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The Rothschild Dynasty

From Frankfurt's Jewish ghetto to Bordeaux: How the Rothschilds became the world's preeminent family of wine

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: December 4, 2000

Philippine de Rothschild
The Mistress of Mouton
The Leader of Lafite
Eric de Rothschild

Benjamin de Rothschild
The Richest Rothschild
The Rothschild Dynasty

From Frankfurt's Jewish ghetto to Bordeaux: How the Rothschilds became the world's preeminent family of wine

By Per-Henrik Mansson

Prologue: Bordeaux, 1961

In the spring of 1961, the Rothschilds of Château Lafite and the Rothschilds of Château Mouton agreed to suspend hostilities between the two houses for a couple of days. The occasion for the uneasy truce was the wedding of Philippine, the only child of Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Mouton.

During the eight years that preceded this family event, the traditional rivalry between Lafite and Mouton for preeminence in Bordeaux had degenerated into a bitter conflict between Philippe and his younger cousin Baron Elie de Rothschild, who managed Lafite. Lafite was a first-growth and Mouton a second-growth under the region's sacrosanct 1855 classification, and the Rothschilds of Lafite had blocked Philippe's repeated attempts to elevate Mouton to first-growth status.

The formal Elie and the artsy Philippe were different in temperament and in character, and this partly explains their "catastrophic human relations," says Philippine, who became Baroness de Rothschild upon her father's death in 1988. Elie commanded Lafite's employees like a general heading an army; Philippe liked to hold business meetings while lounging in his bed.

"They didn't get along at all," adds Philippine. "The chemistry just wasn't there. It was an enormous problem of two men who couldn't stand each other."

The two Bordeaux estates border each other in Pauillac, the celebrated appellation in Médoc, and share a combination of soil, drainage and topography that allows them to produce some of the finest and highest-priced clarets each year. Yet Lafite and Mouton had divergent interests. If Mouton became a first-growth, it almost certainly would mean stiffer competition for Lafite; it might even undermine Lafite's traditional track record of commanding higher prices than Mouton in the Bordeaux marketplace. To the Paris-based Rothschild bankers who held a majority of Lafite, business was business; it didn't really matter that a cousin headed Mouton.

For Philippine's wedding, however, a truce was declared. Whatever feelings animated the Lafite Rothschilds and the Mouton Rothschilds on this day, their selection of the wines for the wedding meals demonstrated mutual respect. Each château honored its rival. At the luncheon held at Château Mouton, Philippe showcased Lafite by serving that château's 1869 at the end of the meal. (It came after two wines from Mouton, 1928 and 1933, the latter being Philippine's birth year.) At a candle-lit dinner that night in the chais of Château Lafite, Elie and his wife, Liliane, returned the courtesy by ending the meal with 1869 Mouton, which followed 1949 and 1926 Lafite. For a day, family harmony prevailed over rivalry.

For the complete article, please see the Dec. 15, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 41.
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