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Bruno is Bruno

The owner of Ducru-Beaucaillou respects family tradition but does things HIS WAY
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: December 15, 2006

Since taking control of Ducru-Beaucaillou, the famed second-growth château in Bordeaux's St.-Julien appellation, in January 2003, Bruno Borie has installed original Keith Haring pop art on the ground floor and constructed a vast kitchen around a restaurant-quality stove to indulge his passion for cooking. He spends contemplation time on a tatami mat in a glassed-in room cantilevered over the Gironde River.

Unmarried and childless, he has moved into the majestic château. Once his boyhood home, it now serves as a sort of giant bachelor pad. Tall, slender and often dressed in dark clothes, he looks more like a Parisian artist than a businessman, and like nobody else in Bordeaux.

Borie spent the first half of his adult life in self-imposed exile from the family business. For two decades, he has owned and managed the company that produces Lillet, the French aperitif wine flavored with oranges and herbs. Since inheriting control of Ducru-Beaucaillou, which had been owned by his father, Jean-Eugène Borie, and operated by his brother, Xavier, he has returned to Bordeaux with clear ideas about branding and marketing, but also about how to live a life. "To have a vision of the world," explains Borie, now 50. "To figure out what's going on around the planet, and bring it back to where I live."

"He's a real individualist, more like a Burgundian," says enologist Véronique Drouhin-Boss of Beaune's Drouhin family and Domaine Drouhin in Oregon, who has known Borie for a quarter-century and whose father was an investor with Borie in Lillet.

Such individualism makes Borie quite unlike the average Bordeaux château owner. When Didier Cuvelier of nearby Château Léoville Poyferré, who has known him since childhood, says that Borie "is completely different from most people," it isn't an insult, exactly, but it isn't a compliment, either. Though Borie is well-liked personally, the idea of such a nonconformist running one of Bordeaux's top properties seems to trouble some of his peers. "He's very original in his mind," says Gonzague Lurton of Château Durfort-Vivens, who is friendly with Borie and worked with him at the association of classified-growths. "He sees each situation from [a different angle] than most of us. He really is a very, very different kind of guy, and not everybody accepts that so easily."

And while two decades spent rejuvenating a spirits company provided Borie with a unique perspective, it didn't necessarily prepare him for assuming control of a Bordeaux second-growth. "I had ideas of how to proceed," he says. "But until you're actually here looking at what needs to be done and you're the one to do it, you can't really [know how]."

Yet Borie has taken what was an extraordinary property, ranked just a notch or two below the first-growths under his father and brother's tenure and built on that foundation. The wines certainly haven't foundered. Ducru-Beaucaillou's 2003 vintage, the latest release, scored 97 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. The 2005, which earned a preliminary score of 95-100 from barrel, flirts with perfection.

That Borie has managed to accomplish all this without sacrificing his cherished individuality is even more remarkable an achievement. "Bruno is Bruno," says his sister, Sabine, who also owns a share of the château. "He doesn't change."

Bruno was not the Borie that most Bordelais expected to be running Ducru-Beaucaillou. For much of his life, he lived on the outside of his family's wine business. "I was the black sheep," Borie says. His brother, Xavier, now 52, had been working alongside their father at Ducru-Beaucaillou since 1978, and managing it since 1992, while concurrently running the Pauillac fifth-growth Grand-Puy-Lacoste. Unlike Xavier, whose career path led straight ahead, Bruno wasn't ready to be slotted into a proscribed space. "He changed his mind quite often," Xavier says. "But the main thing was, he didn't want to work with our father."

"I wanted my own life," says Bruno. He started looking for it by picking grapes in California's Central Valley. Later, he signed on with Peter Sichel, the late Bordeaux wine merchant who co-owned Château Palmer. On a visit to New York's Rainbow Room in 1984, when he was 28, Borie first encountered Lillet, an aperitif wine produced in Podensac, just south of Bordeaux. Learning upon his return to France that the company was failing, he decided that he would put together a group of investors to buy it.

And to everyone's astonishment, that's exactly what he did. The investors included Bordeaux négociant Jean-François Moueix, Robert Drouhin and, ultimately, Jean-Eugène Borie. "My father said, 'That's an unusual idea, but why not?' " Borie recalls.

The money was the investors', but the company was Borie's. Over two decades, during which time he gradually bought out his partners, Borie built Lillet into a thriving business. He modernized the equipment, renovated the fermenting cellar and subtly changed the wine's formula, from the syrupy-sweet concoction it had become to something more similar to the original 19th-century product. He learned about production, promotion, distribution and marketing. He employed hundreds of people. Revenues spiked. "He works hard, he has ideas, he's intelligent and he succeeded." says Robert Drouhin, who believes that Lillet is now worth much more than what Borie paid for it.

When Borie entered his late 30s, he began ruminating about returning to the wine business. But how? Xavier was all the help Jean-Eugène needed. And Jean-Eugène was a father, with all that that entails. A strong-headed man, but one who didn't like conflict, Jean-Eugène tended to keep his own counsel. He'd ask Bruno, "When are you coming back?" but their discussions were nebulous, tentative. Borie joined the family company's board of directors in 1994, and even served as the president of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés in 1998 and 1999, but his life and his work remained at Lillet.

When Jean-Eugène died in 1998, 45 years after inheriting Ducru-Beaucaillou from his own father, the family faced a quandary. There were two sons and a daughter, several family estates and no clear idea of how to proceed. Each child was due to inherit a third of each of Ducru-Beaucaillou and Grand-Puy-Lacoste, as well as the family's other property, Lalande-Borie. It was a mess. Bruno had definite ideas about Ducru-Beaucaillou, and Xavier, who'd lived and worked there his whole adult life, resented them.

"It was too late," Xavier says now. "I'd spent 28 years sitting in the same office as my father at Ducru while Bruno was doing other things. And by then, Bruno and I were too old to begin to work together." Their relationship ruptured.

Under Napoleonic law, which still governs many of France's social conventions, an estate is typically divided into as many equal parts as there are children, but some wiggle room exists. Jean-Eugène had preferred that his heirs work out the specifics of their arrangement on their own. That gave the children room for negotiation.

Bruno proposed that he, Xavier and Sabine (who'd lived most of her life in Limoges and once owned a china business) continue to share everything. He envisioned a sort of utopian council, all of them converging to solve problems, brainstorm about technical innovations, create a consistent marketing plan and have an economy of scale for distribution.

"It'll never work," Xavier responded. He brought up the end of the 1930s, when Jean-Eugène's father, Francis, had given his brother, Marcel, what became the fifth-growth château Haut-Batailley and two minor châteaus in return for the funds to start a company that would purchase Ducru-Beaucaillou. It had been an amicable split, but a split nonetheless. And in the same fashion, Xavier believed, so too must Jean-Eugène's children each go their own way.

In that case, Bruno wanted to run Ducru-Beaucaillou. Since Xavier and his family were ensconced at Grand-Puy-Lacoste, they agreed that he'd remain there. He'd also manage Haut-Batailley, which is currently owned partially by their aunt, Françoise, Jean-Eugène's sister. Ducru-Beaucaillou, which, as a second-growth, has far greater commercial value than Grand-Puy-Lacoste, would be divided between Bruno, Sabine and their mother, Monique. Lalande-Borie, an adjunct to Ducru-Beaucaillou that sits on land which once belonged to Château Lagrange, was included in this deal. (Together, the two estates comprise 250 acres, or an eighth of the entire St.-Julien appellation.)

Bruno moved into the château and began to assert himself. "When I was younger, I was eager to show my father that I could do special things with Lillet," he says. "Now, [even though] he has unfortunately passed, I want to show him I can do special things here, too." He walked the property, sifted through the pebbly soil (more than 70 percent of the vineyards was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with the rest in Merlot) and tasted wines as far back as the cellar provided. And he developed a vision of Ducru-Beaucaillou the wine, which can best be described as exactly what it had always been with a little more of everything: "Those little details that make the difference between the first-growths and the best of the others," as he says. "It takes time to attain the quality of a first-growth, but we have time," he adds. "I'm already 50 years old, but I'm only 50 years old, if you know what I mean."

At the same time, he started to apply his outside-world experience to the commercial side of Ducru-Beaucaillou, which, like the vast majority of Bordeaux wines, is sold to customers through an indirect method. Most Bordeaux proprietors have little knowledge of or interest in what happens to their wine after it leaves the château's backdoor on its way to the various négociants who have purchased it at the Place de Bordeaux. Not Borie. "You can't say my job is finished when I put the cork in the bottle," he says. "My job is finished when the cork is pulled out of the bottle."

He commissioned surveys, studied data and spoke personally to importers and retailers around the world. "Lillet helped me," he says. "It helped me understand packaging, and the importance of making a modern Web site, and of having our suppliers talk to each other. Mostly, it helped me understand the idea of a brand."

To Borie, who is both a third-generation proprietor and a thoroughly modern marketer, his wine and its heritage go hand in hand. A special wine must not only be made with special care, he believes, but sold that way, too. "Someone buys a case, but he isn't going to drink every bottle himself. He's going to bring a bottle to his friends," Borie points out. "You have to have the label looking great, the capsule looking great, so the guy who brings it is proud of what he's offering."

Since 2003, he has switched to embossed bottles ("so they can't be copied") shaped like the Ducru-Beaucaillou bottles of the 1920s. He now uses longer corks: 54 millimeters instead of the standard 49 millimeters. "It isn't that we think that longer is better," he says, but that only a few châteaus in Bordeaux are using the longer size. "It's a matter of prestige, which not only helps the image but means we're likely to get better corks." And he takes careful notice of who is selling his wines, and how.

"I don't want my wine to be treated like Coca-Cola," he remarks.

Borie paces over the hardwood floor of an office that could easily be found in an advertising agency but is, instead, on the second floor of an 18th-century château. A huge pad of graph paper is mounted on a plastic easel.

The problem at hand is a dinner scheduled for that night with a major buyer from Costco, the chain of American megastores—precisely the type of place where Borie doesn't want to see his wine sold. Most château owners would be overjoyed at the opportunity to get their product in front of the millions of occasional wine drinkers who are far more likely to walk into a Costco than a specialty store. (In the states that allow supermarket sales, wine is one of Costco's best revenue generators.)

But Borie tries to manage Ducru-Beaucaillou the way a political handler would advise a candidate. What company are you keeping? How do you dress? With that in mind, he has already told a representative from the French supermarket chain Carrefour that the two of them had nothing of substance to discuss, though he did proceed to cook the man a delightful lunch.

That night, with the Costco representative among those seated at his wooden table, Borie stands at his Charvet stove and stirs a risotto made with monkfish. The Costco representative turns out to be quiet, bright and articulate, nothing like Borie had imagined. When the representative defines the typical Costco consumer as an upwardly mobile achiever with an income of more than $100,000, Borie is visibly impressed.

Nevertheless, he decides not to endorse the offering of his wine in Costco stores. He can understand how the wider distribution might be good for business today and even tomorrow, and he knows that, to a certain extent, Bordeaux's négociants will do what they want to do. Still, as much as possible, he prefers to reward the wine specialists and other retail outlets who have helped get his brand where it is. "The people who are involved with wine for the long-term are people I want to align myself with," he says.

At Ducru-Beaucaillou, he is looking for them through unconventional means, such as the Internet. Ducru-Beaucaillou has one of the better Web sites (www.château-ducru-beaucaillou.com) in the world of wine, and Borie is the amiable host. Wearing a turtleneck and a sport coat and speaking as slowly and carefully as a professor who thinks his audience is likely to be taking notes, he describes the château and its setting, explains what made the 2005 vintage special ("Hallelujah! The conditions were ideal"), discusses futures and even recommends a recipe for blanquette of veal, which glides onto the screen at the end.

That the presentation stars Borie himself is no accident. In just a few short years, he has become the face of the château to an extent that it takes other proprietors decades to reach. "The type of management you put behind the property, the human factor, is second in importance only to the terroir, the natural factor," he says. "Who is behind the wine? The owner gives the direction. With Lillet, my philosophy was that the brand was important. I'd never show my face in a Lillet ad, I'd never speak on the Web site. But for a château, for wine, the human factor is important. Consumers need to know who is making the decisions."

And there are decisions to be made. "There are files open in every area," he says. "Vineyards, planting, soil, winery, finance, marketing, managing people—everything." On the one hand, he is fine-tuning the details, from pruning vines to presenting barrel samples to entertaining guests. On the other, he's attempting to create and implement a vision for what he calls "the very long-term," so that he can hand over a winery to his successor—whomever that may turn out to be—that is even better positioned than the one he inherited.

His emphasis going forward will be on the vineyards, which he has always enjoyed. "When I was a kid, I was the peasant in the family," he says. "I'd spend hours in the field, looking at the tractors, playing in the dirt, running around with the dogs." He won't alter the fundamental blend, but he has already begun a replanting regimen. Instead of buying pregrafted vines from the nursery, he's planting American rootstock in the vineyard and grafting it to his clones after two years, which is when he believes the vines are better able to handle the stress. "This isn't a change for now, but for 15 or 20 years from now," he says. "We'll have a stronger, healthier vine."

In the winery, he's working with consulting enologist Jacques Boissenot—an Emile Peynaud disciple whose résumé includes Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Léoville Las Cases, Cos-d'Estournel and many other top châteaus—to subtly alter the wine. "We made less wine in 2003, 2004 and 2005 than in the past," Borie says. "A more severe selection. What I'm looking for is a little more body and a little more roundness."

He finds it easier to contemplate changes with his father gone. "There is more room for interpretation," he says. "I can imagine, 'He would be happy if I do this.' Maybe he'd be happy and maybe he wouldn't, but he can't get on the phone and call you, either way."

Beaucaillou means "beautiful pebbles," and this estate has always been more about showing off the specifics of the site—just north of Beycheveille, between the D2 autoroute and the Gironde—than the winemaking muscle.

The best of Ducru-Beaucaillou's wines, such as the remarkable 1959 and 1961, the long-lived 1970 and the 1995, judged Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, have been among the most elegant in the Médoc. (When musty aromas were found in some bottles from the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages, the problem was identified and swiftly solved; the chai was rebuilt and a new cork supplier found.) Even in a vintage like 1996, which produced firm wines, Ducru-Beaucaillou's wonderfully successful effort is more rooted in balance than power.

Those wines were presided over by Jean-Eugène, who, when asked about his hobbies, replied, "My office, my wife, my Ducru." To Bruno, a more expansive life view can't help but result in a more expansive wine. In the wines that are emerging from his château, he sees himself. "I'm an epicurean," he says. "I like pleasure. If you go to a restaurant where the chef doesn't like eating, you start having questions, and the same is true with wine. So I'm maybe trying to get the wine to be just a little bit more epicurean."

Borie's love of cooking is another manifestation of his epicurean passion. During en primeur week in June, he cooked lunch and dinner every day in his kitchen at the château for the hordes of tasters who pass through to sample the new vintage. This at a time when most château owners are too busy presiding over their guests to have anything more to do with meals other than to eat them.

And he did it his way. Everyone else in Bordeaux served lamb or beef, since those meats typically show off the best qualities of recent releases. But at Ducru-Beaucaillou, which makes only red wine, fish was served. "I called a fisherman friend of mine in Arcachon and told him I'd need enough fish for a week's worth of lunches and dinners," Borie says. "I figured everyone would be tired of meat. I wanted to be different."

That could stand as the motto of Ducru-Beaucaillou. Looking back now, it is impossible to see how Borie ever felt that he and his brother could run the family properties together. In just three years, the property has become unmistakably his. "It wouldn't have worked the other way," he admits. "Xavier was right." Smack in the middle of middle age, Borie has found his life's passion, and that passion informs everything he does at the winery. "It's like riding a thoroughbred," he says. "You must keep cool. You must hold on. But it's thrilling."

Recent Releases From Ducru-Beaucaillou

Wine Score Price
2005 95-100 $NA
Intense exotic aromas of crushed blackberries, lilacs and hints of vanilla. Full-bodied, with a solid core of fruit and big, silky tannins.
2004 92-94 $NA
Full-bodied yet balanced and silky. Lots of Cabernet character, with currant and earth. Beautiful. Refined yet muscular.
2003 97 $125
Intense aromas of blackberry, currant and cherry. Full-bodied, with big, velvety tannins and a long finish. A classic big, juicy claret.
2002 NR $55
2001 92 $55
Crushed berries on the nose, with hints of flowers and minerals. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and a long cappuccino-and berry-aftertaste.
2000 95 $105
Fantastic aromas of blackberries, wild berries and minerals. Full-bodied and very tight, with big, silky tannins and a long, caressing finish.

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