Bordeaux Family Values

By Frank J. Prial

Nov. 6, 2005

One day in 1992, Lucien Lurton, then the owner of Château Brane-Cantenac, a major estate in the village of Margaux, France, called together his 10 children. Over the previous 40 years, Lurton had become one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in Bordeaux, and now, he told his family, he was going to divide his holdings — 11 wine chateaus and their vineyards — among them.

A dramatic gesture, yes, but not for the Lurtons. Little known outside the French wine community, they are perhaps Bordeaux’s last great dynasty. With some 3,000 acres in the region, they are collectively Bordeaux’s largest holder of wine-producing land. They own more than 20 chateaus and manage several of the world’s most famous properties. They also claim thousands of acres of vineyards in Latin America and the South of France. Lucien, 79, and his brother André, 81, are the family’s patriarchs. The majority of Lucien’s estates, now in the hands of his children, are in the Médoc, north of the city of Bordeaux; André’s holdings, about as large, lie mostly south of the city, in the Graves region and in the little-known Entre-Deux-Mers, where the family’s ascendancy began.

Lucien, who still lives at Brane-Cantenac, is quiet, religious and conservative. “History stopped for Lucien in 1789,” said a neighboring chateau owner. André — vigorous, assertive, egotistical — resembles Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet on the early episodes of “The West Wing.”

If Lucien represents old France, conservative and discreet, André embodies a different paradigm: outgoing, charming, often despotic. He bounds up stairs, opens doors for others and, most un-French, says, “Call me André.”

“André defines himself as a peasant,” Jean-François Werner, a journalist, wrote in the wine magazine L’amateur de Bordeaux. “He loves to count the hours he spent driving a tractor more than he loves to count the chateaus he owns.”

The brothers do not get along — more exasperation than enmity. It’s a subject they love to change. “We don’t see much of one another,” Lucien told me, smiling. “We work better that way.” And then he began to show me his wine-book collection (André collects military vehicles). Mention Lucien to André, and the response is likely to be a grimace and a shrug that says, “What can you do with him?” It’s a schism that has done wonders for the family’s holdings and has poised them for even greater success when Bordeaux rebounds from its present downturn.

The Lurtons’ founding father was, in fact, not a Lurton. Léonce Récapet was a prosperous distiller and vineyard owner in Branne, a village in the Entre-Deux-Mers, where he was born in 1858. In 1922, Récapet ventured north into the Médoc, Bordeaux’s gold coast, where he bought a major share of the legendary Château Margaux, one of Bordeaux’s famous first growths (the best vineyards), as well as Château Brane-Cantenac. He later traded the Margaux shares for Château Clos Fourtet in St.-Émilion. Léonce’s daughter Denise married François Lurton, whose ancestors had been recruited to the area by the Catholic Church to help offset what was said to be a serious shortage of the faithful in the Bordeaux region. “They were farmers and skilled workers,” Denis Lurton, one of Lucien’s sons, said of his ancestors. “And they were hard workers long before they grew grapes and made wine.” When Récapet died in 1943, he left his properties to François Lurton (Denise had died nine years earlier) and their four children: André and Lucien, along with another son, Dominique, and a daughter, Simone. Lucien inherited Brane-Cantenac and André Château Bonnet, the family seat at Grézillac, in the Entre-Deux-Mers. Simone inherited vineyards, and Dominique took the Chateaux Martouret and Reynier, also in the Entre-Deux-Mers.

Lucien and André, working together at first and later separately, began to acquire chateaus at a time when the Bordeaux wine trade was in a deep slump. The Depression years had been catastrophic for the vintners, and the post-World War II years offered little redress. Social and political problems, along with the weather, combined to bring Bordeaux to the brink of ruin. A killer frost in 1956 devastated vineyards throughout the region. Then a succession of miserable vintages in the 1960’s drove hundreds of growers and winemakers from the land. Chateaus were shuttered or abandoned, and vineyards were left to rot. “The experts said Bordeaux might never recover,” André told me recently, “but we proved them wrong a hundred times over.”

Thanks to their grandfather’s foresight and their own acumen, Lucien and André profited from those lean years. They moved in, as one Bordeaux chronicler wrote in the newspaper Sud Ouest, “with a little money, large bank loans and a lot of hard work.” They were risk takers. Lucien bought Château Durfort-Vivens in 1962, when the Médoc most resembled a wasteland. He bought Château Climens in Barsac in 1971, just after the market for sweet wines had collapsed. André bought one rundown property after another, mostly in the Graves, which had been virtually forsaken as a wine-producing region. One of them, Château La Louvière, is the gem in his diadem. He picked it up in 1965, when, he told me, “there was no roof and four inches of water in the hard dirt basement — it was love at first sight.” Nine years later, he bought the dilapidated 14th-century Château de Rochemorin, and he has spent the last 30 years restoring its vineyards. The chateau, now a ruin, still waits for its makeover. First the vineyard, then the history.

When the 1956 frost wiped out the vineyards at Château Bonnet, André’s original inheritance, he leased fields and, for 10 years, raised corn and alfalfa to recover. “When I could, I bought land and raised grapes,” he said. “In Bordeaux, people use money to grow grapes. I grew grapes to make money.” In due time, Bonnet’s vineyards came back and helped underwrite André’s relentless expansion throughout Bordeaux.

In 2005, Bordeaux is in trouble once again. But it’s not the 1960’s revisited. The top chateaus — perhaps I should say the best-marketed chateaus — are doing extremely well, their wines selling from Moscow to Las Vegas at prices unimaginable 40 years ago. It’s the thousands of working-class growers and winemakers who annually produce millions of gallons of cheap Bordeaux who are in trouble. Wine consumption in France has dropped more than 50 percent since the 60’s, while overseas markets, especially the United Kingdom, have been captured by cheaper (and often better) wine from Australia, Spain, Latin America and even the United States.

Twenty years ago, the Lurtons would have been caught up in the present difficulties. Then, they produced large quantities of mostly commercial wine. Now, at every property they own or manage, they work to produce wines that can compete with Bordeaux’s best. At chateaus like Brane-Cantenac, La Louvière, Rochemorin, Bouscaut and Durfort-Vivens, they already do.

For Lucien, turning over his estates to his children struck him as routine. Inheritance, with its complications, is the ghost at every Bordeaux dinner table. Family battles over even small plots of vines can go on for generations, while, these days, newly rich outsiders, eager to buy their way into the chateau aristocracy, stand ready to snap up old properties whose inheritors cannot agree how to run them.

Which is where the Lurtons stand apart. The brothers long ago agreed not to agree — and developed two empires separately. “I had to go my own way,” Lucien said. “It’s worked out reasonably well.”

Unlike his brother, André has kept his holdings intact. “André is afraid to die,” said a chateau owner who insisted on anonymity because he is a competitor. “He clings to his properties. Giving one away would be to acknowledge that he might actually be running out of time.” André has seven children: five daughters who are shareholders in his estates, and two sons (also shareholders) who are hardly waiting around for him to pass on. With their father’s blessing, Jacques and François Lurton have gone global. In 1988 they founded Jacques & François Lurton, S.A., to acquire vineyards outside Bordeaux. Today they produce wine in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Spain and the South of France.

But perhaps the most visible Lurton is Dominique’s son, Pierre. Starting at 24, he spent 11 years running Château Clos Fourtet, in St.-Émilion, for his fractious uncles. In the early 90’s, he moved to Château Cheval Blanc, St.-Émilion’s most prestigious wine estate, as assistant manager. In 1998, when Bernard Arnault, the billionaire head of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, bought Cheval Blanc with the investor Albert Frère, he made Pierre general manager. In 1999, Arnault gained the majority stake in Château d’Yquem, the famous Sauternes estate, from the Lur Saluces family, which had owned it since 1785. Last year, he installed Pierre as chief executive.

Did Arnault give him specific instructions on running two of the most famous wine properties in the world? “He said: ‘Wine is not my field. Do your best,”‘ Pierre told me.

Like all Lurtons, Pierre is proud of the family name. When he started at Cheval Blanc, the owners at the time, the Fourcaud-Laussac family, expressed some concern about associating the famous name of Cheval Blanc with the Lurtons, who were — and in some quarters still are — considered upstarts. Could he change his name, for business purposes? Perhaps use his mother’s name?

“If you wish,” he told them. “You understand, of course, that my mother’s name is Lafite.”

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