Until 18 months ago, Eric de Rothschild was the most sought-after bachelor in all of Paris. When the attractive blue-eyed, 6-foot, 44 year-old baron married lovely Neapolitan Princess Maria-Beatrice Caracciolo di Forino, half of the European nobility was surprised. The other half was simply heartbroken.
Banker, investor and manager of Château Lafite and other Rothschild wine properties, Eric de Rothschild has a habit of doing things differently from the rest of his family – for one thing, he was born an American.
During World War II, Rothschild's father, the late Baron Alain de Rothschild, was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. His mother, a refugee from occupied France, went to New York. It was there that Eric, the future heartbreaker, was born.
Until he was eight years old, Rothschild lived in New York City, where he attended the Lycée Français. He then moved to France, but left to attend an English prep school, Hawtrey's. He later returned to France to prepare his baccalaureate in specialized and higher mathematics. Eventually, he earned a diploma in business management and machine-building systems from the Zurich Polytechnikum – not exactly the obvious Rothschild image that comes to mind. And the urbane Baron Eric doesn't play polo or tennis either.
"I keep fit by staying up late and drinking Lafite," he says.
But he is no party man. He and Beatrice prefer small dinner parties for five or six at Lafite, although some of his business entertaining is on a larger scale. The food is always very good but very simple "country" fare, as Rothschild puts it.
Beatrice de Rothschild has no complicated formulas; in fact, she prefers spontaneity in everything.
For the fun of it she likes to fantasize about a dinner party where she would place "all the women on one side of the table and all the men on the other – just to see what happens."
A former art student who lived on and off in New York for over two years, she loves adventure. And now she has brought this spirited style to the Rothschilds' house in Paris and the Château Lafite, where they like to weekend twice a month.
When they arrive on Friday night, a simple dinner awaits them: lentil soup, a steak and fresh fruit compote for example. "The menu at Lafite is more or less the same very week, but I have introduced pasta to the chef's repertoire," Beatrice says.
Mouton is the wine produced by Eric's arch-rival and neighbor, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who is also his cousin. A rivalry stems from which Rothschild wine is better, Lafite or Mouton. (Lafite has always been a premier cru, first growth, while Mouton was originally classed as a second growth. It was accorded first-growth status in 1973.)
Baron Philippe is descended from the English branch of the Rothschild family. And, unlike Eric, Philippe is the sole owner of Château Mouton-Rothschild. Eric is one of eight brothers, uncles and cousins of the French branch who jointly own Lafite-Rothschild and other properties. Eric is the manager, however. In 1975, he was chosen to succeed his uncle, Elie, whom he continues to consult on major decisions. Rothschild is aided by a cellar master, or "wine maker," and a régisseur, or estate manager.
Château Lafite-Rothschild consists of about 220 acres spread over low, gravelly rises in the commune of Pauillac. In one spot, Lafite and Mouton vines actually touch. So do the workers. As they prune the vines, the 90 Lafite workers trade snide remarks and insults with the Mouton men. After work in the evening, the two sides have been known to come to blows in nearby cafes. Locals contend the rivalry produces a loyalty that is good for both châteaus.
All Bordeaux vineyards grow the same type of red-wine grapes (Cabernet-Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot). But Château Lafite is not interested in vines that produce a high yield or make for a lot of alcohol. On the contrary, Lafite produces only one glass of wine from one vine; an ordinary Bordeaux estate may produce a full bottle of wine or more per vine. Obviously, if a vine produces less wine, the taste of the wine is more concentrated. To produce this result, only wine from old vines are used. Wine from vines less than 12 years old goes into the making of Lafite's second wine, Moulin des Carruades. Only the very best goes into the making of Lafite.
At Eric de Rothschild's château, wine aging takes place in new, 60-gallon oak barrels. Aging takes two years. But Rothschild has been experimenting with the length of time in collaboration with world-renowned oenologist Emile Peynaud of the University of Bordeaux. Rothschild is also considering funding a chair at the University of Bordeaux for the study of top-class vineyards to discover what it takes to make great wine, as opposed to merely good wine.
Although he says almost everything is known about growing superior grapes and making excellent wine, Rothschild believes that soil and types of soil are relatively unexplored wine quotients, especially in the United States. In France, soil is of the first importance, as it underlies the system of appellation d'origine contrôlée laws. But, in California, soil is only now receiving serious attention.
Château Lafite is just one of Eric de Rothschild's wine responsibilities. He also manages Château Duhart-Milon, a fourth growth in the 1855 classification of the Médoc, as well as the 250-acre Château La Cardonne. These two châteaus give a balance to Eric de Rothschild's business – they offer wines of intermediate and moderate price to Lafite clients. The most recent acquisition is premier cru Château Rieussec of Sauternes, a sweet liqueur-like white wine of Bordeaux. Eric de Rothschild is also thinking about acquiring a vineyard in the United States, not necessarily in California.
Rothschild expects to see a shakeout among California producers. He feels they lack experience. They don't know the best soils for particular grape varieties and produce too many types of wine. He says: "I have a lot of admiration for wine makers who can make 25 different wines. I have enough trouble making Lafite."
The opportunity he sees in California, or elsewhere in the States, is to find the right land for growing a great wine. Such land remains relatively cheap because Americans haven't yet learned to think in terms of soil, he believes. This doesn't mean that Rothschild looks down on California wines. He drinks them regularly when he is in the United States.
If he sees any trend in wine drinking today it is toward better-quality wines. He feels there is better value for money and more regularity in quality, thanks to greatly improved wine-making techniques in the last 10 years. Rothschild believes that when people taste a good wine they will want to go on to an even better one.
He sees the same positive trend in American consumers' taste. California, he says, was overdoing things, such as aging white Chardonnay wines too long in new oak. The consumers have reacted against these heavy, woody wines and made the wine makers recognize their mistakes. Rothschild finds a better balance now in California wines. And he doesn't think there is a trend toward "light" wines, to judge by the popularity of Petrus, the best (and probably most powerful) of the Pomerols, not counting Beaujolais, with at least 12.5 percent alcohol content.
The Rothschild reputation is firmly based on the quality of Lafite. And one of Lafite's claims to fame is its longevity. There are no older dry red wines in existence; the ancient wines stored beneath the château include bottles from nearly every vintage back to 1797. These antiques from George Washington's time are not only still drinkable, but still recognizable as Lafite. They don't get tasted often.
Eight-five percent of Lafite's current production is exported. Half of the production goes to the United States. The eight Rothschild Lafite owners consume three to four percent among themselves and their families.
This year Eric de Rothschild says he is drinking the 1953 vintage. He is also enjoying the '76s, the '72s and the 1980 Duhart-Milon. Once in a while he gives in to temptation and opens something like an 1869 – "just to see how it's holding up."
BUY, DRINK, SAVE
This is what the experts say:
Ideally in 1985 one should be drinking Lafite from the '60s. A 1976 is probably the most recent vintage that is drinkable now and should give an idea of what a mature Lafite can be.
Lafite from 1982 is considered excellent and should be available now in the United States for a good, but not inexpensive, price. (Note: Lafite is not even bottled until it is two years old.)
And finally, that wonderful '82 should not be tasted before 1990 or, Jon Winroth says, "better yet, 1995…"