The sale of Bordeaux's Château La Rivière to a Chinese billionaire ended in a tragic helicopter accident Dec. 20 and four people are presumed dead. James Gregoire, 63, co-owner of négociant Vintex, had just sold the estate to Lam Kok, 46, owner of the Brilliant Group, in what is thought to be the largest transaction involving Chinese investors in Bordeaux vineyards. Also on board was Kok's 11-year-old son Charles and Peng Wang, a professor at Inseec business school, who was acting as interpreter.
The sale was finalized on Thursday, and on Friday Kok introduced himself, his son and his wife to his new employees. Kok made his fortune in luxury hotels and rare Pu'er tea. He spoke of turning La Rivière into a luxury hotel and spa, as well as a place where the rich cultural histories of Pu'er tea and Bordeaux wine would meet.
At the end of the afternoon, Gregoire, an experienced helicopter pilot, offered to fly Kok, Charles and Peng over the estate. Kok's wife, expressing a fear of helicopters, remained behind. When the group failed to return 20 minutes later, emergency crews were called. A hunter on the banks of the Dordogne river witnessed the helicopter plunge into the freezing waters and two survivors surface. He had no boat, and by the time he'd alerted the gendarmes, the two men had been swept away by the current.
Search and rescue teams scoured the river and shore into the night. The boy's body was found trapped in the helicopter. The others are missing, but presumed dead.
Gregoire purchased La Rivière in 2003 for $17.1 million following the death of the former owner, Jean Leprince, in 2002. In a bizarre coincidence, Leprince died when a small plane he was flying in crashed shortly after takeoff. Gregoire also had a 50 percent stake in the négociant firm Vintex, with partners Patrice Ricard and Philippe Larché. He had expressed enthusiasm for the sale of La Rivière to Kok, who had the funds to realize his own dream of turning the massive estate into a hotel. As part of the agreement, Vintex would retain the distribution of La Rivière wines.
This was Kok's first investment outside of China. An entrepreneur from Yunnan, he built his fortune first with expensive tea, then diversified into luxury hotels, including the acclaimed Jingmai resort and spa. La Rivière, with 148 acres of vineyards, a 16th century château and 13.7 miles of underground cellars, dates back to the days of Charlemagne. Kok's wife has said she intends to proceed with her husband's plans for the property.