Sylvie Cazes is President of Bordeaux’s “Foundation for the Culture and Civilizations of Wine.” The foundation runs its showplace museum, la Cité du Vin, a living monument to the history of the world’s wine culture. Sylvie is an active member of the French winemaking family that owns the famous Grand Cru Classé property Château Lynch-Bages on Bordeaux’s Left Bank. She was the president of the estate’s Board of Directors for many years, the first female president of the prestigious Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and the former director of Château Pichon Lalande—another Grand Cru Classé property in Bordeaux. Cazes has been a tireless ambassador of French wines for many years, and today is the proprietor of Château Chauvin in the Medoc, the famous Michelin-starred restaurant Le Chapon Fin, and a luxury wine tourism agency, Bordeaux Saveurs. In 2010, Cazes was named “Woman of the Year” by the U.K-based magazine Drinks Business.
Read more about Sylvie in the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: In parallel with your wine career, you were also a Bordeaux City Council member in charge of the promotion of wine and wine tourism from 2008 to 2014. Your father André was mayor of Pauillac for 40 years. Were you always likely to gravitate to politics?
Sylvie Cazes: Not really until I met Alain Juppé [former French Prime Minister and former Mayor of Bordeaux] during the 2007 legislative campaign. He is really an inspiring character and I was enthusiastic about working with him. In 2008, he nominated me to be part of his team on the [Bordeaux] City board and be in charge of relations with the wine community. We quickly started working on the Cité du Vin project that he had launched a few years before. But it is true that my father instilled in me the need to work for the community and build common projects, which is what he did for Pauillac during all his years as mayor.
KM: Bordeaux City has been completely transformed in the past few years, but for a long time it was in the shadow of the region. For the capital of such a world-famous wine mecca, it had a curious lack of wine museums, wine bars, even signs pointing the way out to the vineyards. At one point the city council was even worried that vineyard land was being threatened by urban development. Why do you think this was?
SC: In the past, winegrowers used to live on their vineyards and sold their wines to Bordeaux merchants who were mostly located within the city. The proprietors did not sell directly and wine tourism was not developed. So there was no real link between the city and the vineyards. Bordeaux used to be a grey and boring city that did not attract many tourists until about 20 years ago. It really started when Alain Juppé decided to renovate the city, clean the building facades, and reopen the riverfront.
KM: : Let’s talk about La Cité du Vin. I understand that 19% of the cost of its construction was raised from private donors—including many from outside of Bordeaux, even outside of France—making it the first cultural project in France to achieve such a high proportion of private funding. How were you able to convince “outsiders” to help?
SC: The first time the idea came up to build a wine museum was really 20 years ago. Alain Juppé and many other Bordeaux residents supported the project, but it quickly failed because the winegrowers were not prepared to join the effort. In 2009, we decided to introduce the project again, with two goals. It had to celebrate wine culture and its various aspects and thus had to be universal—not only about Bordeaux wines. We also wanted it to be a more ambitious project, starting from scratch with a contemporary architectural design. All our institutions (city, region, state, Europe) supported the project, and Alain Juppé’s own personal involvement managed to convince the winegrowers and merchants.
KM: Among the diverse exhibition and event spaces is “Latitude20,” a wine bar and shop with more than 14,000 bottles, and 800 listings from more than 70 wine regions. Are they all available to taste?
SC: La Cité has partnerships with over 50 of those wine regions and offers a rotating selection of their wines in the Belvédère tower. Visitors can choose one wine to taste from among 10 which change every day. The shop on the ground floor carries wines from all 70 regions.
KM: The museum’s Thomas Jefferson Auditorium, which hosts shows, concerts, screenings, and debates, was financed by the American Friends of La Cité du Vin. Tell us about the auditorium. Whose idea was it to name it after Thomas Jefferson?
SC: The American Friends of La Cité du Vin [AFCV] is a consortium of wine lovers led by its president George Sape, former grand-maître of the Commanderie du Bontemps in New York. It was named after Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. ambassador to France, because it was in France that Jefferson discovered Bordeaux wines and returned to the U.S. with cuttings to plant a vineyard at Monticello, his home in Virginia. He was also the first illustrious person to create a classification of Bordeaux wines, very close to the one that was institutionalized in France in 1855. The [AFCV] continues to help La Cité and develops a number of programs for American wine lovers.
“My father instilled in me the need to work for the community and build common projects, which is what he did for Pauillac during his 40 years as mayor.”
KM: What is your favorite attraction at La Cité du Vin?
SC: The Banquet of Illustrious People. This short movie shows a debate between historical celebrities (Louis XIV, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Jefferson, Churchill, Mozart, Maria Callas…), each of them discussing the wines they loved most during their lives, with a lot of humor.
KM: In 2014, you purchased Chateau Chauvin, along with your adult children Julie, Pierre, and François. What is it like to work with your children? Is it different than working with your sibling—or is family, family?
SC: It was a family decision and all three of them were involved in the project initially. Today, I now work only with my daughter Julie, who decided to leave her job (she was a dentist) to join me in the day-to-day running of the property. We are having great fun!
KM: Other than Bordeaux, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
SC: I always admired the way Napa growers have enhanced and opened their vineyards to the public and how they created a welcoming atmosphere throughout the region. I am amazed by the beauty of the Douro river [in Portugal] and by the recent increase in quality of their red wines. In France, I am particularly keen on Alsace wines, their diversity, finesse and the regional authenticity they have preserved.
KM: What wine region’s wines do you not get enough chance to taste?
SC: All of them! Probably the great Italian wines that are so diverse and difficult to get in France.
KM: What is your view of wine criticism? Does it hold the same importance today as it did 15 years ago?
SC: It is still as important but the organization of wine criticism has changed. Fifteen years ago, Robert Parker was so influential, especially for Bordeaux wines. Most of the other journalists were not considered as important. Today, I think there is an opportunity for many wine journalists to raise their voices and share their opinions with the public. Each wine lover can listen to different perspectives and make up their own mind.
KM: If you were not working in wine, what business would you have liked to be in?
SC: I used to teach before I started in the wine business and really enjoyed it. I like working as an entrepreneur and could have started in any field as long as it meant dealing with people from different cultures who like to build bridges—maybe tourism or journalism.
KM: Tell us something that would surprise most people to learn about you.
SC: I love Africa, not only because my husband is originally from Cameroon, but also because of the continent’s diversity, its fascinating blend of cultures, and the kindness and overall optimism of the people. I think that the improvement of South African vineyards and the newly discovered beauty of their landscapes will be the start of a new era for the development of wine consumption on the continent.