Philippine's funeral


This article was also published in the Financial Times. See also A day in the Médoc – 2014.

On the first day of September I drove up the Médoc from Bordeaux, the city of wine. I saw many a wine tourist on this beautiful late summer's day and felt rather sorry for them. I could not believe they would find anyone remotely important in the pale stone châteaux, so many of them currently being renovated with the money made selling recent vintages at sky-high prices. Everyone of any note in Bordeaux's tight-knit wine community was on their way to Château Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac, where Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was being laid to rest that afternoon.

Philippine had been at the helm of this world-famous first growth since her father Baron Philippe died in 1988 and had run it and the associated wine business called after him with such energy and panache that it surprised many of us to learn that she had turned 80.

Philippe, a dashing racing driver in his youth, had shaken up the Bordeaux wine scene in his time, introducing château bottling when most producers were content to ship their wines off in barrel to be subjected to who knows what. He also daringly commissioned the Cubist Jean Carlu to design the label for this first château-bottled Mouton, the 1924, and resumed the tradition of commissioning a different artist each year from 1945. He launched a second wine, Mouton Cadet, which was to become one of the world's most successful branded wines, and in 1973, most importantly in the world of fine wine, managed to have Mouton promoted from second to first growth, the only such change ever made to the famous 1855 classification of the top wines of the Médoc and Graves.

His were big shoes to fill, but Philippine's stilettos did the trick. Although her childhood was traumatic – at 10 she saw her mother carted off by the Gestapo to her death in a concentration camp – she went on to enjoy a successful career as the actress Philippine Pascale with the Comédie Française and, when on show, she always exuded glamour. I always marvelled at the performances she gave, whether on camera or as hostess. Our orders of service were decorated with the montage of photographs of Philippine throughout her colourful life shown above.

She was notorious for playing the grande dame and was routinely an hour late for any social occasion, although Philippe Cottin, Mouton's long-standing CEO, who died last year, let slip that for board meetings she was punctiliously on time, and admirably well-briefed.

I fully expected her funeral to start late. It was due to start at 3 pm and we had been urged, via the local newspaper, to get there by 2 pm, parking on the Pauillac quayside and being ferried to the sprawling château buildings on the Pouyalet plateau to the north of the town by a series of shuttling charabancs. (There was a heavy police presence.)

The staff, who had had barely a week to organise everything, had managed to transform the grape reception centre into a giant chapel festooned with more beautiful cream flowers than I have ever seen, with seating for the nearly 1,500 attendees. Most of us were obedient enough to be on our velvet and gilt chairs by 2 pm, so in the end, although the mass started on time, we did have the obligatory hour's wait for Philippine.

We also had plenty of time to see the roll call of Bordeaux's vinocracy, including representatives of all the many layers of the Bordeaux wine trade and of all four of Mouton's fellow first growths, plus Pauillac neighbours Jean-Michel and Sylvie Cazes of Ch Lynch Bages, Christian Seely of Ch Pichon Baron, and Mélanie Tesseron of Ch Pontet-Canet. Anthony and Eva Barton of Ch Léoville-Barton put in an appearance, and attendees included Philippine's old friend Madame Jacques Chirac as well as a bevy of Rothschilds.

There were just so many people that it was impossible to see everyone. I completely failed to see Miguel Torres of Spain and his compatriot Pablo Alvarez of Vega Sicilia; Piero and Alessia Antinori of Italy; Paul and Dominic Symington of Portugal and the Primum Familiae Vini (the association of leading wine families); and Felipe and Alfonso Larrain of Concha y Toro, with which Mouton has the Chilean joint venture Alamaviva. But I did spot joint-venture partners from the Napa Valley David Pearson of Opus One and both Michael and Tim Mondavi, who had flown in in recognition of the massive PR coup that Opus represented when this ground-breaking transatlantic joint venture between Philippine's father and their father Robert Mondavi was announced in 1979. Michael Mondavi assured me that Philippine had been 'a pistol', a term of the highest praise from an American, apparently.

The two-hour Catholic mass officiated by the curé of Pauillac was punctuated by some top-quality music from Les Arts Florissons and harpsichordist William Christie – quite a coup at just a week's notice, but then Philippine was extremely well connected. In one of the many speeches, we were reminded how, when it was her turn to host the annual Fête de la Fleur banquet in the heatwave summer of 2003, she coolly rose after a (surprisingly punctual) dinner and announced that she thought everyone might now like to hear a little music. I'm sure she then inserted a dramatic pause, before announcing that her friend Placido Domingo would oblige.

Each of her children Camille, Philippe and Julien spoke confidently and eloquently of their relationship with their mother, while her second husband Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais ended his moving final speech, 'Adieu, Philippine, mon amour'.

Everyone who spoke of her remarked on her zest for life, her quest for perfection and her strong cultural influences. Alain Juppé recalled how, as transforming mayor of Bordeaux, he learned the hard way that one did not keep her waiting, even on the telephone. Philippe Castéja representing the Bordeaux wine trade was one of many who mentioned her exceptional attention to detail (there is probably a back story there). And the current and first female director of La Comédie Française explained, dramatically, how supportive Philippine had been.

We filed out, blinking, into the strong September sunshine on which so many hopes are pinned for a late spurt of warmth for the 2014 harvest. It was difficult to believe that Philippine, whose favourite photograph had looked down upon us all throughout the ceremony, would not be hosting a reception afterwards.