Second ne daigne
Most of us, the criticalcouple included, don’t own a single vineyard/chateaux. We might therefore be excused for being a little miffed that the Rothschild family own so many. And included in that of course most famously are Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild, two first rated growths in the 1855 Bordeaux classification (though Mouton was at the time rated a mere second growth and was only later elevated to first; more of that later). But how come it’s the Rothschilds rather than your family that own these properties? Hold on for a whirlwind tour.
The origins of the dynasty are with a patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743-1812), a successful money changer who had five sons (Amschel Mayer, Salomon Mayer, Nathan Mayer, Carl Mayer and James Mayer) as well as five daughters – clearly a busy man. Strangely true but reading somewhat like a fairytale, he sent each of those sons to a European capital to manage what effectively was a multinational business, with postings as follows: Amschel (Frankfurt), Salomon (Vienna), Nathan Mayer (London), Carl (Naples) and James (Paris).
But the genius for the Rothschilds was to know the value of information; critically, a victory for Wellington would mean that UK stock markets and debt were undervalued while a victory for Napoleon would spell disaster. Accordingly, the Rothschilds used carrier pigeons to relay news of Wellington’s victory and it is said that the speed of Nathan Rothschild’s pigeon ensured he knew the news of Napoleon’s defeat a full day before even the British government. Accordingly, he had a full day to buy the financial markets at discounted rates before the world caught up and markets surged; while it is not known exactly how much money he made in those 24 hours, it was undoubtedly huge.
The family though was beginning to splinter. James’ son Alphonse became a French citizen and began to despise ‘all things English’ while as Derek Wilson notes in his book Rothschild: A Story of Wealth and Power, in 1853 Nathan (Nat):
James meanwhile had to wait till 1868 to fulfil his life ambition to get his hands on Lafite. Baron James de Rothschild agent easily saw off a coalition of local merchants and for the price of Ffr 4,440,000 became the owner of what would then be known as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. James would die shortly thereafter in 1868 and Alphonse inherited the estate and when Nat died in 1870, his sons took over Mouton.
There’s a substantial gap thereafter in the ‘bitter rivalry’ of the vineyards with Wilson reporting that:
Until Baron Philippe took a personal interest in Mouton no proprietor resided in Pauillac. The 1855 classification rankled with Nat, the first Rothschild owner of Mouton, but was a matter of indifference to his son and grandson. However, once all that has been said, it remains true that after the second world war what had been a good-natured competition over the annual selling price escalated into a bitter controversy between the Lafite Rothschilds and the Mouton Rothschilds – or, more accurately, between Elie (great grandson of James) and Philippe (great great grandson of Nat).
In the 1950s, Philippe organised growers to support abolishment of the 1855 classification dividing the Medoc with the battle lasting 20 years; the cousins were barely on speaking terms. In 1973, at a meeting of the Association of Four (Lafite, Margaux, Latour and Haut Brion), Baron Elie who in any case was resigning to hand over power to his nephew was persuaded to end his opposition to Mouton being included amongst the premier crus.
Thereafter, the jingle changed to
Premier je puis,
Second je fus,
Mouton ne change
First I am/Second I was/Mouton does not change.
On a final amusing note, when a bottle of 1787 Lafite sold for £105,000 at a Christie’s auction in December 1985, Eric Rothschild buying for Lafite’s Vinotheque ‘library’ ducked out the bidding as the price moved beyond even what the Rothschild’s were prepared to pay it.