One of the world's most iconic wines is red Bordeaux -#8212; a wine that has long graced dining tables in stately English castles and commands some of the highest prices in the wine world.
Classified Growth Red Bordeaux today is seen as a classic, showing the good taste of party-givers. Older bottlings from esteemed producers now are the standard from which to judge all wine. A bottle of 2000 Chateau Latour would run you some $1,500.
I mused about this the other day and realized that one man, more than any other, must be credited with today's image of red Bordeaux.
His name was Abdallah Simon, and he was 88 when he died on Jan. 4, 2011, without much fanfare. A New York Times obituary was duly respectful, but few people in the industry knew how important he was not only to Bordeaux, but also to the Champagne district as well as to Alsace.
Back in the 1950s, much of the Bordeaux wine market was adrift. Profits were erratic and few Bordeaux producers had any idea of the power they could wield in the wine world.
Profits were erratic because of variable quality. In Bordeaux's continental climate, some years simply made terrible wine. Whole decades could be disastrous; in the 1930s, for example, only 1934 produced fine Bordeaux.
British merchants euphemistically called these poor vintage wines "serviceable," meaning the wines were drinkable, little more. As a result, years would go by with sinking prices.
Also, Bordeaux was entangled in a web of paperwork and hampered by hangers-on who drained profits.
Great Britain had been the dominant influence in the Bordeaux market since before the French Revolution. Handshake agreements between key Bordeaux players and British wine merchants were all that were needed to do business.
Ab Simon saw that the U.S. market could be critical to Bordeaux's future. "It was just a matter of intuition," he told me in an interview in late 2010. "Obviously, the U.S. market wasn't exactly a big customer for Bordeaux then, and I believed it could grow."
Working then for Austin, Nichols (a wine importer and distributor) Simon swung a number of deals to obtain rare Bordeaux. Later, as chairman of Chateau - Estate Wine Co., a division of Joseph E. Seagram - Sons, in the early 1970s, he saw that wildly fluctuating Bordeaux prices hurt Bordeaux's image.
So Simon met with Jean-Michel Cazes of Ch?eau Lynch-Bages, Jean-Eug?e Borie, and his son, Xavier, of Ch?eau Ducru-Beaucaillou. Simon told me all were instrumental in cementing a new handshake agreement that established Seagram as the major Bordeaux player in the American market.
"I'm a trusting person, and they trusted me," he said. By dealing with C-E, many Bordeaux houses ceded some control of their product to Seagram, but they were also able to disentangle themselves from unfavorable relationships. The agreement helped stabilize pricing.
Under Simon, C-E propped up prices on weak vintages through both its import business and its direct ownership of such Bordeaux portfolios as Barton - Guestier and Cordier.
Seagram clearly benefited from its strong Bordeaux presence, but profit from the wines wasn't its only motive. Such wines also opened doors to white-tablecloth restaurants for the company's wider portfolio of wines, including Beaulieu Vineyards and G.H. Mumm.