A Real-Life Prince Is Building an Empire in Bordeaux
Prince Robert of Luxembourg, chief executive officer of a Bordeaux wine empire that includes first-growth château Haut-Brion and neighboring top estate La Mission Haut-Brion, was celebrating good news when he visited New York last week.
He had just released the futures price for his brilliant, powerful 2015 Haut-Brion. Though it costs 83.6 percent more than the 2014, London-based merchant Farr Vintners sold out its initial allocation at more than $6,000 a case (the same price as Château Margaux) in one day.
The prince had also just finalized details for the first-ever auction dedicated to vintages of La Mission Haut-Brion direct from the château cellars, to be held at Sotheby’s auction house in New York on October 19.
The oldest vintage in the sale, he said, showing me a long list retrieved from his rolling tote, is 1916. One of his personal favorites is the 1978. (I agree.)
A Historic Auction
As we talked privately in a Sotheby’s conference room, surrounded by shelves with empty bottles of great Bordeaux, he let me in on his strategy to boost the visibility of La Mission and expand the family company, Domaine Clarence Dillon.
The U.S., he said, is home to the biggest fans of ‘La Mish’ (its nickname).
“The wine doesn’t get the attention it deserves because of its big brother, Haut-Brion,” he said. “Some people still ask me whether it’s a second wine, but I think of it as the 6th first-growth.” ‘La Mish’ has prices to justify this view. The intense, spicy 2009 costs about $800 a bottle, nearly as much as 2009 Haut-Brion.
Auctions help create buzz. Older vintages such as 1982 can bring more than $1,200 a bottle, while a great recent one such as 2005 goes for about $525. (Haut-Brion costs about $250 more.) And every boost in price increases the company’s fat bottom line.
Since he took over running the company in 2008, the prince has largely succeeded in his efforts to ramp up the global reputation of Haut-Brion. For years this wine lagged in price behind other first-growths and was far less well-known in Asia.
The Family Business
Though Prince Robert has become a savvy businessman, he never intended to join the family firm. “I wanted to be a musician, and in my twenties, I was in Hollywood writing screenplays with my wife,” he explained.
The couple’s first script, about Don Juan, intrigued Steven Spielberg and Columbia Pictures, which flew them to Hollywood and put them up at the Four Seasons. “It was a great life–sitting by the pool, the limos—for several years,” he sighed. “We were pigeonholed as ‘period piece’ writers.” None of the screenplays was ever produced.
For almost 10 years now, the prince’s career has been tightly tied to a real life ‘period piece,’ the family wine saga that began with his great-grandfather, American financier Clarence Dillon, who purchased Château Haut Brion in 1935 for a mere 2,300,000 francs (then equivalent to $153,000). The family’s next big buy, in 1983, was highly regarded Château La Mission Haut-Brion.
Bordeaux châteaux near one another frequently have similar names: The two were first linked nearly 500 years ago when they were owned by a pair of brothers-in-law; later La Mission was owned by a religious order for 130 years. (La Mission, get it?)
The urbane, 48-year-old prince, who speaks in rounded tones with a British accent, has a formal way of speaking but his style of dress is very un-Savile Row: His light green jacket, with a Mandarin collar and bone buttons, is an Austrian ready made that he bought off the rack. It goes well with his luxurious full beard. (His mother, Joan Dillon, married Prince Charles of Luxembourg, which is how Prince Robert came by his title.)
“In the early 1970s, Bordeaux was less trendy and the château was like a family farm,” the prince explained “Chickens ran around in the courtyard, and we had rabbit hutches.” Back then, he played in the sandbox with current winemaker Jean-Philippe Delmas, whose grandfather and father preceded him as winemakers.
Even before 2008, when Prince Robert became president of Domaine Clarence Dillon SAS on his mother's retirement, he had started expanding the company and pushing global awareness of his family’s famous wine brands.
“I knew I had to think long-term and create growth,” Prince Robert said, “or the châteaux were just going to be trophy assets.”
The challenge was big: How do you expand the smallest first-growth in Bordeaux when you can’t add vineyards to it? The only way is to add estates and work to make sure some first-growth stardust falls on them.
So, in 2005, he started a negociant house (a wine merchant business that sells bottles from other châteaux) and added an entry-level “super-premium” line of branded Bordeaux wines named Clarendelle. The red in particular (2012, $20) is surprisingly good, considering that more than 1 million bottles are made.
Then, in 2011 and 2013, he acquired two top, albeit run-down Saint-Émilion estates, uniting them under the name Château Quintus. It and the second wine Le Dragon de Quintus have charm, but they are still works in progress.
A New Restaurant
When the prince joined the company, its new Paris office had only two people working. Now it employs 350.
His latest brand expansion of Domaine Clarence Dillon is something no first-growth has ever attempted: a luxurious Parisian restaurant. Le Clarence, housed in an elegant 19th century mansion, opened last November. (He bought it in an arcane historic process still used by French notaries: vente a la bougie, whereby candles are lit to commence the bidding; when the last candle goes out, the person with the highest bid wins.)
The restaurant concept, says Prince Robert, grew out of the eight lavish 75th Anniversary events he held in cities around the world in 2010 to celebrate his family’s connection with the château once touted by Thomas Jefferson and to raise Haut-Brion’s international profile.
“I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of Haut-Brion’s château, so you feel like you are dining in a home,” said the prince, who oversaw the decoration. The several dining rooms are named after former owners of Haut-Brion, including Talleyrand. Naturally the restaurant’s wine list is well stocked: There are 35 vintages of La Mission Haut-Brion, nearly 40 of Haut-Brion. A bottle of the sublime 1989 costs €5,115 ($5,761).
On the ground floor is a wine shop, where he hopes to create “an embassy for fine French wine.”
Prince Robert likes to bring up history at every opportunity, reminding me, as he has before, that Haut-Brion is the oldest great wine luxury brand in the world.
Underscoring its importance has clearly had an effect. In the 2015 edition of Liv-Ex’s Power 100 brands, released last December, Haut-Brion had moved up from position 13 in 2012 to No. 2, right behind Mouton Rothschild.
Still, he isn’t stuck in the past. He has hiked the Himalayas, run the New York Marathon, even attended Jay-Z and Kanye West concerts—which, he hastened to add, were his wife’s idea.
Five of the Prince’s Wines Available for Purchase:
2012 Château Haut-Brion ($400)
Though not from a great vintage, this big, rich red shows the dark tobacco-y, smoky complexity the wine is noted for and is the best of the first-growths in this year. Plus, it costs less than the 2015 (worth buying as futures at $510), which won’t be on shelves until 2018.
2008 La Mission Haut-Brion ($250)
This wine, from an underrated vintage, is a powerhouse, broader and chunkier than Haut-Brion, with fascinating aromas of crushed berries, the tang of wood and spice, and velvety texture.
2012 La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc ($400)
Both Haut-Brion and La Mission also make rare white blends of sauvignon blanc and semillon; confusingly, this one was called Laville-Haut-Brion until the 2009 vintage. It’s rich, round, sumptuous, and stunning, with notes of lemon, mint, and minerals (and much cheaper than the Haut-Brion Blanc).
2012 Le Clarence de Haut-Brion ($100)
This is the second wine of Haut-Brion, which used to be known as Bahans-Haut-Brion. It’s full of vibrant ripe fruit, with smoky notes of sandalwood that echoes Haut-Brion.
1989 Château Haut-Brion ($1,800)
This is one of my all-time ultimate wines, and it still can be had for a splurge price. It’s all about elegance and harmony, with layers and layers of flavors, from ripe fruit to tobacco to minerals.