen by the employees of the company. One preserves agricultural landscapes across Aquitaine, and the other supports the restoration of the Tour de L’Honneur at Lesparre in the Médoc – the last vestiges of one of the ancient châteaux of the Médoc
‘In wines the alcohol best is never the engine, but the support’ Julien de Rothschild de Beaumarchais
that dates back to the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, when this area was a duchy of the English crown and the future first growths were in their infancy.
With 10 children between them, the next Mouton generation is assured. Camille’s eldest daughter Charlotte, 25, is already working for the company in Paris; but, as with their parents, there is no pressure on any of them to come on board. ‘I have told my children to do their own thing,’ says Philippe. ‘They should come to Mouton, enjoy forming memories here as we did, but there is no obligation to make it their career.’
At this point, Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais, Julien’s father and Baroness Philippine’s second husband, interjects: ‘When I first met Philippine, that is exactly how it was for her. She was living in Paris and had no plans to work full-time at Mouton. She loved it, but did not know that it was to be her life.’
‘That was how I came to Mouton, too,’ says Philippe with a smile. Clearly, this place has a way of proving people wrong.