In the midst of a sea of vines that gently undulates across the landscape in every direction, there stand three men. It is a Wednesday morning, in the last week of June 2014. The location perhaps does not matter, but let us say it is on the left bank, the vineyard of a great château. Leading the way is the directeur général, the managing director to you and me, the man with over-arching responsibility for all the work on the estate, from looking after the château to public relations and, of course, the vines and the wines. In these latter tasks he is accompanied by his right-hand man, the directeur technique, or technical director. It is he, occasionally with advice from a highly regarded consultant, who calls the shots in the vineyard and ultimately in the cellars too.
With them stands a third man who looks a little less at home among the vines. He wears a distinctive jacket in a traditional Austrian Loden style, but blue rather than the more traditional green. And on his feet are Armani shoes, perhaps not the best choice for a walk in the vineyard. But this is what he wore when he flew in by helicopter this morning, and he really doesn’t have time to change. Besides, if ruined, he has another seven pairs in his Paris apartment. This is, by the way, the proprietor, who has dived in for an impromptu inspection of the vineyard in what to him is clearly a very important vintage. In the six years since he bought the estate he has invested millions, refurbishing and restructuring; it is essential that he sees a return soon, and this flying visit is intended to impress this upon the team. Thinking back, the 2009 and 2010 vintages balanced the books in the way that he likes, even if subsequently quite a number of the 2010 orders were cancelled. But then came 2011 and 2012, difficult years when they had relied heavily on the négociants to soak up the excess quantities of highly-priced wine. The books were far from balanced. And then came 2013, and he shuddered inwardly at the thought. The year was a wash-out. Parker never came to taste en primeur. They hadn’t succumbed to the temptation to drop the price, Dieu merci, after all it is so difficult to regain lost ground, but the sales were abysmal. If only they had released firm and early, like Alfred Tesseron at Château Pontet-Canet, perhaps the stock would have shifted out the cellar door a little more smoothly. As it was, he was well aware it was the négociants who, like an ever-absorbent sponge, had soaked up the sea of unwanted wine once again. If we have another vintage like that, he thought, the négociants will have to start building new warehouses on the quayside. Well, those that don’t go bankrupt will, he concluded to himself.
The wealthy proprietor realised his mind had been wandering, and he suddenly snapped back into the present. And, in doing so, he liked the sound of what he heard coming from the mouth of the directeur technique. The vintage had kicked off with an early budbreak, nearly two weeks ahead of schedule. The flowering had been faultless, with a homogenous crop on the way, and no loss of potential yield to coulure or millerandage (he had learnt a few new words since buying this place, rather like the time he bought that aeronautical components manufacturer). In fact, everything was looking really good; the omens for a great vintage hadn’t been this promising since 2005, a vintage which was to his mind the best in Bordeaux since the 1960s, perhaps even the 1940s. Here’s hoping for another great vintage, he thought, to himself, as he trudged along behind his two employees, back towards the château. None of the three men had any idea, however, of the disastrous summer that lay ahead. This would ultimately pan out to be a vintage that could never, ever challenge the great years such as 2005, 1961 or otherwise.