Gardère – saviour of Latour


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

'If Latour had not fallen so low, the British would never have had the chance to buy it.' This was the typically down-to-earth observation of the man of the soil who so effectively managed and restored the Bordeaux first growth for the Pearson Group and wine merchant Harveys of Bristol when in 1963 they were allowed by de Gaulle himself to acquire it from a dispersed and disaffected de Beaumont family.

The de Beaumonts chose Lazards to arrange the sale, as they had recently successfully sold the négociant Delor to Harveys of Bristol. Harveys was the obvious choice as buyer of Latour but not all board members felt willing to make such a commitment. The result was that the estate was divided roughly one quarter to Harveys, initially one quarter to various de Beaumont family members, and Pearson, then owners of Lazards and in acquisitive mode, picked up the remaining 50%.

Harveys' fine-wine man Harry Waugh already knew Jean-Paul Gardère well and respected him enormously. Unlike the old cellarmaster/maître de chai who lived in Bordeaux and came out to the estate in Pauillac only once a week, Gardère was a Médocain who lived and worked in the world's most concentrated stretch of fine-wine vineyards north west of the city. From very humble beginnings, with only a typewriter and bicycle initially, he had established himself as one of the most knowledgeable courtiers (wine brokers) of the Médoc by, according to Clive Gibson, who ran Latour for Pearson in the early eighties, 'going round every little village in the Médoc knowing exactly who was idle and who was efficient, always having access to vins sérieux for his customers'. Much to the fury of the Bordeaux city wine establishment, Waugh and Harveys had benefited hugely in the late fifties by ignoring them and buying direct via Gardère.

So when the new British owners arrived at the rundown cellars and estate, it was the most natural thing in the world to seek the services of the 42-year-old Gardère (who had been asked by a local intermediary to draw up an inventory of the estate for the sale) and his mentor Henri Martin, 67, equally self-made restorer of Château Gloria down the road and unofficial mayor of the Médoc. (It was he who founded the Commanderie de Bontemps de Médoc et Graves, the left-bank, red-velvet-wearing confrérie fashioned in the image of the medieval Jurade de St-Émilion.) Martin's many other responsibilities were time-consuming so it fell to Gardère, who died on 3 February at the age of 93, to run the property day to day.

As David Orr, who ran Latour immediately before it was restored to the indisputably French hands of businessman François Pinault in 1993 puts it, 'Pearson may have gone into Bordeaux rather naively but they chose absolutely the right man in Gardère – and of course he was enormously rewarded by the standing it gave him in Bordeaux. He lived and breathed Latour.' This was true, but he was no lackey. With his unusual crew cut, hugely expressive eyebrows, charm and irrepressible enthusiasm, he was never cowed by the visiting Lord Cowdrays and the like. Gardère's daughter Colette was an able and equally liked and respected early practitioner of public relations for the estate.

The absentee British landlords were helped hugely by Gardère's propensity for reportage and record-keeping. As a struggling young courtier in the Médoc countryside, he had realised early on that he could make an impression on the grandees in Bordeaux by publishing a newsletter with valuable on-the-ground information. He now became a worthy successor to a long line of estate managers who had kept the de Beaumont family informed of events at their Pauillac estate – with the result that Château Latour has the finest archives of any Bordeaux wine property.

Under guidance from Gardère and Martin, encouraged not a little by the fact that one of the old wooden fermentation vats exploded during the terrible debut 1963 vintage of the British regime, the chai was completely renovated and – quel horreur! – stainless-steel vats installed, encouraged by Harry Waugh's enthusiasm for them after his travels in California. Latour's reward was producing what was and still is clearly the finest 1964 made on the left bank of the Gironde – whose proximity to Latour's vineyards was a source of oft-expressed pride to Gardère. (Châteaux Lafite and Mouton-Rothschilds' vines do not have a view of the grey estuary.)

But this was just one of a series of improvements which included almost complete restoration of the cellars and warehouses, not to mention rebuilding of the workers' accommodation (about which Gardère felt particularly strongly), evaluating and acquiring individual plots of vines, and a dramatic refit of the old vineyards in which up to one vine in three was missing when Gardère took over. Management consultants advised a complete replant. Scientists suggested agrochemicals that would double the yield. But the canny and instinctive Médocain Gardère chose instead painstakingly to interplant, leaving the high-quality old vines, and to improve the all-important drainage of the vineyards. It was Gardère's idea to reprise a second wine, the hugely respected Les Forts de Latour, with the 1966 vintage, originally for the produce of the recently planted vines. (Some bottles of the original Forts de Latour, a separate entity, can still be found.)

In 1977 he set up a small négociant business, Ulysse Cazabonne, in the premises on the Pauillac quayside from which his family's courtier business still operates, and continued to advise Latour until it was sold to Allied Lyons in 1989, although after his first wife died from cancer in 1983 he left the day-to-day running of the estate to his much more scientifically inspired assistant Jean-Louis Mandrau, succeeded by Christian Le Sommer in 1986. (Latour briefly owned Ulysse Cazabonne but it is now run in tandem with Château Rauzan Ségla by John Kolasa, a Brit taken under the wing of Gardère who describes him as 'the most generous, sincere man'.)

Gardère was always aware that with a wine as long-lived as Latour – and Latour is famously the most tenacious of the first growths – he was laying the foundations for the estate's (formidable) reputation today. 'Man feels something special about wine, a bit like racehorses', he told me in his smoke-filled office at Latour overlooking the vines, with the church of St-Julien on the horizon. 'Like the racehorse owner, we are always working for the future. With a wine like our 1975, for instance, we have to think of what will happen in 50 years' time.' As Latour's current director Frédéric Engerer says, '
he was the link between the 19th and the 21st centuries. We miss him dearly.'

Our photograph of Jean-Paul Gardère was taken by Edward Piper for my book The Great Wine Book published by Sidgwick & Jackson in 1982.