"I was born into wines," says Lalou Bize-Leroy, who runs the world-renowned wine firm Leroy, founded in 1868 by her great-grandfather. Lalou also owns half of one of the most prestigious wine estates, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. She is the most important woman in the Burgundy wine trade, and those who receive invitations to her memorable yearly September tastings are a lucky, chosen few.
Lalou considers the difficulty of selecting the best wines similar to the challenge of mountain climbing. What attracts her to both is the "effort for effort's sake" and the tough training to attain expertise. Lalou, who climbs the Alps on weekends and scales nearby cliffs during her lunch hour, has been mountaineering since she was 25, and says she'll keep climbing.
She's in good company – Lalou is married to Swiss climber Marcel Bize, who runs their farm at Auvenay. Marcel has no part in the Leroy wine firm, but, as Lalou put it, "Marcel is my permanent critic. When I taste wine, I'm terribly critical, but Marcel is even worse."
When her great-grandfather founded the family company in Auxey-Duresses, a wine village behind Meursault and near Beaune, the competition was limited. By the end of the 19th century, Leroy had made a name for itself as a high-quality wine company. Leroy's business strategy is different from those of most French wine companies: "We have no contracts," Lalou says. "I buy what I consider good wine wherever I find it. I don't care of the grower is known or not. We buy, 'raise,' and sell the wine after a certain time, usually eight to 10 years. There was a slot for improved quality in the wine trade, and we filled it."
The Leroy cellars at Auxey-Duresses, Meursault, Rully and Borgy hold an unequaled collection of fine Burgundies dating back to 1919. It clearly justifies the firm's reputation of "guardian of great vintages." It is also the source of Lalou's famous September tastings at Auvenay. She began the tradition 22 years ago; each year she comes up with a different theme. In 1979, Lalou served a half century of Nuits-Saint-Georges, ranging from 1928 to 1978. One September, the wine expert selected 36 wines from 1964. For another tasting, Lalou staged a two-by-two comparison of wines from the great 1949 and 1959 vintages. Wines are always tasted blind and guests try to guess the label and vintage. Lalou organizes the roster of wines herself, and, with the help of her daughter, Perrine, cooks all of the dishes for the evening's buffet.
A typical Lalou tasting includes 50 guests, and many are regulars: three-star restaurateurs including Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros, and Jean-Pierre Haeberlin; English wine experts Michael Broadbent of Christie's, author Hugh Johnson, and merchant Steven Spurrier; and American expert Bob Finigan.
The Leroy estate owns vineyards at Auxey-Duresses, Meursault, Pommard, Chambertin, Musigny, and Clos-de-Vougeot, but the jewel in the crown is its half ownership of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, bought by Henry Leroy in 1942. The other half belongs to the Villaine family, represented by Aubert de Villaine, who comanages the estate with Lalou; both of the signatures appear on the bottles. Probably the most famous owner of the estate was the Prince de Conti, who bought it in 1760 and gave it part of its name. In the process, he infuriated Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who also wanted to buy it.
The four and a half acres of the Romanée-Conti are the heart of the estate, and produce the most renowned and expensive grand cru in Burgundy, appreciated since the Middle Ages. Because the wine is produced in limited quantities, mixed cases, containing 12 bottles of the various crus of the domaine (including one bottle of Romanée-Conti) are available. A truly great year, like 1978, costs 11,000 francs (about $2,000) per case in France. In the U.S., the case sells for about $6,000. But, as wine expert Robert Parker points out, the "astronomically high prices of these wines are justified because they are perhaps the greatest wines made in Burgundy." Such is the drawing power of the Lalou Bize-Leroy quality.
Jon Winroth, an American living in France, writes about wine for French ELLE.