While following her father into the complex world of commerce was never a priority, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild nevertheless made her mark in wine.
As a young woman, she decided a career in theater was more to her liking. In 1958, she graduated from the Paris Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique and acted in La Comédie Française with Catherine Deneuve. She played one of the leading roles in the stage adaptation of “Harold and Maude” with Madeleine Renaud in the mid-1970s.
Madame de Rothschild entered her father’s wine business in the late 1970s. When he died in 1988, Philippine inherited three estates in Bordeaux — Château Mouton Rothschild (bought by her great-great-grandfather Nathaniel de Rothschild in 1853), Château d’Armailhac and Château Clerc Milon. She also became chairwoman and majority owner of Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A. At the time of her father’s death, the company sold 1.3 million cases of wine a year. By 2000, sales had almost doubled to 2.1 million cases. She helped modernize and expand the world-renowned wine enterprise.
Her wine holdings included Château Mouton Rothschild, Château d’Armailhac, Château Clerc Milon, Domaine de Lambert, Baron Arques, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Mouton Cadet, Opus One in Napa Valley and Viña Almaviva in Chile.
The grand dame of Bordeaux died in Paris last Saturday due to “complications from surgery,” according to a company spokesman. She was 80.
It was her father who decided in the mid-’70s that it would be wise to get involved in the New World. The baron invited vintner Robert Mondavi to discuss the possibility of a collaboration and Opus One was born.
“Bob and the baron were together for 11 years and there was never an argument,” Margrit Mondavi said of her late husband’s association with the Rothschild empire. “When her father died, Philippine took over and it remained the same — a wonderful partnership.
“Philippine was a brilliant woman ... first and foremost a famous actress. That allowed her great charm of presentation ... when she talked about wine, people listened. She had a wonderful head of dark curls, and often wore a short Givenchy dress ... she was lovely, and a good friend. I loved her family, especially her father.
“She was a different person ... very opinionated ... if she thought it was so, then it was so. She was full of life. After she was made, they threw away the mold. I’ll miss her very much.”
In her New York Times obituary, the baroness’s independent spirit was underscored with the following anecdote:
“The baron had begun a tradition in 1945 of commissioning prominent artists like Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol to design the (Chateau Mouton Rothschild) label every year. The baroness did the same and in 1990 approached the English painter Francis Bacon to ask if she could use a painting of a nude that her father had rejected. Mr. Bacon asked what had changed.
“’I’m not my father,’” she answered.
Another Napa Valley resident knew Madame de Rothschild quite well as he worked with both the wine doyenne and her father.
George Scheppler, a local grower who lives in Oakville, was hired in 1975 by Baron Philippe as Chateau sales director:
“Although Philippine was more or less born into the wine world, it was a wine world according to her father, Baron Philippe, and, other than Baron Philippe’s second wife, Pauline, there wasn’t room for another personality at Chateau Mouton Rothschild, especially another woman.
“After Pauline died in 1976, we began to see Philippine involved in the official affairs at Mouton. In 1980, she came to the United States representing the company as heir apparent. This was a big deal at the time. I think most in the company, including Baron Philippe, expected her to fail miserably. It’s commonplace now but back then Bordeaux, and the U.S. wine trade, was really a man’s world.”
In 1980, Scheppler and company executives organized a three-month, coast-to-coast tour in the states. On the agenda were distributor dinners, consumer tastings and “jet set dinners.” Although company executives held a collective opinion of Philippine as just the actress daughter, the young woman charmed America, according to Scheppler:
“She took the U.S. market by storm. I remember Dick Cavett’s producers were reluctant to have her appear as a guest on his show. During the taping we could see Cavett’s interest in her growing and as soon as they cut he asked if she would stay for another interview. She agreed but asked for a short break. Back in the green room she quickly changed into a second dress she had brought along for the occasion — her theatrical background was never that far behind her.
“At the end of her U.S. tour, Earl Blackwell threw a fantastic party for her in his New York penthouse. Gloria Swanson, Andy Warhol and many other celebrities came to the dinner. During the evening a bunch of photographers assembled on 57th street. When we were leaving they all came over and started taking pictures. She was really quite surprised and later said that she assumed the photographers were ‘waiting for some famous musician to appear’ — Blackwell’s apartment was directly across the street from Carnegie Hall.”
Scheppler was installed as co-CEO of Opus One in 1991, a post he held for more than a decade. Looking back at that period, Scheppler told me:
“Opus One winery was Philippine’s Mouton, her baby. She was the driving force from the French side. Baron Philippe and Bob Mondavi put the Opus deal together and of course those two got most of the credit. But Baron Philippe died in 1988, long before the winery was completed. To me it was Philippine and her team, Xavier de Eizaguirre and Daniel Kiener, that worked so hard from the French side with Margrit (Mondavi), Scott Johnson and Cliff Adams in California to create the winery.
“A year or so after the completion of the winery Philippine hosted a dinner for her French staff in the Grand Chai at Opus One. Not just the executive team, her entire administrative staff, tour guides, vineyard workers, everyone. It was incredible; many of the field workers had never even traveled from Pauillac to Paris much the less to California.
“After dinner, in her closing remarks, she said, ‘Now that your feet have touched the stones of Opus One you can see why we have been working so hard, and you can see what we have achieved so very far from the precious stones of our vineyards at Mouton.’
“The huge investment in the Opus One had put significant strain on the resources of her company. The cost of the winery kept growing and growing. It far exceeded the original budget. But she could be quite tough and always managed to convince her board to continue to invest in Opus.”
True wine nobility, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was made an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2007, and in 2013 was given a lifetime achievement award by the Institute of Masters of Wine.