The rich are different, and it was apparent here recently as two men talked about their pride and plaything, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.
Baron Elie de Rothschild, now 62, has turned over the reins of this fabled vineyard to his 38-year-old nephew, Eric de Rothschild. Baron Elie, who took command of Lafite in 1945, at the age of 28, is a banker. Baron Eric has been managing the family's shipping company. To them Lafite is a treasure, but also a toy-considering how little it contributes to the family coffers.
(Neither of them would care to be confused with their baronial relation, the flamboyant Philippe de Rothschild, who owns the place next door, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Lafite has always been first among the first growth classified wines of Bordeaux. Mouton finally was promoted from second growth to first in (1973.)
They came to America not as salesmen-heaven forbid. Instead it was something of a diplomatic state visit, with a series of events in honor of the House of Rothschild orchestrated by Seagram's, the House of Bronfman.
The Rothschilds hardly ventured from the citadel of the Seagram's Building. A tasting was held on the fourth floor, a luncheon followed in the magnificent Four seasons restaurant on the ground floor, a banquet had been held in the restaurant the night before and Baron Eric had spent the previous evening there as well, at the annual barrel tasting of California wines.
At the banquet, the formal toasts declaring mutual admiration, appreciation and loyalty contained nuances that would have pleased Henry Kissinger. But there was one awkward moment. Remarks and reminiscences had been prompted by the 1959 Lafite, then the 1949 Lafite. The cheese wine was the Lafite of 1928. The designated speaker was Gregory Thomas, who, as he put it, is a man of too many years and a veteran of too many gastronomic conclaves to speak anything other than his mind.
This wine, he said, slowly raising his glass "is disgusting!"
He went on to reveal that in 1928, due to a flaw in vinification, the wine had been pasteurized to save it. After that year's Lafite was released, dissatisfied merchants sued and the chateau was forced by the courts to buy it back.
Cross-sampling at the banquet showed that the wine in some glasses was more clouded with sediment than the wine in others. But there was nothing graceful about the elderly lady of '28. Instead the impression was of something unpleasantly flabby, covered with powder, paint and perhaps even a wig.
Speakers bounced to their feet to defend the wine and the chateau. Diplomatically, the Rothschilds said nothing.
$10,000 Worth of Wine
The highlight of the visit came the next day in a tasting at which 50 or so members of the wine trade, the press and a handful of restaurateurs sampled 17 vintages of Lafite. The first bottle poured was from 1976. The oldest was 1945. The wines had come from the cellars of the chateau. They had an individual retail value of about $2,080, meaning that to serve everyone more than $10,000 worth of wine was poured in a little over two hours. More than a few hands shook.
Not a Rothschild hand, though, nor a Rothschild voice. Baron Eric was pushed into the spotlight by his adroit hosts (who now must deal him in matters of commerce instead of their old friend Baron Elie). He commented on the wines and fielded questions with zest and a dry wit, the latter heightened by an English accent. But the wines, from the rothschild cellars instead of from retail shelves, were different and so was the point of view.
Talking of the 1970, which was very closed or "dumb," Baron Eric compared it to an awkward teen-ager and said cheerfully: "It will be fun to see how it evolves and comes into its own."
"Sure," commented a wag in the audience to a neighbor, "if you own more than one bottle."
Later there was talked of favorite vintages of Lafite. Eric's is 1868. His uncle's is 1899. "In family we drink wines very, very old," Baron Elie said, revealing that his current drinking choices are 1953, 1949 and 1947.A 1929 is broken out now and then as a "treat," or sometimes an 1899 or 1895. "It's a pity to leave it to my childred," he concluded with a chuckle.
What the Market Will Bear
Outside, away from the pomp and splendor, not very far in any direction beyond the barricade Park Avenue represents, the Rothschilds might have heard rumbles of discontent. People are complaining that wine prices, especially those for great French wines, are going too high.
But at the banquet, a Seagram's man explained with a broad smile that Lafite sells itself; that, no matter how high the prices, there will be a market for the 12,000 or so cases of the 1976 vintage that reach our shoes. There might be a drop in sales of the less famous classified growths, he acknowledged, but that was hardly Lafite's problem. Yves Le Canu, Lafite's sales manager and a relative novice in the wine business, listened, nodding his head in agreement.
Marching Into History
As the Tasting continued, the five vintages of the '70s ('76, '75, '73, '71, '70) were sampled.
In his book "Lafite," Cyril Ray cites a 150-year-old description of the wine as still valid today: "Of the red wines of the Bordelais, the Lafite. . . is the most choice and delicate, and is characterized by its silky softness on the palate, and its charming perfume, which partakes of the nature of the violet and the raspberry."
The '71 drew the most praise in this group. To Ron Fonte of Les Amis du Vin, the '73 was a "quaffing wine. . . for the gods." Eric de Rothschild didn't try to hide his distaste for the absent '74, nor was the 1972 deemed worthy of more than a passing mention.
Continuing the march into history, five 1960s were presented. The 1966, deep in color, stood out. It is not yet fully rounded, and Baron Eric predicted it would be "another decade, probably 20 years" before it hit its peak. (Count somewhat less time if your 1966 Lafite isn't stored at the chateau. Baron Elie said just moving the wine off the property seems to age it five years or more.) The '67 was a literal lightweight. The '64 and '62 were said to be unrepresentative of Lafite and neither one pleased this participant's by-now critical palate. As for the much-heralded 1961, it still is almost totally lacking in charm. A rich, deep color and tannic strength caused it to be marked as a wine of the future, but its retail value still is below 1959 and the great post-war wines of the '40s.
Baron Elie denounced vintage ratings. "It's like a family deciding 'that boy is stupid'" before he has a chance to show his character, and spoke with some passion about the maligned 1944 vintage, a personal favorite: "I told them [wholesale merchants who wouldn't buy a Baron Elie's price] you'll be back crawling on all fours," he said. "They came but I wouldn't sell to them." There was a mention that one of the trio of disastrous years in the decade-'63, '65 and '68-had rounded into form, but the subject wasn't pursued.
We Never Changed Anything
Nor was there any talk, in such polite company, about the management of the chateau. Though the prices haven't reflected it, Lafite has taken some knocks in recent years, not faring very well in blind tastings nor among those who demand that the wine in the bottle match the reputation of the label. While Baron Eric was praised for his enthusiasm for wine and for the chateau in Bordeaux, no one implied that Baron Elie might have been too much an absentee landlord or taken Lafite's status too much for granted.
There is a new winemaker at Lafite and a new administrative team under Yves Le Canu. But it took Bruno Prats, owner of nearby Chateau Cos d'Estournel, to say-in another city at a later date-"There was a little problem for a few years. Lafite is back now, since the '76 vintage."
It was noted that average production has increased at Lafite from decade to decade. That had nothing to do with lowering standards, insisted Baron Elie. The vineyards had gradually recovered from neglect during the war years and vinification techniques have improved, he explained. He acknowledged the presence at the chateau of two stainless-steel fermentation tanks with the embarrassment of a gentleman caught using elastic stretch socks rather than garters. The tanks were not used in making Lafite, he said. Nor has there been any "new" method of vinification to make lighter, less tannic wines that require less aging. "We never changed anything," he said in response to the question about vinification at Lafite and Mouton. "And I never go and look next door."
Primum Inter Pares
The 1950s marched in to general acclaim. A number of tasters, including me, felt the '59 was the prize wine of the tasting. "Wonderful nose. . . particularly beautiful color. . . extraordinary delicacy" intoned Baron Eric and no one rose to challenge him.
The '52 was superb, too, so the decade scored well even though the '55 was "over the top" and the '53 somewhat "musty."
The three 1940s wines were truimps. The '49 and the '45 both were relatively big wines, full of color and fruit, with the '45 coming across as a wine still growing toward maturity. Various bottles of the '47 gave different impressions. The one poured for me was extremely graceful, more feminine and haunting than even the other two wines of the decade. Along with the '59 and '66, it left the deepest impression. There was talk of the older vintages, applause and the Four Seasons' luncheon, where the '62 Lafite reappeared as the main-course wine.
The High Cost of Grand Vin
Outside the Seagram's citadel, the wheels of commerce grind steadily. Bordeaux says demand is unwavering and old stocks are depleted. Prices must go up. Burgundy doesn't say anything-it just keeps pushing up prices, and current vintages of Burgundy whites soar over $20 per bottle in restaurants. A leading importer predicts a steady 20 percent annual growth rate for fine French wine. However, according to a useful study by Craig Goldwyn in The Chicago Tribune, retail wine prices have not yet topped the level they reached during the mad speculation that peaked in 1973.
But someone else points out that Italy is passing France as a wine exporter to Canada, as it has in the United States. A Washington restaurateur asks, in anguish, "They want $650 a case for the '75. That means it must go on my list for at least $80 a bottle before I can break even. Is it worth it?"
It's impossible to predict how anyone but a Rothschild will answer that question, and the Rothschilds not only have tucked away their 1975 Lafite already, they probably won't start drinking it until the next century. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Eric Rothschild, at Seagram's wine-tasting photos by Donal Holway for The Washington Post; Picture 3, no caption