A once-in-a-generation transition at one of the world's most storied wine companies became official in March, when Saskia de Rothschild became chairman of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Rothschild, 31, is the daughter of Baron Eric de Rothschild, and the first female Rothschild to run Lafite in the 150 years the Rothschild family has owned it. The company has grown substantially in six generations, with most of the expansion led by Baron Eric during his 44-year tenure.
In a lengthy interview with Wine Spectator, the new chairman made it clear she has no plans to rest on Lafite's laurels. She wants to improve the company's other brands. And she feels Lafite must innovate too if it is going to build a new generation of fans.
Growing up with Lafite
Rothschild officially joined DBR two years ago, but her memories of Lafite and the other wine estates run deep. As a child, spending weekends at Lafite with her family, she'd felt a deep connection to the estate's activity. "I have been very attached to this place since I was little. I would come here and always feel at ease with the teams and with nature," Rothschild told Wine Spectator during an interview at the first-growth. "I would run into the cellar and see people working and how they were doing their jobs, knowing all the processes that were going into making a bottle of wine. I learned to ride a bike there, I learned to drive a car."
Later, she worked at summer jobs in the vineyards at Château L'Évangile in Pomerol under a fake name—only the manager knew her identity. "To me, Lafite is my home, but L'Évangile is very important in my heart. I learned the more technical side of winemaking there," she said.
After school she worked as a reporter for the New York Times in West Africa, but she retained a connection. "For 10 years, I had been coming to Lafite for the blending," she said. "To me, it's the most important part of knowing how Lafite is built, because you really understand how each plot expresses itself and how we decided to combine them."
Two years ago, her father told her he needed her to be more present. "I said, 'If I'm going to be more present, I'm going to be completely present. I don't like to do things halfway." She quit her job and joined DBR Lafite full-time as co-chairman with her father. (She has two brothers, but neither works in wine.)
More than just a first-growth
She now heads an impressive portfolio of brands, including Châteaus Lafite and Duhart-Milon in Pauillac, Rieussec in Sauternes and L'Évangile in Pomerol. Outside Bordeaux, the firm owns Domaine d'Aussières in the Languedoc, Viña Los Vascos in Chile and Bodegas Caro in Argentina.
They also own two large-volume Bordeaux brands, Légende and Saga, created in 1995 by Baron Eric and DBR's former CEO and president, Christophe Salin. The DBR team is very happy with those brands' performance, particularly in China, but Saskia and Jean-Guillaume Prats, the company's new CEO and president, feel the wines lack strong brand identities. "It's been a great, entrepreneurial adventure—now we have to build the story behind it," said Rothschild.
"For the past two years, I've been focusing on the product, the definition of the product and the architecture of the brands we have," said Rothschild, who earned a Master of Science in Management at France's prestigious HEC business school in addition to a journalism degree from Columbia University in New York. "All of the properties have to stand on their own feet. We have a logo that says Lafite, but that can't be the only story we tell. Lafite is Lafite. You can't pull too much on Lafite to sell other things."
This is where Prats comes in. He previously managed second-growth Château Cos-d'Estournel but most recently spent five years heading the wine division of Louis-Vuitton Moët-Hennessy (LVMH), which owns 15 estates in eight countries. His expertise in the marketing, sales and distribution of luxury drinks brands meshes neatly with Rothschild's vision for the DBR Lafite stable.
"All of the luxury brands in the world have a very simple message to understand," said Prats. "You should be able to describe the DNA of a maison in a very simple way for everyone to understand and remember immediately. That's what we need to do—not for Lafite—but for the other [wines]."
They are also exploring how de Rothschild's youth can help them connect with a new generation of fine-wine drinkers. One obstacle to their ability to convey the authenticity of their wine is Lafite's success as an investment vehicle. The world took note today when they released their 2017 futures at $517 per bottle, ex-négociant, the same week the other first-growths released their prices. (The wine is selling for an average price of $583 per bottle at leading U.S. retailers tracked by Wine Spectator.)
"The price is going up, the price is going down … it's very dangerous," said Prats. "You take away from the desirability of the product. Where's the magic behind it? You take away from the consumer that this is real product from vines."
The problem with Bordeaux's investment status is it strips away some of the romance of great wine. "I want people to buy a bottle of Lafite because it makes them dream," said Rothschild. "Not because it's a status symbol to have a bottle of Lafite on the table, but because the way we make the wine is so great."