Christian Moueix: The Right Bank’s Quiet Champion

Christian Moueix is Wine Spectator’s 2011 Distinguished Service Award winner

From the Nov 15, 2011, issue

Christian Moueix had his path in life chosen for him. His father, Jean-Pierre Moueix, had two passions—the Bordeaux wine business and art—and two sons. He made it clear what he expected from them.

“My father was very authoritative, like many great men,” says Christian Moueix. “My brother, Jean-François, who is one year older, was more artistic than me. He would go into the art world, in my father’s vision. ‘My older son will follow my passion, and my younger son will follow my business.’ ”

As it turned out, both of Jean-Pierre’s sons went into business, and both have been very successful. Jean-François owns his own négoce and a wine retail chain in France. Christian has expanded the company his father founded, building Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix into one of Bordeaux’s most important players and also founding Dominus in Napa Valley. He has also become an avid art collector.

It would be easy to say that Moueix (pronounced MOH-ex) has trod the path his father laid out for him, but Moueix is a more multifaceted man than that. He has proved to be a shrewd businessman in his own right, ably navigating the changing times in Bordeaux, shifting his family firm from one that specialized in buying and selling bulk wine to one that trades Bordeaux’s most prestigious Grand Cru wines. He has consistently seen what was around the corner.

He has also proven to be a farmer. The company owns nine estates on the Right Bank; Moueix sold off several properties, giving full attention to the best terroirs. During the few hours a week that he isn’t working, he can often be found tending vines.

Moueix is viewed by some as the Right Bank’s old guard. The region has changed since he went to work for his father. Pomerol and St.-Emilion have been the cutting edge of Bordeaux in many ways—the birthplace of vins de garage, a place where ambitious vintners could challenge the way things are done. Moueix is always polite, but he is not afraid to criticize some popular wines for being overextracted and clumsy. He has dismissed some garage wines as lacking terroir.

And yet, this conservative has a rebellious streak. When he decided to start his own winery, outside the family company, he chose not a classic region in Bordeaux, but California’s Napa Valley. And once there, he resolutely followed his own path instead of copying his neighbors.

Despite his conservative methods, or perhaps because of them, Moueix’s wines are beautiful, elegant, often exquisite expressions of terroir. In a recent barrel tasting, the Château Trotanoy 2010 earned a potential score of 96-99 points. His Château Hosanna received a potential score of 95-98. And the Dominus Napa Valley 2008 earned 94 points. Moueix has proven that you don’t have to follow the latest trends, you just have to listen to your terroir.

Moueix believes in giving back, and he prefers his charities to be rooted in terroir as well. “We like to contribute to local causes, as it can be difficult to trace where the money goes with larger causes,” he says. In his Right Bank community, he donates food and wine to seniors and the needy. He is also aiding a major restoration of the beautiful Chapelle de Condat, a small church near Libourne that dates to the 11th century. In Napa Valley, he provides housing to workers who have lost their homes, and supports Clinic Ole, which offers medical help to the local uninsured.

For his tireless work promoting the Right Bank’s great wines, for his charity, dignity and thoughtfulness, and for his dedication to expressing distinctive terroirs, Christian Moueix is Wine Spectator‘s Distinguished Service Award winner of 2011.

At 65 years old, Moueix lives next door to his mother. But looking at his house, it’s easy to understand why. In a leafy neighborhood of Libourne, the main city on the Right Bank, sits a gorgeous Victorianesque mansion built in the 1860s by the then-owners of Château Cheval-Blanc. The stone and wood structure, decorated with gingerbread details, is located on a gentle bank leading down to the Dordogne River. It’s called Les Roseaux, “The Reeds.”

Walking up to the entrance to meet some guests for lunch, Moueix is impeccably dressed in coat and tie, his straight hair slicked back and fashionable eyeglasses perched upon his nose. When he speaks, his voice is deep and sonorous, but his tone is cautious. He is personable, but private. Colleagues in both Bordeaux and Napa say they believe Moueix knows more about wine than anyone else, but he keeps much of what he thinks to himself. Only Moueix knows what Moueix knows.

Despite his reserve and formal manner, Moueix is warm and friendly. To get a sense of his personality, it’s best to examine the passions in his life: vines and the soil, art and architecture, and Cherise, his wife of 17 years.

Cherise walks into the sitting room as guests arrive and greets them warmly. Enthusiastic and talkative, she puts everyone at ease with stories of Christian’s wild theme parties with harvesters each year and her daily Scrabble games with Christian’s mother.

A former art dealer, Cherise grew up in Washington, D.C. When they met, Moueix was divorced, with a teenage son and daughter. “I ran a gallery in Paris,” Cherise says. “I knew nothing about wine. I said to Christian after we had been out five or six times, ‘I will go to the local Champion [supermarket] and look for your wine. But I know your family has a couple of different vineyards. Tell me the one you’re most concerned about.’ He said, ‘The best known we own is called Pétrus.’ ‘OK, good. Could you spell that for me?’ He loved that I was interested in him, not wine.”

Cherise has embraced life in the wine industry, and she loves living in France, where she feels that the link to local food is strong. Their shared passion is art. Whenever he travels for work, they try to include visits to galleries or museums in the itinerary.

Moueix is quick to stress that his art collection is nothing like his father’s, which included works from Picasso and Bacon. “While I collect paintings, my particular interest is sculpture,” he says. Together with Cherise, he has acquired works by painter Sigmar Polke, photographers Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall, among others. “If I were to cite a commonality, I would say that they question how we perceive things, sometimes the most ordinary objects,” Moueix notes.

His son, Édouard, 34, arrives in time for lunch, escaping a meeting of St.-Emilion property owners concerning the appellation’s classification system. After finishing school, Édouard spent time in Japan representing his family wines, then lived in California as sales manager for Dominus. He became sales director for Ets. J.-P. Moueix in 2003 and is now executive vice president. Handsome, charming and down-to-earth, he married his wife, Kelley, who is from Connecticut, last year.

Moueix’s father passed away in 2003, but his presence is still felt. Over lunch, Cherise remembers how people would gather in front of his offices each day because they knew Jean-Pierre would give money to anyone in need. “He was a man of great charisma,” says Édouard. “People always tell me that when he shook your hand, he used both hands, and for a moment, you would feel safe.”

Jean-Pierre was generous because he knew what it was like to have nothing. He was born in Corrèze, a poor region in France’s Massif Central. (The name Moueix means “I come from the riverbank,” fitting for a family that would one day become synonymous with the Right Bank.) Looking for work, his father, Jean, moved the family to Libourne in 1929, when Jean-Pierre was 16. Soon after, Jean borrowed money from the bank and bought a rundown property in St.-Emilion, Château Fonroque.

“My father as a young man, he had to sell his father’s wine, which is how he went to northern France and Belgium,” says Moueix. These were the traditional markets for wines from the Right Bank. The young Jean-Pierre proved a natural salesman, and soon his neighbors were hiring him to sell their wines too. In 1937, he opened Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix in Libourne.

With properties like Pétrus and Le Pin being the icons that they are today, it’s hard to imagine how unknown the Right Bank was in the early part of the 20th century. Jean-Pierre bought wine from farms up and down the Dordogne, from Côtes de Castillon all the way to Blaye, aging it, blending it, and then sending it to foreign markets for bottling.

In 1943, he developed a partnership with Madame Édmond Loubat, the woman who owned Pétrus. Ten years later, she made him her sole agent and later sold a share of the property to him. Loubat passed away in 1961, leaving the estate to her two nieces. (Jean-François Moueix gained full ownership in 2005.) Jean-Pierre invested his profits in buying other properties, mostly in Pomerol. By the time Christian joined the firm, Ets. J.-P. Moueix had become the top player on the Right Bank.

As a young man, Christian studied agricultural engineering in Paris, and in 1968, he traveled to California to attend the University of California, Davis. That school was where many of the top winemakers of Napa Valley and Sonoma of that generation learned clean, technically sound winemaking. Moueix enjoyed the United States. “I fell in love with California,” he says. “Libourne was a little … it’s not California.”

But there was no question of where his future lay. In 1970, Jean-Pierre called his son back home. Quality in the vineyards of their properties had declined, and Jean-Pierre wanted Christian to fix the problem.

It was the best job he ever had. “Christian is a farmer,” says Cherise. “His heart is in the vineyard.” Moueix loved spending the whole growing cycle with the vines. He calls it having a dialogue with the vines.

At 24, he was also a bit of a revolutionary. In 1973, he began green harvesting at Pétrus, dropping some fruit in midsummer so that the rest would ripen fully. He was the first in Pomerol, and possibly the first in Bordeaux, to do so. Moueix would sneak the grapes he cut down to the river at night and throw them in so no one would see the evidence.

As happy as he was farming, however, his father needed him elsewhere and asked him to move to the négoce in 1977. It was time to focus on business. In 1991, Christian became president of the company.

The offices of Ets. J.-P. Moueix are located downriver from Les Roseaux, on a long street of limestone warehouses opposite the sleepy waterfront. This is where Right Bank wines traditionally were loaded on barges to be taken to the larger quays in Bordeaux, where ships waited. Inside, Moueix headquarters is practical—a few modest offices, a well-equipped lab and large cellars with thick limestone walls to keep the wines cool in the summer.

The négoce business used to be about buying wine, aging and blending it, then selling it off to be bottled elsewhere. “We used to move 100,000 hectoliters a year [more than 1.1 million cases],” says Moueix. “That was 30 years ago.” Top markets included Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Ets. J.-P. Moueix still produces value wines, but that’s only 20 percent of its business now. It purchases about 200,000 cases worth of wine from small growers. In the 1980s, the demand for Grand Cru wines swelled, while simultaneously the world began finding cheaper bulk wines from places other than Bordeaux. Moueix walks past the concrete and steel tanks full of bulk wine and enters the next cellar. It’s filled from floor to ceiling with wood cases branded with famous names. This is the present in Bordeaux. Much of Moueix’s business now focuses on sourcing Grand Cru wines from the best properties, and then selling them around the world.

“When we realized that there was no way to slow down the decrease of the bulk business, we said we must try to compensate,” Moueix says. “Ets. J.-P. Moueix was 100 percent specialized in Right Bank wines then. In 2000, we began on the Left Bank.

Édouard developed our activity there. In 2009 we bought from 100 châteaus on the Left Bank.”

Leaving the cellar behind, Moueix climbs into a Honda SUV, and begins a short drive east to St.-Emilion. It’s time to visit his vineyards. At one point, the company owned 20 properties on the Right Bank and managed several others. “In 2000, we decided to focus on 10 top properties,” says Moueix. That meant selling the other half, most of which were located in Fronsac, a promising appellation that Moueix admits frustrated him. “In today’s market, we need to focus on top wines.”

Ets. J.-P. Moueix owns nine of the properties, seven in Pomerol and two in St.-Emilion. Christian is a consultant for a 10th property, Pétrus, which the firm managed until 2008 but which belongs to older brother Jean-François and is now managed by his son, Jean.

When Moueix says that his is not a large operation, he’s not joking. The nine châteaus total 188 acres of vines and produce 20,000 cases annually. That’s similar in size to an individual Left Bank château. Each property has its own cellar and its own personality in the vineyard, requiring plenty of attention.

Moueix begins driving up the limestone slope just below the town of St.-Emilion. He passes vines and comes to a house on top of the hill. This is Château Bélair-Monange, his latest acquisition, purchased in 2008. Located next door to Château Ausone, it should be one of the area’s top producers, but it has been inconsistent. Moueix is trying to change that.

He is also trying to shore up its foundation—literally. For centuries, the owners harvested limestone from under the property. Now the caverns beneath are prone to cave-ins, so giant silos tower next to the vineyards, pumping a slurry of sand and stone into the catacombs beneath. The process will take years to complete and cost a fortune.

Next, Moueix drives to the plateau behind the town, and heads west again toward Pomerol. Driving past Pétrus, he turns into the small estate of Hosanna, which he bought in 1998. The problem here was not potential cave-ins, but wet soil. Moueix dug several strategically placed wells to improve drainage.

He looks at the gently sloping gravel of Hosanna. “To judge the potential quality of a vineyard, I need five minutes,” he says. “To understand the terroir, I need many years.”

Moueix is an observant Catholic. Over the years he has had two opportunities to choose new names for Bordeaux properties; he selected Hosanna and Providence. And when he decided to strike out on his own and build a winery separate from his family’s, on the other side of the globe from Bordeaux, he chose the name Dominus, Latin for “master.”

He had been looking to return to California since going to school there. Also, in the early 1980s, the socialist party took power in France, and Moueix worried about his home country’s business climate. “Having all our eggs in one basket was risky,” he says.

There was another factor at work. He needed a venture outside his father’s shadow. As he told the New York Times‘ Frank Prial later, “I was 35. I felt myself stuck with my destiny. I wanted to take charge of my life.”

When Moueix toured a vineyard near Yountville, Calif., during a thunderstorm, he knew he would make a great wine there. History certainly suggested it: The 120-acre property, Napanook, was the original vineyard of Inglenook, the valley’s most historic winery. When owner John Daniel sold the brand in 1964, he kept the property. Daniel’s daughters owned it in 1982, when Moueix formed a partnership with them. A buyout in 1994 made Moueix sole proprietor.

Cherise and Christian love great architecture, and when they wanted to build a winery for Dominus, they indulged their creative side, hiring the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. They were largely unknown outside of Europe at the time, but have since won international acclaim, building striking works like the Tate Modern art museum in London and the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing.

Moueix wanted a winery that highlighted the vineyard. “When Jacques and Pierre asked how I wanted the building to be seen in the landscape, I replied that it should be invisible,” says Moueix. They conceived a long stone slab of a building that many drivers passing by on Highway 29 mistake for a rock outcropping. It’s like nothing else in Napa Valley. There’s no mortar in the structure; metal baskets hold basalt rocks, the product of a nearby canyon.

Because it’s the only estate he has built from the ground up, Dominus reveals much about Moueix’s character. He came with a firm vision, initially telling his investors, “I need 20 years to make a good wine. If I cannot make a good wine without irrigation, without acidification, I will return your vineyard without compensation.” After 29 vintages, he has produced great wines. He has also produced plenty of wines that have received mixed reviews.

Despite struggles, he has not rushed to embrace local fashions. The wines are lower in alcohol than most Napa Cabernet blends, and favor firm structure over fruit. He has hired consultants and winemakers, but has retained strong control over operations.

Patiently, like a medieval monk of Burgundy, he has tweaked his practices in the vineyards and winery, learning from his failures. Initially, he planted a significant portion of Merlot to blend with the Cabernet, but he admits now that the variety never worked with this terroir. Today the 103 acres are planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Initially he kept yields low, much like in Bordeaux, but then he realized that Napa’s fertile soils and climate required higher yields. He still refuses to irrigate. He has reduced the amount of time the fermenting wine sits on the skins extracting tannins.

It’s unclear if Moueix is the master of Dominus or vice versa, but that doesn’t appear to bother him. The man who inherited his business in Bordeaux seems determined to build a Napa estate with his own sweat and toil.

Back on the Right Bank, driving away from Hosanna, Moueix says that when he retires, he plans to split his time between Napa and Bordeaux. He’s currently building a house near the Dominus property.

He gets about a mile down the road before his gardening impulse grabs him. He pulls over, finds a set of pruning shears he keeps stashed in the car, and heads into the vines. This is Trotanoy, arguably Pomerol’s greatest estate after Pétrus. The wines here tend to show exceptional complexity and finesse.

Ever the teacher, Moueix shows how to prune a vine before the growing season starts, trimming the excess buds and shifting that season’s main cane so it’s as parallel to the ground as possible. During warmer months, after attending Sunday Mass with his mother, he and Cherise will often drive out to a plot and start pruning.

What Moueix says he is looking for is natural equilibrium—a vine that is not too vigorous, yet will produce balanced grapes. “I could speak for hours on this subject,” he says. “Today, in all our châteaus, we pass each vine three times: first, in the early spring, to eliminate the third clusters and weak shoots; second, in early summer, for regulating quantity; and third, during the midsummer, for cutting all the late clusters that are still green after veraison. For that last operation, in the month of August, I myself work with the team from 7 to 10 each morning.”

Watching Moueix carefully prune each vine with simple pleasure, it becomes clear why he has never regretted the path his father chose. This man of faith sees his vineyards as the ultimate church. “When my sense of adventures wanes,” he says, “I dream of ending my days with Cherise and living like the old man of Tarentum [from Virgil’s Georgics], cultivating my own garden.” He plans to keep a 1-acre plot in both France and California, with vines and heirloom tomatoes.

“Virgil said that for this farmer, his produce equaled the riches of kings,” says Moueix. “I like that idea.”