Jean-Guillaume Prats spent the past 18 vintages dedicated to making the best wine possible from 224 acres of gravel and limestone. It was a dream job—since he was 26, Prats has worked at Château Cos-d'Estournel, the Bordeaux second-growth, leading the estate through a time of new ownership and intensive investment. But when the telephone rang last June, Prats could not turn down a new challenge. The call was from Christophe Navarre, CEO of Moët-Hennessy, offering Prats the CEO position at Estates & Wines. The job meant making wine from Napa to Shangri-Là, overseeing an incredible array of vineyards and winemakers for the world's largest luxury goods group, LVMH.
"I thought to myself: It's a fantastic opportunity to try something else and go for a new adventure," said Prats, who replaced the retiring Xavier Ybargüengoita in February. "My predecessor has built a fantastic collection."
Estates & Wines has a portfolio to tempt any winemaker: New Zealand's Cloudy Bay, Napa's Newton Vineyard, Terrazas de los Andes in Argentina, Numanthia in Spain, Cape Mentelle in Australia and the Chandon sparkling wines in Argentina, Brazil, California, and Australia.
"I am thrilled that Mr. Prats accepted this new professional challenge," said Navarre. "He's widely recognized as a great wine professional both in France and abroad. He has an unquestionable experience that will allow us to continue to develop the Estates & Wines brands."
Prats is a familiar figure for Bordeaux lovers. He'd been CEO of Cos-d'Estournel for 15 years. His decision to leave one of the most high-profile estates in Bordeaux stunned many in the region, but a lengthy conversation with Wine Spectator revealed a winemaker, mid-stride in his career, in search of a new challenge.
Until now, Prats had only left Bordeaux to earn a business degree from the European Business School in Paris, followed by brief stints at a bank in London and a wine marketing and distribution job in Quebec. At 26, he returned to St.-Estephe, joining his famous father Bruno at the family estate. "It's a huge change for me. I come from a great estate where I used to turn on the lights in the morning and turn off the lights in the evening," said Prats. "I knew the names of every vineyard worker. I knew every plot of vines."
This is a significant transition for Cos as well. For almost a century, a member of Prats' family has turned on the lights each morning. Prats' great-grandfather Fernand Ginestet bought it in 1917. But in 1998, Ginestet's grandchildren—Bruno Prats and his two brothers—faced inheritance taxes and opted to sell it to the Merlaut family. Jean-Guillaume remained with the estate after the sale, becoming CEO at age 28. The estate was sold again two years later to Michel Reybier, who had made a fortune in sausage and ham.
Fueled by Reybier's cash, Prats began an extensive restoration of the estate. A new cellar, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, spared no extravagance. It is both unapologetically opulent and state-of-the-art, featuring a gleaming army of 72 vats. Not only did the cellar put a new stamp on Cos' identity, but the precision and attention to detail it allowed improved the wines. Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth awarded the 2010 vintage 95 points.
"I think I've done the very best I could," said Prats. "Under the guidance of Michel Reybier, we took Cos-d'Estournel to the highest level possible."
But while consumers have continued to connect the Prats family with Cos, for Jean-Guillaume the cord was cut long ago. "I've experienced two sales," said Prats. "I worked hard to do the job the very best I could, knowing very well it was no longer in my family."
And at 43, Prats said it's the right time to take on another challenge. He doesn't want to find himself bored doing the same job year after year, and he only has to look at his father to see there are opportunities away from the family's roots. Following the sale of Cos in 1998, Bruno retired—"Which lasted about a week," said his son—before embarking on several joint ventures around the world, creating wines in Chile, South Africa, Portugal and Spain.
Jean-Guillaume's trajectory is more narrowly defined. He arrives at Estates & Wines with an efficient team in place and a straightforward mandate: Keep improving the quality of the wines. As Prats begins his weekly commute to Paris and vineyards around the globe (he and his family will continue to live in Bordeaux), he is conscious of having his roots in well-drained soil rather than boardrooms. "I'm not a corporate man. If they wanted a marketing expert, they could have found someone better. They came to see a wine man," said Prats.
"I don't want to sit in a Paris office and not visit the vineyards, not be involved at harvesttime and the blending, eating grapes, making decisions in the winemaking and talking to the technical people."
He's also been tasked with expanding the portfolio, of both still and sparkling wines. Consumers could absorb more Chandon sparkling wine so long as quality holds. "The problem is to get the right vineyards, but this is possible for Chandon."
Already he is overseeing Chandon's expansion into two pivotal emerging markets, China and India. In Maharashtra, India, not far from a well-known vineyard called Sula, construction will begin on Domaine Chandon India, a sparkling wine for the Indian market. "It's four hours north of Mumbai on a high plateau and really for the domestic Indian market," said Prats. "It's very similar to what we've done in Brazil."
In China, Chandon's team spent two years searching for the ideal terroir to produce a value-priced alternative to Champagne before settling on Inner Mongolia. The winery opens its doors three hours west of Beijing in Ningxia, China, this June.
But it's when Prats talks about LVMH's plan to produce a Bordeaux blend in China's southwestern Yunnan province that you sense the call to adventure that tempted this winemaker to leave his comfortable, low-risk perch in Bordeaux. "It's an extraordinary project just in the hills near Shangri-Là," said Prats. The stunning landscape of the mountainous region east of Tibet has captured his attention. They begin harvesting a few acres of this unique, high-altitude terroir this fall. The goal? Make the best red wine in China. "It's going to be made as we make the great first-growths of Bordeaux."
The winemaker might leave Bordeaux, but Bordeaux never leaves the winemaker.