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For Bordeaux Wines, a Vintage Ambassador

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Twice in its long history, Chateau Margaux has been rescued by women.

The first, Laure de Fumel, acquired it in 1795, during the turbulence of the French Revolution, and managed to save it and its vineyards. But after a series of forgettable vintages, she despaired of making great wine and auctioned it off in 1802.

The second, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, had far better timing, coming to the chateau in the late 1970s, after a string of disastrous vintages and just before a series of fabulous years in the 1980s, beginning with the legendary 1982s.

It helped make her a rarity in France, where women serve and drink wine, and even help harvest the grapes, but are a vanishingly small minority among the owners of chateaux.

Chateau Margaux is one of the five "first-growth" wine-producing properties in Bordeaux, along with Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton- Rothschild, Latour and Haut Brion, and thus one of the most important in France. But it was in shambles in 1977 when Mentzelopoulos's wealthy father, Andre, purchased it in 1977 from the Ginestet family of Bordeaux wine merchants for $15 million. He knew little of winemaking, but began restoring Chateau Margaux.

"In some ways my father was more French than the French," she said. "He used to say how on a flight back from London he read in The Financial Times that Chateau Margaux was for sale. We were invited one day for lunch with Pierre Ginestet. I went with him. I was a student. I was amazed by the beauty of it all. The cellars, the chateau."

When he died three years later, Mentzelopoulos stepped into his shoes. "Without thinking, I came here," she said, sipping a Coke in a sleek 1970s office building that her father built along the elegant Avenue Montaigne in the capital. "You know, 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy.'" In the ensuing years she moved far beyond her father's shadow. She now spends much of each year traveling in Europe and beyond, an ambassador of Bordeaux wines. In recent years the French have begun shipping wines to China, hoping to find markets among the emerging middle class there. When President Hu Jintao of China visited a few years ago, she asked him why he had chosen Chateau Margaux. "But you are so famous, madame," she said he replied.

That fame was hard won, coming only after long years of restoring the chateau and its reputation for making great wine.

Relying on local experts, particularly the longtime managing director, Paul Pontallier, whom she hired, Mentzelopoulos tore up and replanted about 12 hectares, or 30 acres, of vineyard and rebuilt storage vats and cellars. The chateau itself was restored inside and out, and within a few years a succession of superlative vintages came forth.

Tradition may be a cornerstone of Chateau Margaux, designed by the 18th-century architect Victor Louis, and it was by reviving the tradition that Mentzelopoulos made it work. In some ways, her career reflects the recent history of the French wine industry. Once insular and hidebound, the industry gradually awakened in the 1980s and thereafter to the challenge of well-made, cleverly marketed wines from such places as Australia, California, South Africa and Chile. French producers gradually updated their equipment and winemaking techniques, and began thinking seriously about how to compete in global markets.

It is perhaps appropriate that Mentzelopoulos, who comes from a family that contradicts many of the rules of French society, would be the one to shake up a great Bordeaux chateau.

Not only was her father Greek, he was a self-made man, having amassed a fortune in commodities and real estate. Her mother was a mix of Italian and French. She takes delight in that mixture, and her office reflects the contradictions: a line of Chateau Margaux bottles on a windowsill and a print of the chateau on one wall; a fourth century B.C. Greek statue from her father's old office against another wall, a large portrait of the pop star Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol on another.

Mentzelopoulos, 52, finds it difficult to explain why she chose the path she did. An avid reader, she first toyed with the idea of doing something with literature, then focused on the classics in high school.

But, she confesses, it was "Caesar's Gallic wars in school, and at home the Dow Jones." She gravitated to political studies, and, after graduation in the mid-1970s, to a job at the Havas advertising agency, to a supermarket chain controlled by her father and, finally, the chateau.

Women were then, and remain, rare in the French wine world, something that obviously rankles Mentzelopoulos.

"I'm a very competitive person," she said, "I ski, I windsurf and in school I had better grades than the boys." After casting about in her mind for another woman at the top of the industry, she says, "the cellar master at Yquem is a woman," referring to Chateau d'Yquem, which makes a high-end Sauternes sweet wine.

Traditionally, she said, Frenchwomen who succeeded outside the home were still thought of as someone's wife or daughter. The grande dame of Bordeaux wines, May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, the 81-year-old owner of the great Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, also inherited the estate from her father.

"The one main difference is that today you are a woman by yourself," Mentzelopoulos said.

Over the years, she had been forced to sell off parts of her stake in the chateau to raise cash. Perhaps her shrewdest move came in 2003, after the Agnelli family of Italy, which had acquired a controlling stake in Margaux in 1991, decided to sell. At a time when Bill Gates and the Duke of Westminster were scouting for choice Bordeaux properties, Mentzelopoulos leaped into action, acquiring the Agnellis' 75 percent share for $440 million, giving her complete ownership.

Over the years, Margaux has become "a part of the overall French luxury world," she said. "And I'm part of the status symbol." Chateau Margaux wines are luxury products, she says, but with a close link to nature.

"We prune our vines in August to keep the yield low, and in that sense we are farmers," she said. "Today we're picking grapes with a potential alcoholic degree of 14.5 percent, which we haven't seen for decades, so we're very excited. But if it starts raining now, and we have dilution, our turnover and our luxury product are out there." She paused, then added: "We depend on God and nature." For the long term, she said, growth is constrained by limits on the amount of wine the chateau and its vineyards can produce. Yet, it is quality, not quantity, that poses the greatest challenge, she says.

"Margaux 1900 is a legend, but what about Margaux 2000?" Mentzelopoulos asked. "In 50 years, if Margaux is as famous and as wanted, and people drink it like the 1900 vintage, then I'll say, '"Somebody up there liked us. We did a good job.'"

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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