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Grande Dame of Bordeaux Dies at 97

Julia Mann, James Suckling
Posted: January 17, 2000

Jeanne Descaves, one of the great figures of the Bordeaux wine trade, died in her sleep on Dec. 25, 1999, in her apartment in Bordeaux, above her office. She was 97.

As the matriarch of the small but prestigious wine merchant firm of Maison Jean Descaves (named after her husband), she built her reputation around the world by buying and selling rare and fine chbteau-bottled Bordeaux.

"She was very popular in the Bordeaux trade," said Daniel Lawton of the centuries-old nigociant firm of Tastet & Lawton. "Madame Descaves would always have a little stock of wine, even when there was no wine left on the Bordeaux market. ... She was respected, esteemed and loved because she was so warm."

Descaves stayed in the wine trade for 79 years. She was still working full-time during her last days, and many people in the Bordeaux wine trade visited to offer her their Christmas and New Year's wishes. On Christmas Eve, she stayed in the office until 4 p.m., when she popped the cork from a bottle of Perrier-Joukt Champagne and toasted each of her employees.

"Madame Descaves had so much force, intuition, willpower and courage," said France Chauvin, who now heads the Descaves firm. "She had a phenomenal memory, which she kept right until the end. Her will, energy and passion lasted right until the last day."

Born on March 18, 1902, in Bergerac, Descaves was the only child of mill worker Jean-Henri Nadal and Marie Baysselance. In 1921, she married Jean Descaves, and the couple bought a nigociant firm. She began working there right away, although at the time it was unheard-of for a woman to be a wine merchant.

Descaves is survived by her two children -- daughter Daniele Dussert, 58, and son Philippe Descaves, 59 -- as well as four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. (Her husband died in 1968.) "My mother was a very strong woman, a fighter, yet very simple," said her daughter. "She did not like to be seen but preferred to remain in the shadows. She did not want any honors, but she deserved them."

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