The first of a two-part series on efforts to attract a younger American audience to the wines of Bordeaux, France.
The SoHo flat is filled with Bordeaux royalty. Chateau names such as Talbot, Palmer, Mouton Rothschild, Cos d’Estournel, Pontet-Canet and others are represented in pinstripes and cuff links, as servers freely offer generous glasses of wines that cost in the triple digits. It takes a small army to decant a six-liter imperial of Chateau d’Issan 2005, a grand cru classé from Margaux, on Bordeaux’s left bank.
Only the host looks out of place. Dressed in a sweater and jeans, with blond highlights in his shoulder-length brown hair, Jean Moueix strikes a much younger, more relaxed pose than his counterparts. Bordeaux isn’t just buttoned-down luxury, his manner seems to say. It’s also fun.
The chateau owners and directors are in Manhattan this chilly late-fall evening for Wine Spectator magazine’s New York Wine Experience, a three-day bacchanal that offers wine lovers “a unique opportunity to taste the world’s greatest wines.” Moueix is celebrating the New York debut of his company, La Vinicole, as part of an effort to boost Bordeaux’s image and representation on restaurant wine lists in the Big Apple.
Moueix (pronounced mwex) is firmly entrenched among Bordeaux’s elite. At age 27, he is the chief officer of the family firm Duclot, a negociant house that buys wine from more than 500 chateaux in Bordeaux and sells them through various channels in more than 70 countries. The family also owns the famed Pomerol producer Petrus. La Vinicole, a wholesale division of Duclot, was founded a half-century ago to sell wine wholesale to restaurants.
Published photos of Moueix from just a few years ago show him with the clean-cut, tailored look typical of Bordeaux. His new devil-may-care image — along with his efforts to make Bordeaux accessible at reasonable prices in Paris restaurants — earned him a 2013 “coup de coeur” from the French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France.
Bordeaux has a tarnished image in the United States. The industry fixated on the glitz and glamour of high point scores and even higher prices, a pursuit the wine media happily encouraged. In recent years, as prices soared and American consumers yawned, the Bordelais chased the seemingly boundless Chinese market and neglected the United States. Moueix is determined to reverse that neglect.
“When I visited New York a few years ago, I saw very little Bordeaux on the wine lists,” Moueix says. “So we decided to bring La Vinicole to New York in order to put Bordeaux back in the city’s restaurants.” The company will use the SoHo office apartment as an education center for New York sommeliers. After focusing on New York for the next year or two, La Vinicole might target other cities, such as Washington, he adds.
La Vinicole has stockpiled 24,000 bottles of various vintages and prices in a New Jersey warehouse and has access to 9 million more back in Bordeaux, sourced directly from the chateaux. “Provenance is a key selling point for La Vinicole,” says Philippe Newlin, director of the three-person New York office.
Chris Adams, chief officer of Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, a major Manhattan retailer and dealer in Bordeaux futures, underscores the need for a youth movement in selling Bordeaux to U.S. consumers.
“We’ve locked up the 70- and 80-year-olds,” he tells me during the fall reception. “We need to convince the younger generation to drink Bordeaux.”
“Bordeaux forgot to speak to one or two generations of sommeliers in the United States, and naturally the share of Bordeaux wines in restaurants dropped dramatically,” says Aymeric de Gironde, director general of Chateau Cos d’Estournel and, at 41, himself one of the youngest chateaux principals in Bordeaux.
“Bordeaux comes across as rigid, stodgy and unaffordable,” says Keri Levens, wine director for New York’s Little Wisco restaurant group, which includes Montmartre, with an all-French wine list. “The Loire Valley is like Brooklyn, and Bordeaux is like the Upper East Side,” Levens explains. “Brooklyn — the Loire — is cool, young, edgy and affordable. The wines may be a little funky, and even dirty, but have a lot of character and integrity. The Upper East Side — Bordeaux — is classic, older and astronomically expensive. But if you spend some time looking around, you can find a rent-controlled apartment.”
Levens recently took 10 staff members, all in their 20s, to a Bordeaux class at La Vinicole. She called the experience “eye-opening” for those accustomed to powerful California cabernets. “What shocked the staff most was that the wines were beautifully interwoven and integrated, with a lightness on the palate,” she writes in an e-mail. “Just what cabernet should be.”
And just what Jean Moueix would like to hear.