Master of the Château
After a stint in Hollywood, a prince takes the reins of a family treasure.
We may very well be the oldest luxury brand in the world,” says Prince Robert de Luxembourg, seated in a vaulted salon of Château Haut-Brion, the turreted 16th-century castle in Bordeaux, France, whose name and image grace his flagship wine. A courtly, bespectacled gentleman, Luxembourg, 39, looks very much at home here—certainly more so than he would have on a frenetic film set, where he might have been today had he pursued his earlier career as a screenwriter.
But when the opportunity to run a legacy nearly five centuries old arose, his life took a U-turn. Though his great-grandfather bought Haut-Brion in 1935, its origin dates to April 23, 1525, when one Jean de Pontac received the vineyards as part of his bride’s dowry. Two decades later, de Pontac built the first château expressly for overseeing vinification. As the vineyards prospered, renown for their product spread. By the 1660s King Charles’s wine cellar across the Channel was stocked with it, and diarist Samuel Pepys recorded drinking “a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with.” In 1787 the American minister to Paris, Thomas Jefferson, made a pilgrimage to the estate, where he ordered six dozen bottles.
Over the centuries, Haut-Brion passed through the hands of several owners—including Prince Talleyrand—but its quality endured. In 1855 it was classified by the French authorities as one of only four premiers grands crus, or first growth, vineyards, along with Lafite, Latour and Margaux (Mouton Rothschild was elevated to this pantheon in 1973). The ultimate wines, premiers crus are acquired by oenophiles much like works of art or stock portfolios. Indeed, in the rarefied premier cru world, a new vintage is issued like an IPO: After the fall harvest, estates sell the wine to brokers, or négociants, en primeur, as futures, before it ferments in barrels for two years. Even after bottles are delivered to market, they are generally cellared for at least a decade, until they reach maturity. A series of recent stellar harvests has resulted in record prices. Futures for bottles of 2005—considered one of the great vintages in memory—have doubled in value since they were introduced, to about $900 as of this past summer. “Unlike other luxury brands, we can’t make more,” says Luxembourg, a reference to his finite 106 acres.
Luxembourg is the product of American riches and European nobility. His maternal great-grandfather was financier Clarence Dillon, who snapped up Haut-Brion in 1935, during the depths of the Depression, for about $150,000. Grandfather Douglas Dillon served as U.S. ambassador to France under Eisenhower before he became JFK’s treasury secretary. In 1967 Luxembourg’s mother, Joan, was wed to Prince Charles de Luxembourg, brother of the Duchy’s reigning grand duke. Robert was born the following year at Schloss Fischbach and enjoyed a storybook childhood until nine years later, when his father died of a sudden heart attack at age 49. “It turned our world upside down,” he says today. After attending a Benedictine monastery boarding school in England, he lived in London for a year, then in Washington, D.C., where he studied philosophy at Georgetown University. In 1987 he met his future wife, Boston-raised Julie Ongaro, in Dark Harbor, Maine, where his family has a summer house.
In 1992 Ongaro tried her hand at writing a historical screenplay based on Don Juan. Luxembourg’s sometimes caustic critiques of her efforts led her to challenge him to pick up a pen and help. “I had no idea how a screenplay format worked, but we developed a partnership where we would talk and write,” he recalls. After sending the screenplay off to Hollywood, they were somewhat amazed when “an agency called CAA,” as he says, phoned to sign them as clients. The couple soon found themselves enjoying extended stays at the Four Seasons, working on that script and others. Though Steven Spielberg considered the Don Juan screenplay, none of their projects was made. Still, by the standards of Hollywood, the duo found considerable success via their commissions.
But just as their lives seemed to be shifting toward Los Angeles, fate intervened when a stroke incapacitated Luxembourg’s grandfather in 1994. Since 1975 Haut-Brion had been officially run by Joan—later in partnership with her second husband, Philippe de Noailles, the Duc de Mouchy—but the family soon decided they needed to groom someone from the younger generation to take the reins in the future.
“I was an obvious choice,” says Luxembourg, whose sister, Charlotte, is a theater producer in London. “I’m part of the furniture, to a degree. At the age of three or four, I spent a good amount of time in a sandbox right there”—here he points out the window—“while my mother was redoing the château.” Luxembourg was forced to choose between his fledgling writing career and the wine business. Realizing how useful he could be to the latter, he moved back to Europe with Ongaro (with whom he now has three children) in 1994 and later assumed management of the company.
Even though, as Luxembourg says, “I knew a good glass of wine,” he had no real background in the business end of Domaine Clarence Dillon S.A., the parent company, which had acquired the neighboring grand cru classé des Graves estate of La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983. Sensing untapped potential at La Mission, a property almost as old and esteemed as Haut-Brion, Luxembourg invested heavily there, constructing a top-quality production facility. His efforts have paid off, as the ratings and prices of its vintages attest. Futures for 2006 bottles were selling this summer for as much as $500, making the grand cru even more valuable than almost all of the more prestigious premiers crus that year except Haut-Brion.
Luxembourg also expanded his market with the launch of Clarendelle, the wine equivalent of a bridge line, two years ago. Wines from other vineyards are bought; then, after a rigorous selection process, they’re blended to make Clarendelle. When its first bottles—priced around $20—were released, a predictable outcry arose from some conservatives, who saw the strategy as tainting a sterling name. Nonsense, says Luxembourg, noting that he is not “pandering” to popular tastes by making wines that taste like “strawberry jams…. These wines use our extraordinary brain pool and retain our own special character.” And then, with the sincerity of the rare person who has moved with relative ease between the worlds of CAA and A.O.C.: “We are marrying modern and old.”