French Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, shown here in a 2007 photo, took over her family’s wine empire in 1988 upon the death of her father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. She died last month at age 80. (Justin Lane/EPA)
Columnist, Food

Bordeaux lost one of its iconic figures when Baroness Philippine de Rothschild died late last month from complications following surgery. Not only was she the principal owner of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s five first-growth chateaux, but she helmed an international company that produced wines in California and Chile as well as France.

The 80-year-old matriarch was flamboyant, a successful stage actress who abandoned her career to take over the Mouton empire when her father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, died in 1988. (The Rothschilds, a famous banking family, received their royal titles from the more politically inclined Hapsburg and British empires.) The wine empire, Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, included Opus One, a premium California estate the baron created with Robert Mondavi in the 1970s. The baroness followed that model in 1993, forming a partnership with Chile’s Concha y Toro winery to create a premium wine called Almaviva. The company produces Mouton Cadet, the world’s best-selling Bordeaux, which costs a fraction of the flagship wines. Overall, it sells as many as 27 million bottles of wine a year, according to Wine Spectator magazine.

The company is now owned by de Rothschild’s daughter, Camille, and her sons, Philippe and Julien. The last two have long been involved in running the company, though neither has yet attained the public stature of their mother.

“We lost one of our major key persons in Bordeaux and probably the best ambassador for Bordeaux worldwide,” says Emmanuel Cruse, owner of Chateau d’Issan in Margaux and world grand master of the Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc, des Graves, de Sauternes et de Barsac, a wine appreciation guild of major chateaux in Bordeaux’s Left Bank. The baroness’s talent as an actress gave her an innate sense of an occasion, but she wasn’t just “in character,” Cruse said in a telephone interview. “She was a character.”

I met the baroness in June 2009 at Vinexpo, the biennial trade fair in Bordeaux. The world’s economy was in a tailspin, creating unease among producers of luxury wines whose prices ranged into four digits, and journalists and Chinese buyers were in high demand. The traditional dinner for the international press was almost canceled until Baron Eric de Rothschild offered to host it at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. (Lafite and Mouton are neighbors, owned by different branches of the family.) When the assembled guests were ushered into the candlelit circular barrel cellar for dinner, I discovered that The Post’s new wine columnist was an honored guest: Baron Eric was two seats to my left, Baroness Philippine just to my right.

She was a hoot, and sharp as a tack. She constantly regaled those around her in French or English, while everyone nodded somewhat sycophantically. (Me, too, as the evening wore on and I fell increasingly under her charm.) Every now and then, she would turn to me and command loudly, “Tell me about Obama!”

As we rose to leave sometime after midnight, the baroness extended an invitation. Or was it a summons? “Monsieur Dahveed,” she said. “Please come by and see me at Vinexpo tomorrow! Taste our wines – have lunch with us!”

I said I would. And so I did. Or at least I tried. Shortly before noon the next day, I left the airplane hangar that masquerades as the Parc des Expositions and headed toward the Baron Philippe de Rothschild pavilion overlooking the lake. An officious young woman dressed like a 1960s airline flight attendant blocked my way.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked, looking askance at my wine writer’s attire: an all-American blazer over a polo shirt and khaki pants.

“Um, no, but the baroness said. . . ,” I stammered, trying to make sure she saw my badge with “The Washington Post” prominently displayed. I mentioned having met the baroness at Château Lafite, but the woman probably thought I’d mixed up my Rothschilds.

She took my card inside to inquire, and returned a few minutes later with a smug expression.

“Je suis désolée,” she said. “Perhaps if you come back sometime after 3 p.m., someone might be able to meet with you.”

Alas, there were so many wines and so little time, and I never made it back. I figured the baroness had just been polite.

Two weeks later, when I returned home and turned on the American cellphone I’d left behind because it wouldn’t work in France, there was an irate message from Baroness Philippine. “I was expecting you for lunch today!” she thundered. The woman clearly was unaccustomed to being stood up.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.