A once-in-a-generation transition at one of the world’s most storied wine companies became official in March, when Saskia de Rothschild assumed the role of chairman of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). De Rothschild, 30, is the daughter of Baron Eric de Rothschild, and the first woman to run Lafite in the 150 years the de Rothschild family has owned it. The company has grown substantially in six generations, with most of the expansion led by Baron Eric during his 44-year tenure.
In an interview with Wine Spectator, the new chairman made it clear she has no plans to rest on Lafite’s laurels. She wants to improve the company’s other brands, and she feels the firm must innovate if it is going to draw a new generation of fans.
De Rothschild officially joined DBR two years ago, but her memories of Lafite and the other wine estates run deep. As a child, spending weekends at Lafite, she felt a connection to the estate’s activity.
“I have been very attached to this place since I was little. I would come here and always feel at ease with the teams and with nature,” de Rothschild said. “I would run into the cellar and see people working and how they were doing their jobs, knowing all the processes that were going into making a bottle of wine. I learned to ride a bike there.”
Later, she worked summer jobs in the vineyards at Château L’Evangile in Pomerol under a fake name; only the manager knew her identity. “To me, Lafite is my home, but L’Evangile is very important in my heart. I learned the more technical side of winemaking there,” she said.
After school, she worked as a reporter for the New York Times in West Africa but maintained a connection to the family business. “For 10 years, I had been coming to Lafite for the blending,” she said. “To me, it’s the most important part of knowing how Lafite is built, because you really understand how each plot expresses itself.”
Two years ago, her father told her he needed her to be more present. “I said, ‘If I’m going to be more present, I’m going to be completely present.’ I don’t like to do things halfway.” She quit her job and joined DBR Lafite full-time as co-chairman with her father. She has two brothers, but neither works in the wine industry.
Her impressive portfolio of brands includes châteaus Lafite and Duhart-Milon in Pauillac, Rieussec in Sauternes and L’Evangile in Pomerol. Outside Bordeaux, the firm owns Domaine d’Aussières in the Languedoc and Viña Los Vascos in Chile and co-owns Bodegas Caro in Argentina.
It also owns two large-volume Bordeaux-branded wines, Légende and Saga, created in 1995 by Baron Eric and DBR’s former CEO and president Christophe Salin. Both wines, produced in the hundreds of thousands of cases, are widely distributed, but Saskia and Jean-Guillaume Prats, the company’s new CEO and president, feel they lack strong brand identities. “It’s been a great, entrepreneurial adventure. Now we have to build the story behind it,” de Rothschild said.
De Rothschild, who earned a master’s degree in management at France’s prestigious HEC business school in addition to a journalism degree from Columbia University, added, “All of the properties have to stand on their own feet. We have a logo that says Lafite, but that can’t be the only story we tell. Lafite is Lafite. You can’t pull too much on Lafite to sell other things.”
This is where Prats comes in. He previously managed second-growth Château Cos-d’Estournel but most recently spent five years heading the wine division of Moët-Hennessy Louis-Vuitton (LVMH), which owns 15 estates in eight countries. His expertise in the marketing, sales and distribution of luxury drinks brands meshes neatly with de Rothschild’s vision for the DBR Lafite stable.
“All of the luxury brands in the world have a simple message to understand,” said Prats. “You should be able to describe the DNA of a maison in a simple way for everyone to understand and remember immediately. That’s what we need to do—not for Lafite, but for the other [wines].”
They are also exploring how de Rothschild’s relative youth can help the firm connect with a new generation of fine-wine drinkers. One obstacle to its ability to convey the authenticity of its wine is Lafite’s success as an investment vehicle. “It’s very dangerous,” said Prats. “You take away from the desirability of the product. Where’s the magic behind it? You take away from the consumer that this is a real product from vines.”
“I want people to buy a bottle of Lafite because it makes them dream,” said de Rothschild. “Not because it’s a status symbol to have a bottle of Lafite on the table, but because the way we make the wine is so great.”