Lalou Bize-Leroy

Mick Rock/Cephas
Lalou Bize-Leroy

In 1955, Henri Leroy installed his 23-year-old daughter Marcelle, known as Lalou, at the head of the family's Burgundy négociant, Maison Leroy. The move allowed him to focus on other, more lucrative parts of the family business, mainly a brandy distillery. Not surprisingly, men in 1950s Burgundy were not keen on taking orders from a young woman. Bize-Leroy was unfazed. Throughout her career, this intelligent woman has been successful by developing strong principles and sticking to them. She has been unafraid of bucking conventional wisdom, and in the process has produced some of Burgundy's most sought-after wines.

Négociants held the power in Burgundy during that era. For years, Henri had trained his daughter to taste, and she had an excellent palate. Very quickly she showed a talent for tasting samples from various growers and choosing outstanding wines to buy, age and bottle. But business became harder. Burgundy was struggling with quality, something Bize-Leroy blames on high yields, especially as vignerons planted productive Pinot Noir clones and employed chemical fertilizers. Unwilling to compromise on quality, for many years she bought little wine, creating tough times for the company.

Bize-Leroy's family owned not just the négoce, but also a 50 percent stake in Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Bize-Leroy became co-director in 1974. She helped push the domaine toward organic viticulture and raised the quality of its wines. But she was also a polarizing figure, and in early 1992, conflict over her business decisions regarding the 1988 vintage of DRC's wines resulted in her leaving as co-director.

In 1988 and 1989, Bize-Leroy bought two domaines and several other parcels in Burgundy for a total of 55 acres of vines for Domaine Leroy. She hired a new winemaker and stopped using chemical treatments in the vineyards, adopting biodynamics, the holistic farming philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. In the summer of 1993, mildew began spreading rapidly through Burgundy. Unwilling to use fungicides, Bize-Leroy lost much of her crop. Her respected winemaker and vineyard manager quit. But when she released the small amounts of 1993 wines two years later, people tasted them and raved. Subsequent vintages have consistently been outstanding. Domaine Leroy's wines, though difficult to find and expensive, are now considered benchmarks for Burgundy.