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Using Tragedy to Spread Ignorance in Bordeaux

A Chinese businessman's death in Bordeaux was bad enough; now someone wants to use it to scare away foreign château buyers

Posted: Jan 14, 2014 11:00am ET

By Mitch Frank

Lam Kok was in Bordeaux in 2012 to sell tea. A businessman from Yunnan, China, Kok had made millions through his firm the Brilliant Group by selling rare Pu'er tea and operating luxury hotels. But according to people who met him two years ago at a trade show on the Right Bank, he was captivated by the idea of owning a winery. Before 2013 was over, he made his dream a reality, inking a sizable deal to purchase Château La Rivière, a Fronsac estate with a gorgeous castle, 148 acres of vines and historical roots in the 16th century.

Sadly, the deal turned tragic. As my colleague Suzanne Mustacich reported, when Kok visited his new estate on Dec. 20, seller James Gregoire offered to take him on a helicopter tour of the property. A hunter saw the aircraft plunge into the frigid waters of the Dordogne river shortly afterward. Gregoire, Kok, a local professor acting as translator and Kok's son are all missing and presumed dead.

Now someone has decided to take advantage of the tragedy. A group calling itself the Agricultural Action Committee has sent a letter to a local newspaper and numerous real-estate agents, claiming that Gregoire "paid with his life for selling the vineyard to a foreign buyer exactly 10 days after we had warned him not to." The letter goes on to threaten, "Those who sell to foreigners, intermediaries and foreign buyers should expect to find themselves at the bottom of a river or 6 feet under." Authorities are still investigating the crash, but they say all signs point to an accident.

Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but sources tell Wine Spectator that Chinese buyers purchased at least 20 wine properties in 2013, which means more than 60 are now owned partly or wholly by Chinese. It's a testament both to China's business boom and the popularity of Bordeaux in the People's Republic. The growing wealthy class sees châteaus as a sound investment while their own real-estate market is inflated.

But in times of trouble, people look for someone to blame. Europe's economic recovery has lagged the rest of the world's. Unemployment is high, especially among young people. Fear and frustration are rampant. Across the continent, some politicians are running for office on a platform of ending the European Union, of restricting cooperation with neighbors. A handful are inciting fear, turning immigrants and minorities into scapegoats.

France has recently been debating whether a comedian's stand-up act is free speech or an incitement of anti-Semitism. On Jan. 10, the national council of state backed several cities' ban on shows by Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who makes fun of the Holocaust on stage and used to lead a national "anti-Zionist" party. His vocal fans have been photographed flashing his trademark gesture—a blend of Nazi salute and obscene gesture—outside synagogues.

Clamping down on free speech is never a good solution for dealing with people who take advantage of fear. There are better ways to counteract their influence and marginalize them.

Wine's history holds endless examples of how globalization and the free exchange of people and ideas leads to better success and prosperity. In the 12th century, the city of Bordeaux was a sleepy port on France's southwest coast, overshadowed by its more prosperous neighbor, La Rochelle. But in 1151, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II. Bordeaux now belonged to the English crown and proved particularly loyal. Henry and his heirs made Bordeaux wine a staple at the royal table and exempted it from trade duties.

The English were just the first foreign investors in Bordeaux. Dutch traders came next, buying the local white wines. Dutch engineers, who knew how to turn marsh into dry land, drained the gravel soils of the Médoc. Waves of Irish and Germans, whose names still appear generations later on lists of château and négociant ownership, came next. A wealthy American bought Château Haut-Brion at the height of the Great Depression.

The Chinese have yet to buy a first-growth. In fact, the kind of properties they have been buying are ones that have the greatest need for outside help these days—small châteaus, not the big names that can sell futures for hefty prices. Many have struggled financially, and the owners' children don't want to take over. They need buyers with deep pockets who believe there is a future in Bordeaux beyond the classified growths.

There will always be people who profit on fear. But any wine region that shuts out foreigners condemns itself to isolation, stagnation and poverty. After centuries of welcoming fresh blood, I suspect Bordeaux is too smart for that.

Peter Hellman
New York, NY, USA —  January 15, 2014 8:27am ET
This hoorah for openness and, yes, globalization of wine regions echoes what Aubert de Villaine, "pope" of Burgundy responded when asked if he was against the purchase of the Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin by a Chinese millionaire. "He's not taking the chateau back to China," de Villaine said. And he pointed out that the derelict chateau would be much better restored by this buyer from the other side of the world than by more financially constrained locals.

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