Elie de Rothschild's vitality and trim good looks speak for earlier polo-playing days and belie 61 white-haired years. In clipped British-style English that matches an impeccably tailored suit, he rattles off story after story (all too many "off the record") about the curious workings of the French government, his war experiences and the prickly rivalry between first-ranked Château Lafite-Rothschild and his cousin Philippe's formerly second, now first-ranked Château Mouton-Rothschild.
Baron Elie's main job is running the Rothschild bank together with his brother Alain and his cousin Guy. Since the war, however, he has been sole manager of Château Lafite, a property that belongs to the entire French branch of the Rothschilds. (Philippe de Rothschild is descended from the English side of the family.) Although active management of Château Lafite is now in the hands of his nephew Eric (son of Alain), Elie remains "chairman of the board," as he puts it.
We began our interview at Château Lafite on the occasion of an extraordinary tasting in honor of 110 years of Rothschild ownership and continued it later in the ultramodern Banque Rothschild, still located at 21 rue Laffite in Paris, as it was in 1868 when Elie's great-grandfather, James, bought Château Lafite.
Some say that James bought it on a whim because of the similarity in names. This story finds some support in the fact that he never set foot on the place and was not much of a connoisseur of fine wines.
But the Rothschilds did not get where they are with whimsical throwing about of money. A more likely reason for the purchase is that the elderly James's three sons persuaded him to buy Lafite when it came up for sale a few months before his death. In any case, such stories, apocryphal or not, are part of the Rothschild legend.
What serves Lafite's reputation even better as first among equals of the red Bordeaux wines classified as premiers crus in 1855, is the incredible collection of ancient vintages at the château. It goes back to 1797 and includes bottles of every good vintage since then: 1798, 1799, 1800 and so on up to last year's harvest still in barrels. The most recently tasted was the 1869, astonishingly youthful and fruity for its 109 years. Its taste still lingering, we began the interview:
Jon Winroth – You're one of three Rothschilds who run the bank, aren't you?
Elie de Rothschild – Yes, we're three: my cousin Guy, my brother Alain and myself. We are two branches of the French Rothschilds. My father and my uncle were first cousins.
Guy is my first cousin, once removed. We're all like brothers. The fact of working in the same office and having the same interests makes us very close.
JW – But isn't Lafite owned by all five of the French Rothschilds?
ER – Yes, until the late 60's Lafite was a joint possession and had been for over 100 years. We turned it into a company. Very difficult running it. Have to ask each owner his opinion. But we're very close in the family and they leave me alone.
JW – What happened to Lafite during the war?
ER – During the war my father and my uncle left for America. My brother and I were POW's. My cousin Guy had a very good war record and was still in France. The Vichy regime took their French nationality away and confiscated their property. In '45 we regained part of what had been taken away. You never get back everything that is confiscated. Until the war it had been more or less under absentee ownership. The wine business was very bad between the two wars. It wasn't a real business. We sold everything under contract to a négociant. Shippers in those days were very rich. They could carry your short harvest. Lafite was a luxury. Wasn't making any money and we didn't see how it could make any. Just hoped it wouldn't cost too much.
JW – When did you personally become the manager of Lafite?
ER – On January 1, 1946, Lafite was given back to us. Someone had to go take care of it. In '46 my parents were still in America, Guy had the bank to organize and I took over Château Lafite. Lafite was in the hands of a government office called Secours National and the man in charge was nominated by my father and was hired by the Secours National to protect the property. He was there when I came back after the war. I just walked back in and took charge.
Everything had to be done on the place. Ack-ack batteries were installed in the middle of the vines. The vines were very badly taken care of. All the other vineyards could do a little black-marketing such as buying sulfur copper sulfate on the black market – but the French government had a small allocation for treating the vines that wasn't anywhere near enough. The government couldn't do what the others could by the système D (finagling). Replanting and getting it shipshape took 10 years.
JW – Weren't there German prisons of war still at Lafite when you took it back?
ER – There were German prisoners of war all around and they worked on the estate. We couldn't do to them what they did to some of us, during the war, but I had a little fun ordering them around. The long retaining wall holding up the east side of the château's lawn was grown over with ivy. I told them I wanted it off by noon that day – Alles fertig um zwölf Uhr! I even promised their noncoms an extra ration of wine if they got it done on time. You should have seen them lay into the troops!
Another amusing thing. In '40 there was no electricity in the château and no running water. The Germans called in a plumber and he ran the biggest pipes right down the walls in the salon. After the war La Baronne called him up to complain about how he had done the work. He said "I wasn't going to do something nice for the Germans:" Chacun se défend comme il peut (everyone makes out as best he can). He did all right. He got to redo the whole job over again for us!
JW – What does it cost to keep up the château?
ER – Right after the war my wife redid the whole château on a budget of about $10,000 per year. She did one room one year and another the next year. Year-round there is only one couple living there. The husband is the mechanic for all the machines at the château. He has been with us for 30 years. His wife opens the château every day to keep it aired and clean.
JW – How long did it take to get Lafite going again?
ER – Two years after we got it back. The first dividend was $1,200. The year after I gave out $2,400. And then things started getting better. It had never made a penny since 1868. My cousin Guy said if it didn't make money, we would have to sell it so I decided to make it pay for itself.
In 1945-46 there was no wine market in Germany or Russia. The English pound was blocked. Italy was in no shape to buy. No market for French wines. The big boom in wine came in the year 1970. People started talking about "red gold." Whenever people talk about a gold that isn't yellow, a bust follows.
JW – Lafite seems to have survived the bust all right. Isn't it possible to buy directly from the château now?
ER – Normally not. If you know one of the owners, if you're a friend of the agent, it would work to buy three or four cases of wine for your personal use.
JW –What about people who visit the château?
ER – I don't call that selling wine. They can buy three bottles. We don't sell 20,000 bottles to somebody who is not a merchant. It's so much organization and bloody bother. We'll send a few cases, but as a favor. We don't like doing it.
JW – How many people work at Lafite?
ER – Ninety. In the Médoc, especially around Pauillac, the people are very attached to the land. Our workers consider that Lafite is their own property. They say "our" wine. Nous, à Lafite.
We have a family named Clemenceau. The youngest apprentice is the fourth generation working at Lafite. At one time four brothers in that family worked at Lafite. Three still do. Madame Clemenceau would walk in on payday and collect the pay of the father and the three boys, give them each their allowance, put the rest in her skirt and go home.
JW – How do the workers feel about next-door Château Mouton-Rothschild?
ER – Mouton's people feel the same way about their château that our people feel about Lafite. The vines grow side by side for long stretches and the workers trade gibes and insults as they go down the rows. After work, when they're in the cafés, they sometimes come to blows over who makes the better wine. And this loyalty is very good for us and for Mouton. Each side is convinced that its wine is the best.
Mouton has always been challenging Lafite, and some of our boys resent it. I couldn't care less. I don't consider I am challenged by Mouton. It was always a principle of the family to play it cool. Fifteen years ago, a Rothschild wasn't interviewed. It was unheard of. Philippe changed all that.
JW – When did Eric begin to take over at Lafite?
ER – My nephew Eric has been in charge for the past three years. He is in charge of all that is technical. In the old days I was the active president. Now I am chairman of the board. In the old days I would know everything, how many bottles in stock, the number of kilos of copper sulfate for treating the vines, etc.
JW – But 61 is young for a Rothschild, isn't it?
ER – All right. But nothing is worse for a young boy who is capable than not getting responsibility. It makes him bitter. Eric is 38. He's running the place and I'm not going to follow behind and ask about details. There are details Eric doesn't ask my opinion about, such as when to bottle or how to constitute the vintage.
One thing I did was to enlarge Lafite. I looked at the terrain of the 16th and 17th centuries and saw on the cadastre what had belonged to Lafite under the Ségurs. I managed to buy a large part of the land back from neighbors and to have it put back into Lafite – always providing that it had formerly been Lafite. Added roughly 20 hectares, but I have such a bad memory. We even have an isolated piece to the north in Saint-Estèphe – the rest of Lafite is in Pauillac, as you know – that has always been part of Lafite.
JW – That means Lafite now covers 90 hectares. It must be the biggest of the classified growths now.
ER – It is. I also bought fourth-ranked Château Duhart-Milon. Château La Cardonne was bought about six or seven years ago. It belongs to the group. It isn't our personal property. It is public property belonging to companies of which we have the control, but as shareholders of the Compagnie du Paris-Orléans.
La Cardonne is Eric's baby. The bank was wholly owned by us, but is now owned by the Compagnie du Nord, a public-owned company. One thousand shareholders. We own about 30 percent of the bank, about 60 percent belongs to the Compagnie du Nord and the rest to friends.
JW – That's getting a little deep for me. I can understand a bottle of Lafite much better!