Daniel and Florence Cathiard were stars in skiing and business, but Bordeaux has proved their biggest and most rewarding challenge
Florence Cathiard remembers the day Bordeaux made her cry. In 1990, Cathiard gave up a high-flying job as an executive at a top ad agency to pursue her and her husband Daniel’s dream of making wine. Together they invested much of their wealth into buying Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, a neglected property in Pessac-Léognan, and fixing up the vineyards and cellars. It proved more time-consuming and expensive than they had imagined, but after a year’s work, they believed their labor would soon pay off.
On the night of April 20, 1991, a chill descended on Bordeaux. Temperatures dropped to 19° F. Thanks to warmer weather earlier that month, most of the vines were already budding. The frost killed 80 percent of the young shoots at Smith-Haut-Lafitte, devastating the 1991 vintage before the vines could even flower. Surveying the damage and realizing they would make little if any wine that year, Florence wept.
The wine world is littered with tales of people who are highly successful in demanding careers and decide to write their second acts making wine, only to fail miserably. The investments are large, the profits are usually slim and slow to arrive, and Mother Nature is temperamental.
But the Cathiards are not your average nouveaux riches. They are incredibly driven, work well as a team and, most of all, they hate to lose. Daniel and Florence met as competitive teenagers, fighting for victories on the French national ski squad. Later, they spent 17 years building two successful retail chains. A cold snap was not going to defeat them. “Florence was devastated at first,” says Daniel. “I was more determined.”
For 20 years now, they have waged a two-front war. On the production side, they’ve made the hard choices necessary to raise quality. When they’ve needed advice, they’ve hired the best of Bordeaux. First their white wines and now their reds earn outstanding scores regularly.
Marketing has also been a challenge. Bordeaux tends to look down its collective nose at château owners who promote their wines—or themselves—too loudly. But the Cathiards have figured out how to work within the rules when possible, and how to bend them when necessary. They helped form an alliance of like-minded château owners in various appellations to coordinate marketing campaigns. And to draw potential customers to Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the couple built a luxury resort and vinotherapy spa just a few vine rows from their front door.
“There is a little American in them, and I mean that in a good way,” says Christian Seely, who manages AXA Millésimes’ global properties, including several in Bordeaux. “Ambitious, tireless—they’re not just sitting back and enjoying their purchase.”
Sitting back isn’t what the Cathiards do.
Before they decided to buy a château, Daniel, now 66, and Florence, 64, had been to Bordeaux just once. They grew up on the other side of France, in the foothills of the Alps. Daniel was born in Uriage les Bains, a mountain resort town not far from Grenoble. His grandfather owned a grocery and also functioned as a neighborhood négociant, buying fresh wine from farmers, then aging and selling it.
Daniel’s father expanded the grocery business, opening a second store and then more. By the time Daniel was a teenager, proving himself a talented skier, his father had created a regional chain. Daniel made the French ski team and excelled at the downhill. He says now that he had been an introverted child, but that competing gave him confidence. Even today, while certainly self-assured, he can be private and reticent. Talking with him, it’s obvious he prefers no-nonsense meetings to long chats.
When he was 17, Cathiard met 15-year-old Florence Bernard, a promising young slalom expert. Under the watchful eye of coaches and chaperones, the couple flirted for four years.
Florence grew up farther south, on the Provence side of the Alps. Her parents were intellectuals, both humanities teachers. Charming and gracious but also outspoken and ambitious, it’s doubtful Florence was ever introverted. Not long after she met Daniel she told him he had a grocer’s mindset because he was already focused on making money after skiing.
In truth, both had their eyes on life after sport. While they were gifted skiers, the French team had a wealth of talent in the 1960s, led by Olympic champion Jean-Claude Killy. Daniel made the first team for one year; Florence was always a second-stringer. Unlike many of their teammates, the pair studied hard. When they left the team, Florence studied English, Daniel economics. Both obtained graduate degrees in business.
They dreamed of working in the booming ski vacation business, possibly managing a resort in the United States. After their wedding, they began a study-abroad program in the U.S. and then Canada. But in 1972, Daniel’s father fell ill. The couple returned to France, not long before the elder Cathiard died.
By then, the grocery chain Genty-Cathiard had grown into a big business, a regional player in the “hypermarché” explosion that spawned superstores like Carrefour and Leclerc. The other Genty partners were not confident about the 28-year-old skier taking over, but Daniel quickly impressed them. With the help of Florence and his sister Sylviane, he expanded the chain, taking advantage of the nascent computer revolution to improve efficiency and keep prices low. He also focused on a niche the national chains were ignoring—opening stores in smaller towns of about 20,000 people.
The couple made their second success out of a failure. A small Genty store in a Grenoble mall selling fresh food was not working out. Stuck with the space, the Cathiards turned it into a sporting-goods store; Go Sport eventually became an international chain. With both companies growing, Florence decided to strike out on her own in the ’80s, starting an advertising firm with Go Sport as her first client. The firm prospered, and in 1985 international ad giant McCann-Erickson bought her out and made her a vice president.
By 1989, Genty had reached a critical mass—big enough to dominate the Grenoble area, but not to compete nationally. Go Sport was a smart concept, but had expanded rapidly and carried heavy debt. A rival superstore chain bought both companies for $40.8 million. Daniel’s share was roughly 20 percent.
While Florence worked long hours at McCann-Erickson, Daniel took time off to explore life at age 45. He sailed, climbed mountains, drove rally cars in the Mexican desert. For months, the couple only saw each other in airports. Florence found it insane. And Daniel quickly realized he needed a new career. He was too competitive, too ambitious, and he missed working with his wife. “I like to work,” he says.
So they looked at starting over. Daniel wanted to be creative, to make something artisanal. But to succeed, it had to be something niche, a luxury good, and wine held the greatest appeal. Daniel fondly remembered growing up above his grandfather’s cellars. They explored Burgundy first—it was Daniel’s favorite region and not far from Grenoble—but a few scouting trips dashed the idea. The estates were too small for their business vision. And Florence was not looking to star in a French version of Green Acres. Burgundy was too rural for her tastes.
They turned to Bordeaux. But again, both the Médoc and St.-Emilion proved too sleepy. At last their broker told them he had the perfect estate for them, just outside the city limits in Pessac-Léognan.
Starting west of Bordeaux and stretching to the south, Pessac-Léognan is home to notable estates such as Haut-Brion and Pape Clément west of town, and Domaine de Chevalier and Haut-Bailly to the south, but in 1989, when the Cathiards drove south from the city, there were bargains to be had. Smith-Haut-Lafitte was one of them.
At the time the Cathiards handed over a check for roughly $40 million, most critics felt Smith-Haut-Lafitte’s best days were past. Its winemaking history stretches back to the 14th century, and in the late 1800s its wines sold for the same price as Médoc fourth-growths. But in 1902, Eschenauer, a négociant already distributing the wines, leased the property, then bought it in 1958. Quality declined under Eschenauer, and because the firm also owned Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, famous for its red wine, it seems to have viewed Smith-Haut-Lafitte as its white wine property, with the reds an afterthought. By 1990, the production was industrial. The property was run-down. The whites were good but not great, the reds mediocre.
All of Bordeaux was curious to see if this couple with the supermarché money would succeed or fail at their new home. “Most people thought, ‘They will not stay,'” says Florence.
Instead, Daniel threw himself into his new calling, reading every book on wine he could get his hands on. He embraced a new exercise regimen—a daily formal tasting of a 25-wine flight. He hired top consultants, including the legendary Emile Peynaud, who would advise the Cathiards for two years before he retired. Florence was in charge of marketing and renovating the château. At first, she thought she could keep her day job, but within six months she too was putting all her energy into Smith-Haut-Lafitte.
Daniel soon realized that the steps to improved quality were obvious, just painful. He didn’t hesitate. He sold off the giant mechanical harvester Eschenauer had recently purchased. Large tanks of herbicides and pesticides were disposed of. More vines were planted to increase vineyard density to about 3,500 plants per acre. Yields were dramatically reduced—by two-thirds for the red grapes.
One thing their crash course in winegrowing couldn’t teach them, however, was patience. Mother Nature did that. First came 1991’s frost. The next year was rainy, so 1993 was the first vintage from which the Cathiards could taste some real results of their labors. They were not happy. The wines were better, but not outstanding. “We went too fast,” Florence says. “We changed everything in the vineyard, and the older vines were exhausted.” Wine was going to take a little longer than sporting goods to deliver a return.
On a cool, sunny day last year, technical director Fabien Teitgen is bending down between vine rows near the château, pulling out what appear to be weeds, examining them closely, then smelling them. The plants are actually cover crops—cereals, grasses, garlic and other, well, weeds that sprout up through the gravel. They add organic matter to the soil and compete with the vines for water—that water competition makes vines dig deeper with their roots and put more energy into ripening fruit than into growing shoots and leaves.
With his long ponytail and the way he speaks about compost and moon cycles, Teitgen seems an odd match with the corporate Cathiards. In fact, they call him the son they never had, which testifies to what he has accomplished in the 15 years he’s worked for them.
They hired him in 1995 as vineyard manager. He had been at Château Pavie Macquin in St.-Emilion, working under Stéphane Derenoncourt, known for his focus on the vineyard and gentle winemaking. By 2003, the Cathiards were still dissatisfied with their wines, but were thrilled with what Teitgen was doing with the vineyards. They promoted him to technical director. In their leave-nothing-to-chance manner, they’ve also retained Derenoncourt as a consultant and, on the theory that two high-powered consultants are better than one, have also engaged the services of Michel Rolland.
Resuming his stroll among the vines, Teitgen points out features of Smith-Haut-Lafitte’s topography. Lafitte is an old dialect term for hill, but this “hill” is really a gently sloping plateau, higher than the surrounding land, but not by much. The true value of the land is the soil. It’s gravel on top of clay, and the depth of that gravel varies around the property, from just a foot to several yards deep; the deeper the gravel, the better the drainage. There are 139 acres of red grapes—55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 34 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Franc and, since 2003, 1 percent Petit Verdot—and 27 acres of white grapes—90 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 5 percent Sauvignon Gris (a close cousin) and 5 percent Sémillon. Since Teitgen took over, they have replanted about 30 percent of the vines, with much of that devoted to putting Cabernet Sauvignon in areas with deep gravel, and Merlot where clay lies closer to the surface.
Teitgen built on Daniel’s herbicide and pesticide ban. He introduced insect predators and artificial pheromones to deter pests. He makes compost on the property, using vine prunings and manure from area cattle. They plow between the vine rows to aerate the soil and break up roots, even using horses for the white grape parcels. He’s also adopted certain organic and biodynamic practices, believing there are benefits to timing pruning and other vineyard activities to the cycles of the moon.
At harvest, the grapes are handpicked in multiple passes. Since 1999, they’ve employed two sorting tables—one when the grape bunches arrive at the winery and another after they’re destemmed. Beginning in 2009, an optical scanner on the second table looks at each berry to determine whether it should be rejected.
The white grapes are gently pressed in a sealed pneumatic press filled with nitrogen, then the juice settles before going into oak barrels to ferment in a cellar initially chilled to 54° F and slowly warmed to 73° F. Teitgen leaves the fermentation, seven to 10 days, to indigenous yeasts, then ages the wine in the barrels for 12 months. To retain freshness, he doesn’t allow the wine to undergo malolactic fermentation.
For the reds, the whole berries go into large oak vats the Cathiards added in 1998. The must is punched down by hand to softly extract tannins and color, and the wine macerates on the skins for a month or more, to improve the texture, before being transferred to oak barrels for two years. Teitgen racks the wine once or twice during that time, less frequently than most other Bordeaux estates. “When the grapes are good, there is no need for a lot of racking,” he says. This is Teitgen’s constant refrain—his hard work is in the vineyard, in the winery he’s just tending what he has already produced. “If the grapes are not good, you need to add lots of things to the tank during fermentation,” he concludes.
In a corner of the château’s courtyard sits what looks and smells like a woodshop. This is Daniel’s pride and joy, the cooperage he opened in 1995. Not content with the barrels he was getting, Cathiard decided to make his own. The advantage, according to Teitgen, is, “I know where the wood comes from, I know it’s been aged outside for two years, and I have a relationship with the cooper, so he knows what I want.” Currently, their cooper, or tonnelier, makes 475 barrels a year. They buy another 75, but hope to soon make all they need on the premises.
For both Teitgen and Daniel, the vision is clear. They don’t cut corners. And marketing or no, the wines reflect their investment. In the 2006 vintage, the white and the red each scored 92 points. In 2007, a tough year, the red hit 90 points, the white 92. A barrel tasting of the 2009 red received a preliminary score of 95 to 98 points. Daniel is unapologetic for being competitive and wanting high scores. “I want to beat our neighbors,” he says. “And when we get bad scores, Florence is angry and we’re all unhappy.”
It’s a breezy evening in New York City, and Daniel is at the Plaza Hotel getting ready for a dinner with several top château owners and consumers. He and Florence are on a two-week U.S. tour stopping in Miami, Sarasota, Atlanta, Boston and Houston. Florence is downstairs at a small reception, pouring wine for frequent guests of the hotel.
Once upon a time, Bordeaux château owners didn’t need to do marketing. But in today’s competitive global economy, being shy is a luxury they don’t have. Estates are now brands, just like Go Sport.
The idea of working all year to create a product and then handing it off to négociants to sell around the world was a hard concept for Florence to swallow at first. But even though the Cathiards do not sell the wines directly, Florence knows they still need to promote the brand. To this end, most Bordeaux owners focus on their land and history. But Florence has not been shy about putting herself and Daniel front and center. “We live in a sort of glass house,” she says. “But we are making a vin d’auteur [a wine with an author].”
In 1993, Daniel found himself stranded in the Brussels airport amid an Air France strike. He struck up a conversation with fellow-castaway Stephan von Neipperg, owner of St.-Emilion’s Château Canon-La Gaffelière. As they talked about the challenges of promoting their wines, they came up with an idea—a marketing alliance. With three other forward-looking owners—Alfred Tesseron of Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac, Nicolas de Bailliencourt of Château Gazin in Pomerol and Patrick Maroteaux of Château Branaire-Ducru in St. Julien—they founded Les Cinq, or The Five. (Tesseron recently left the group.) Les Cinq holds joint tastings in key markets and runs ad campaigns featuring their photos.
Knowing that Pessac-Léognan is not on the radar of many wine consumers, the Cathiards have also worked to draw visitors. During the 1993 harvest, their elder daughter Mathilde, who worked for a perfume company, was chatting with a pharmacology professor visiting the estate. He commented that wineries throw away the best part of the grapes—the discarded skins, rich with polyphenolic compounds, could be a vital source of skin care. Intrigued, Mathilde and her husband, who worked for L’Oreal cosmetics, developed Caudalie skin care, a product line made from grape pomace.
Within a few years, the Cathiards decided to open a spa on the property, Les Sources de Caudalie. Hoping to draw guests to the château, they also built a luxury hotel, complete with two restaurants. Their younger daughter, Alice, agreed to manage it. They pulled up several parcels of vines that were in a low-lying, wet area, thanks to a natural spring located 1,800 feet down. Florence could see the potential, but made sure to tell her husband, “Daniel, do you remember what we paid for 1 acre? You’re tearing up 12.”
The sacrifice quickly proved wise. Guests from all over the world now stay in Pessac-Léognan, and whether they come for wine touring or spa therapy, most make sure to sample the wines of the château just outside their window.
Two decades after the Cathiards looked out to see their vines frozen on a cold April morning, their work at Smith-Haut-Lafitte is paying off. But one thing continues to vex them. “The Cathiards have done a good job improving the wines and selling them,” says one négociant. “But this is not a great terroir. It’s just marketing.” This is not an uncommon view in Bordeaux.
The Cathiards believe their terroir is great. And they are determined to prove that Smith-Haut-Lafitte can be as good as the top properties in the Médoc or Pomerol or St.-Emilion. “Smith-Haut-Lafitte is just beginning to live up to its potential,” says Florence. Adds Daniel, “The sky’s the limit.” The past 20 years have shown it would be unwise to bet against this couple. They have already proven many doubters wrong. Wine lovers will only benefit as the Cathiards keep working hard.