Although the industry has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, the world of wine is still largely a man's world. Sure, there've been outliers like Madame Clicquot and Mary Penfold and, more recently, winemakers such as Helen Turley, Susie Selby and writer Jancis Robinson. And in August, one of the monumental women of wine passed away at 80 years old: Baroness Philippine de Rothschild.
Philippine Mathilde Camille de Rothschild took over the operation of her family's wine estates—which included Bordeaux's highly touted first-growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, along with Chateau Clerc-Milon, Chateau d'Armailhac, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Cadet and others—following the passing of her father, vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild, in 1988. And, although the Rothschild name is synonymous with wealth and luxury, Rothschild's life was not always insulated from the tragedies of the real world. At 10, she saw the Gestapo arrest her Jewish-born mother, who would later die during World War II at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Rothschild's professional life began far from the world of wine, in the theater. Following her 1958 graduation from the Paris Conservatoire National Superieur d'Art Dramatique, under the stage name Philippine Pascal, she appeared in French productions of Harold & Maude, and shared the stage with Catherine Deneuve during a production of La Comédie Française. Her first marriage was to actor-director Jacques Sereys.
By the early 1980s, Rothschild was becoming increasingly involved in her family's wine business, particularly with Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, for which she created a traveling exhibition of the original art used to create Mouton-Rothschild's iconic wine labels. Over the years, the original paintings for the labels have been produced by artists such as Picasso, Dali, Koons, Chagall, Miró and others. I'm particularly fond of the whimsical 2006 label made by Lucien Freud, featuring a cartoon-like zebra looking curiously at a vinestock that has morphed into a palm tree. Rothschild was personally involved in the selection of the artist for each year's Mouton-Rothschild label, and was a passionate supporter of the arts throughout her life.
A very hands-on proprietor, Rothschild supervised the renovation of the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which was just finished in 2013, and renovated Chateau Clerc-Milon, which is now recognized as one of France's greenest, most environmentally friendly wineries. During her tenure as head of the Rothschild wine empire, she helped to increase both the quality of her family's wines and grow sales worldwide, even producing wine in the New World—teaming with Robert Mondavi to create Opus One in Napa Valley, and making wine in Chile. Today, the company she helped build sells approximately $350,000,000 worth of wine annually.
My opportunities to drink Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux have been few and far between. The 2011 vintage sells for $1,133 a bottle, which means I probably won't be tasting it any time soon. Not long ago, a case of the legendary 1945 vintage sold for more than $31,000 at auction.
But you can afford wine with the Mouton name on it. Mouton Cadet red and white Bordeaux sells for a mere $9.99 per bottle. The Sauvignon Blanc-dominated Mouton Cadet Blanc is a terrific, all-purpose Bordeaux that pairs beautifully with shellfish and light chicken dishes. Mouton Cadet Rouge is equally versatile—a great red Bordeaux with classic cassis and blackberry notes. It's a good choice for sipping alongside a juicy grilled steak.