Remembering Jean-Michel Cazes

Jean-Michel Cazes

An appreciation of someone who could perhaps be called the Robert Mondavi of Bordeaux.

It was rather telling that I learnt via Australia the sad news that Jean-Michel Cazes, Bordeaux wine’s finest ambassador, had finally succumbed last Wednesday to the health problems that compromised the last years of this force of nature. He was 88. Brian Croser of Tapanappa in South Australia is a long-standing friend, and ex-business partner, of Cazes and his Portuguese wife Thereza, brought up in Mozambique.

There are many keen intelligences in the Bordeaux wine world, but that world tends to be introspective. What set Cazes apart was his wide, cosmopolitan vision coupled with the energy and generosity to act on it. Between the ages of 18 and 38 he made his mark in fields quite unrelated to wine, and spent quite a time in the US. So when, in 1973 (the modern nadir of the Bordeaux wine trade), he returned to the family businesses in Pauillac, insurance and running Chx Lynch-Bages and its stablemate in St-Estèphe Les Ormes de Pez, he did so with the benefit of wide experience of other businesses and other cultures.

Many fine obituaries have been and will be written about him. And he has thoughtfully left a perfect reference for them. His autobiography was originally published last year in French as Bordeaux grands crus : la reconquête, and was recently published, in translation by Jane Anson, by the Académie du Vin Library, as From Bordeaux to the Stars.

I’m afraid I don’t read, as in lap up from cover to cover, many wine books – it’s too much like work. And I certainly don’t relish books in French. But when my copy of Bordeaux grands crus : la reconquête arrived, it immediately became my favourite bedtime reading. The language was delightfully straightforward (just like Jean-Michel) and the story, of the history of his family and of Bordeaux’s place in the world over the past 50 years, is wholly absorbing. 

I won’t attempt to compress the contents of the book into this brief article; instead, I urge you to read the book. All I will do is share a few memories of a great man who, unusually, was also warm, funny and great company, memories that you won’t find in either his book nor in any formal obituary.

It was amazing to me to discover from his memoir that he had been back in Bordeaux only four years when, in his role in the vinous brotherhood the Commanderie du Bontemps, the Médoc’s much more youthful confrérie counterpart to St-Émilion’s Jurade, Cazes invited me to be ‘intronised’ at the Fête de la Fleur in 1977. (This involved wearing a red velvet robe and pretending to blind-taste a glass of red from the Médoc in front of a gathering of top château owners.) Even more amazing was that I had at that stage been writing about wine – for the UK trade magazine Wine & Spirit (now deceased) – for a mere 18 months. I see that in the English version of his book, which I now want to reread, at that stage he identified me as ‘a sharp-witted beginner’.

I’ve just reread what I wrote in my own professional memoir, Confessions of a Wine Lover/Tasting Pleasure, about that weekend in Bordeaux, my first-ever visit there. There was a somewhat miserable encounter with an American wine collector, accompanied by his teetotal wife and two non-winey friends, who had brought a questionable bottle of 1945 Petrus to share with Cazes over dinner at La Réserve, then Bordeaux’s smartest restaurant. I’m sure they would much rather have had Thereza than me at the table, but I’m also sure this was very far from the only such encounter that Cazes managed to survive with grace.

Another memorable time with him was during the 14-year period from 1987 when he set up AXA Millésimes, the insurance company’s wine empire now run with aplomb by Christian Seely. Seely was initially recruited to revive AXA’s new acquisition Quinta do Noval in 1993 and writes, ‘the seven stimulating years I worked closely with him … were among the happiest and most enjoyable of my life. It was a huge pleasure to share in the force of the enormous positive energy that he brought to every project he undertook.’

I spent 24 hours with him in the early 1990s at Ch Lynch-Bages and at the recently restored jewel in AXA’s crown, Ch Pichon Baron (which Cazes wanted to call Ch Pichon Longueville but the name never stuck). Then he was in reflective mood. Of course none of the great château owners in the Médoc – not even his great friend the late Anthony Barton of Ch Léoville Barton in St-Julien – comes from a truly Médocain family. Although Barton, like Cazes and Jean-Eugène Borie of Ch Ducru-Beaucaillou, actually lived in the Médoc, most of them are based in Bordeaux or are absentee landlords whose great estates have been carved out of what was once marshland. Virtually everyone is viewed as a newcomer by those who precede their arrival, however many years they have been there (just ask the Cathiards of Ch Smith Haut Lafitte.)

But I felt that Cazes was always very conscious of having been descended from itinerant farmworkers from the Ariège. They finally settled permanently in Pauillac – or rather St-Lambert at its southern end – as ‘recently’ as 1875. His father André eventually became the highly respected mayor of Pauillac as well as running the family insurance business.

Throughout his wine life, Cazes saw it as his duty to promote the whole of Bordeaux throughout the world, and not just his own family’s wines which eventually included the branded Bordeaux Michel Lynch and those of Ch Villa Bel-Air in the Graves, Dom de L’Ostal in the Languedoc, Dom des Sénéchaux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and, much more recently, Ch Haut-Batailley, also in Pauillac.

This included many a trip to the US. When I collected all my work-life photographs together when we moved in 2016, I frequently found Cazes in those taken at American wine dinners, often with his friend Barton. I also remember an extremely jolly dinner with both of them at the Médoc wine-trade canteen, the Lion d’Or in Arcins, where they each had a locker for their personal bottles.

There was a big party at the Cazes holiday home on the coast near Arcachon on the occasion of an early Vinexpo where I met wine people from all over the world, and marvelled at Thereza’s (unusually early) deployment of scented candles.

In the early years of this century we saw Cazes in the Languedoc when he came to establish vineyards, an olive grove and winery in the well-situated Minervois village of La Livinière. The operation changed names a few times and is now Dom de l’Ostal, ostal meaning both ‘house’ and ‘family group’ in Occitan. He came to dinner at our house nearby a couple of times and always brought a bottle of something that would be impossible to buy locally – a fully mature vintage port for example. He really loved Portugal and undertook a joint venture with the Roquettes of Quinta do Crasto in the Douro.

Typical of Cazes’ generosity, and ambassadorial role for the Médoc, was when he sent me a book about food and wine there about which he was especially enthusiastic. This was after we’d shared a meal at Lavinal, by far the most congenial place to eat in the Médoc, in the Pauillac hamlet of Bages, which he almost singlehandedly transformed from dilapidated village to somewhere capable of drawing visitors from all over the world. He began by transforming an almost-forgotten château, Cordeillan-Bages, into a Relais & Châteaux hotel with Michelin-starred restaurant. The chef he initially hired, Thierry Marx, went on to be chosen by Mandarin Oriental for their new hotel in Paris. He was obviously good at picking people, as witness Seely’s success at AXA Millésimes and the exceptionally long service of winemaker Daniel Llose.

The Médoc will be considerably impoverished without its two keenest observers, Anthony Barton and Jean-Michel Cazes.

Cazes family

He is succeeded by Thereza, his three daughters, one of whom lives in the US, his son Jean-Charles, who has run the family wine business since 2006 and is seen, bearded, at the head of the table in the family portrait above, and his much younger sister Sylvie, who runs the St-Émilion property Ch Chauvin with her daughter.

His funeral, which will doubtless be attended by hundreds if not thousands, will take place in Pauillac at 11 am tomorrow.