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Georges Duboeuf, French winemaker known as the ‘pope of Beaujolais,’ dies at 86

French wine merchant Georges Duboeuf pours the first glass from the first bottle of his 1996 Beaujolais nouveau, uncorked at the Windows on the World restaurant atop New York’s World Trade Center. (Richard Drew/AP)

He first sold wine from a bicycle, meeting with chefs and restaurateurs near Lyon while riding across the hills and plains of eastern France, carrying bottles in his saddlebag.

But while striving to uphold four centuries of tradition in his vintner family — and to burnish the legacy of his father, who died when he was a toddler — Georges Duboeuf upended the region’s wine industry, becoming an international symbol for Beaujolais as he brought its fruity reds and quaffable nouveau to millions of drinkers around the world.

Mr. Duboeuf, a master wine merchant known as the “pope of Beaujolais,” was 86 when he died Jan. 4 at his home in the French town of Romanèche-Thorins, where his empire of Gamay grapes and floral bottles had grown to include a museum and even an amusement park, a kind of wine Disneyland featuring a model railroad station, “4-D” theater, golf course and tasting room.

The cause was a stroke, said his grandson Adrien Duboeuf-Lacombe, who oversees exports for Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, the company Mr. Duboeuf founded in 1964.

“Through his vision and his work, he gave life, color, aromas and joy to the wines of Beaujolais,” said Dominique Piron, president of the wine organization Inter Beaujolais. Mr. Duboeuf, he added in a statement, “was the catalyst of the Beaujolais region at the beginning, then later its tireless ambassador.”

Mr. Duboeuf was known in France as a négociant, a merchant who assembles the produce of smaller winemakers and sells the results under his own name. His company worked with 400 growers and 20 cooperatives, producing 20 million bottles each year — most of it sold overseas in 120 countries, including the United States, Britain and Japan.

“I came from a wine family, so I knew what it was like to work in the vines,” Mr. Duboeuf told the Guardian in 1991. “That meant the growers respected me. We speak the same language, and I understand their problems.”

Mr. Duboeuf was said to possess both a formidable palate and a well-honed spitting technique, the result of some 15,000 swig-and-spits a year. (By his count, he once tasted 500 wines in a day while testing vintages for his company.) He also had a flair for marketing that made him the face of Beaujolais nouveau, a young wine fermented in only a few weeks, if not days, and sold soon after bottling.

The nouveau became an international sensation in the 1980s, when Mr. Duboeuf helped oversee midnight festivities that marked its official release on the third Thursday of November, trumpeted with the slogan, “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!”

Inspired by winemaker Gérard Canard, whom Mr. Duboeuf credited with the idea of creating a “Bastille Day of wine,” the celebrations opened with the fanfare of brass bands and church bells in Romanèche-Thorins, followed by a lighthearted race in which Mr. Duboeuf and his peers vied to ship the first bottles of Beaujolais nouveau to cities around the world.

Some bottles were parachuted into London; others made their way to New York aboard the Concorde supersonic jet. “Limousines, special couriers, even marathon runners wait to speed the wine into Manhattan, where the retailers, wholesalers and restaurant people wait frantically to be able to say they had it first,” the New York Times reported in 1983.

In the mid-1990s, bottles of nouveau were “lifted via the window-washing apparatus 102 floors to the top of the World Trade Center,” according to the Orlando Sentinel, “where Duboeuf, celebrity TV host Robin Leach and Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World popped the cork.”

Mr. Duboeuf’s success in popularizing Beaujolais nouveau irked wine critics such as Andrew Jefford, who wrote in his guidebook “The New France” that the mass-produced wine was “an industrial product made by chemists.” (He added that Mr. Duboeuf’s wines were “relatively high” in quality and “rarely over-processed.”)

In interviews, Mr. Duboeuf acknowledged that some of his wines catered to a broad audience, once declaring that “Beaujolais is made as seriously as any wine, but it is not drunk in the same fashion as the others.”

Indeed, in recent years some Japanese saunas have offered fans a new way to consume the beverage: while soaking in large heated baths of wine, where the water turns a bright purple with the addition of several liters of Beaujolais nouveau.

Georges Duboeuf was born in Crêches-sur-Saône on April 14, 1933, and raised in nearby Chaintré, part of the Pouilly-Fuissé wine region. He learned the wine trade from his uncle and older brother, turning the crank on the grape crusher when he was 6 and leaving school a decade later to focus on the family business, according to his grandson.

In the 1950s, he formed an association of local producers, L’Écrin Mâconnais-Beaujolais, to promote the region’s wines, and called on winemakers to bottle at their own wineries — and eventually his own — instead of shipping wines in bulk.

He also struck up friendships with leading chefs such as ­Georges Blanc, Paul Bocuse, Jean-Paul Lacombe and Pierre Troisgros, who fueled the spread of Beaujolais by including it on their menus.

Mr. Duboeuf opened his museum and amusement park, Hameau Duboeuf, in 1993. “In my lifetime we have moved from wine strictly as a food to wine as a pleasure,” he told the Times. “Wine and wine knowledge have become a new form of culture, and I wanted to create a center of wine culture and wine communication.”

Although he was long considered the most powerful vintner in Beaujolais, his reputation was shaken somewhat by a fraud conviction in 2006, when he was fined 30,000 euros after some of his wine was found to have been illegally blended from cheap and high-quality grapes. Mr. Duboeuf said that the mixing was unintentional and that none of the blended wines had reached consumers.

In 2018 he passed his company on to his son, Franck Duboeuf. Additional survivors include his wife of 62 years, the former Rolande Dudet; a daughter, Fabienne Lacombe; and four grandchildren, whose involvement in Les Vins Georges Duboeuf has ensured it will pass through at least three generations of the family.

“Our profession is to invite the greatest number of people possible to share our joy,” Mr. Duboeuf once said, according to his company, “and at the same time to explain the role of the magic of wine — symbol of a dream, bearer of good cheer, of sensitivity, of poetry and romanticism.”

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