A New Generation at Léoville Barton
The 10th-generation members of the Barton wine dynasty aren't afraid to forge their own paths
This profile is an excerpt from the feature “New Generation Leaders,” in the March 31, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator.
Bordeaux wine is big business, but many of its key estates remain in family hands. Over time, generations rise and then retire, and the transition of power to the sons and daughters can be challenging. The leadership of the young up-and-comers has proven dynamic and successful, and while their legacy in part defines them, it doesn’t limit them.
Mélanie Barton-Sartorius and Damien Barton-Sartorius are the 10th generation in the Barton wine dynasty that began in 1725, when Thomas Barton, a native of Ireland, landed on the quays of Bordeaux. They are the children of Lilian Barton-Sartorius and her husband, Michel Sartorius, and the grandchildren of Anthony Barton.
The legacy is a mighty one: the acquisition of Château Langoa Barton in St.-Julien in 1821, followed by the purchase of a quarter of the Léoville domaine in 1826, giving birth to Château Léoville Barton nearby. The Bartons are only one of three Bordeaux families to own their estates continuously since the 1855 Classification.
“We feel the weight of the legacy in a positive way,” says Damien. “I’m very proud to be the next generation. It’s the definition of sustainability. My mission now is to pass it down to the next generation, like our mother has done. Keep it where it is, maybe push it a bit higher if we can, and pass it down in the best condition possible.”
Transitions are discrete among the Bartons, a tight-knit family with a strong work ethic. Lilian joined her father in the business in her early 20s, setting up their wine merchant firm, Les Vins Fins Anthony Barton, while Anthony himself focused on the estates. When his health failed in recent years, Lilian, 61, took on management of the entire company. And though she still holds the reins, Mélanie, 30, and Damien, 27, have found important places within the company and increasingly represent the family at tastings around the world.
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In 2011, Lilian and Michel acquired Château Mauvesin Barton in Moulis-en-Médoc, calling it a “family challenge” to restore the neglected 15th-century estate. It’s on these 125 acres that Mélanie, the first trained enologist in the family, works as technical director. She’s one of the rare female enologist-owners among Bordeaux’s top estates.
A massive investment program included replanting vineyards and building a modern cellar with an optical sorter for grapes coming in at harvest and a range of vats for more precision winemaking.
“For the moment, the big challenge is Mauvesin, to turn it around and run it correctly and be able to sell all we produce, which we were able to do in 2015 and 2016,” says Mélanie. “And of course, one day the big challenge [for me] will be coming to Langoa and Léoville.”
Damien exhibits the Barton flair for entrepreneurship. With a background in viticulture and business management, he launched a wine company called SBJ Fine Wines in 2017 with a business partner, specializing in small-batch estate-bottled varietals under the Initio label.
He’s also learning the ropes of the Place de Bordeaux, including an eye-opening lesson during an internship with historic merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd in England, which occurred during the en primeur campaign for the beleaguered 2013 vintage. He noticed that potential Bordeaux customers were passing on futures offers, but buying the Tuscan wine Sassicaia.
“I really got to understand that people are waiting, they are ready to buy, but if it’s not the right time at the right price, [the product] doesn’t sell,” he says. “There are other wines to go to, other choices.”
After 300 years in business, sustainability is the watchword for the Bartons, a philosophy that includes greener farming. A portion of Langoa is farmed organically, and Mélanie aims to lead Mauvesin next year through its second level (out of three) of the French government’s HVE environmental certification. The Barton estates also maintain extensive greenbelts, even though some of that land could legally be planted to vines.
“The only forest in St.-Julien is ours, and it’s AOC St.-Julien,” says Damien, noting the importance of a larger ecosystem that leads to healthy soils, healthy vines and perfectly ripe grapes. “But it’s not just a business, it’s our home.”