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The Importance of Being Lalou : A Tale of Mountain Climbing, Family Freuds, Astrology and Incredible Wine

It was a scene from a pulp novel. One participant (an anesthesiologist) flew in from Fort Lauderdale, checking into San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton hotel carrying little more than a change of clothes and--most precious of all--his tasting notebook. He flew back the next day. Another, a mortgage broker, arrived from Dallas. A small contingent trooped in from Los Angeles. Most of the rest were from San Francisco.

Fourteen men and two women found themselves seated in the Ritz-Carlton’s private dining room, a vision of Georgian-style elegance with sconces placed just so on pastel walls. The long, gleaming mahogany table was set with pristine white linen place mats arranged with a geometric precision worthy of a Mondrian. It looked like an altar.

In a sense, it was. These 16 people were engaged in a rite of what might be called, only half in jest, Burgundian voodoo. As in all such rites, a summoning name was invoked: Lalou. It was murmured reverentially and repeatedly, the power part of an incantation invoking such famous Burgundy place names as Richebourg, Romanee-St.-Vivant, Musigny, Chambertin and Corton. Resplendent as these vineyard names are to Burgundy fanciers, it was Lalou’s that mattered most here. It was her name that brought everyone to this table at no small expense when San Francisco wine retailer Jim Smith put out the word that he was hosting a private tasting of Lalou’s 1993 Burgundies.

To outsiders, “Lalou” means nothing. But to Burgundy lovers--and they are a worldwide tribe--no name is more significant. Her wines sell for as much as $500 a bottle. That, mind you, not for a fabled old vintage but for the latest release. Sold under the estate name Domaine Leroy, they are among the most expensive wines in the world.

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But Domaine Leroy’s stratospheric prices are only a superficial distinction, attention-getting though they are. The real draw--what has believers traveling thousands of miles to taste Lalou’s latest offerings--is that she has single-handedly reshaped the vision of what Burgundy can be. And that is no small feat for a place that has, after all, been wowing the wine world for 1,000 years. Moreover, it’s all happened only since 1988, Domaine Leroy’s first vintage. In a mere half a dozen or so vintages, she has swept past all competitors.

Her full name is Lalou Bize-Leroy. (Actually, her real name is Marcelle, but nobody, not even her mother, has called her that.) She is 64 years old. Physically she is, well, scrawny. Lalou is one of those small, finely detailed women who abound in France, the sort who daintily dismember whole birds at the table, leaving behind a pile of bones picked clean as fossils. Only later do you realize, with the barest frisson of fear, just what sort of civilized ferocity was involved.

As it happens, Lalou comes by her aura of strength from sheer hard work. Scrawny she may seem, but she is no weak sister. Rather, she is all sinew and muscle, the legacy of a lifetime of mountain and technical rock climbing. In her prime, Lalou was one of the world’s top women climbers, good enough to have been invited on the first women’s Mt. Everest climb. (She regretfully declined because it would have taken her away from Burgundy for too long.)

Many people meeting Lalou for the first time are struck not so much by her diminutive size but by her exuberant, casual vivacity. She exudes a charm that often surprises visitors who know only her reputation as a demanding winegrower and businesswoman. Almost girlish in her innocent enthusiasm, she adores Burgundy.

And she is enamored of Burgundy lovers--although more in the abstract than in day-to-day reality. Meeting Lalou is something more dreamed about than realized for most Burgundy fanciers. She rarely comes to the States, preferring instead to shuttle between her vineyards in Burgundy and her apartment in Monaco, where she and her husband, Marcel Bize, climb the nearby cliffs along the Riviera.

Part of Lalou’s legend is the acuity of her tasting ability. Her talent for distinguishing the finest distinctions among Burgundy’s hundreds of named vineyards is the awe of her Burgundian colleagues. (Once, during the harvest at Domaine Leroy, her winemaker surprised her by putting a dozen grapes in front of her and asking her to identify which vineyard each came from, based on the taste of the grape. She got nearly all of them right. Lalou later admitted that she had never done such a thing before--and didn’t know that it was even possible to do.)

Not least, Lalou is the consternation of many of her Burgundian colleagues. “I embarrass them,” she says matter-of-factly, not at all embarrassed herself to say so. Far from it. Lalou Bize-Leroy is proud of her provocativeness. She makes her colleagues uncomfortable the old-fashioned way: She makes better wines than they do. And she is not at all shy about declaring them so.

Domaine Leroy makes the same wines as other privileged estates in Burgundy (every vineyard typically has multiple owners, many of whom make their own wine and sell it under their own label). Yet when you taste Lalou’s versions, other producers’ bottlings from the same vineyard and vintage usually pale in comparison. Suddenly, they are revealed to be less well-defined, less concentrated and somehow not as vibrant--in short, less thrilling. Domaine Leroy’s wines deliver resonant dimension and delineation, like a great compact disc compared to a scratchy, distant vinyl recording.

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In fairness, Lalou didn’t come from nowhere. Far from it. She is, after all, one of the co-owners of Burgundy’s grandest estate, the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. For eight years starting in 1974 she was one of its two co-directors, which brought her into the public eye to a greater degree than she liked. (During one of my visits there, I was asked to leave early, since former President Richard Nixon was scheduled to arrive.) The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti is as much a French monument as the Eiffel Tower--except that admission to it is vastly more expensive. Its namesake wine, Romanee-Conti, sells for $900 a bottle for the latest (1993) vintage.

But Lalou no longer has anything to do with DRC, as we Americans have breezily abbreviated it. Oh, she still gets a hefty check every year--she owns one-quarter of it. But in 1992 Lalou was deposed as co-director of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in an intrigue worthy of a Balzac novel.

The saga, pockmarked with lawsuits, involves a disagreement over the distribution of DRC wines, a privilege (and paycheck) previously reserved for the wine shipping arm of Leroy. The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti is divided equally between the Leroy and de Villaine families. But this dry commercial discord is considerably juiced by family conflict (between Lalou and her sister, Pauline), as well as between Lalou and her former co-director, Aubert de Villaine.

It was also exacerbated by the creation of Domaine Leroy, inasmuch as two of its vineyard parcels--Romanee-St. Vivant and Richebourg--also are part of DRC’s prominent holdings. But Lalou refused to fold her newly acquired slices of these vineyards into the DRC portfolio, effectively setting herself up in direct competition with DRC, never mind that she was then a director of that estate.

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Domaine Leroy was created in 1988 by the purchase of an existing estate called Domaine Charles Noellat. It is in the village of Vosne-Romanee, as is the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. You can jog between the two properties in about three minutes. Domaine Leroy is not owned outright by Lalou but by the family negociant, or wine shipping firm, simply called Leroy. Lalou is its managing director.

Leroy negociant holds 2 million to 3 million bottles of Burgundy spanning decades of vintages. Unlike the wines of Domaine Leroy, which are made exclusively from its own vineyard holdings, Leroy negociant wines came from many growers. Lalou chose them but did not make them. These wines, too, are astronomically priced and wonderfully good. But since Domaine Leroy’s creation, few new vintages have been purchased for the Leroy negociant label.

What’s more, although Domaine Leroy owns a superb collection of parcels in many of Burgundy’s greatest vineyards, only Lalou could convince the world to pay the astonishing prices she asks. Make no mistake: The world has agreed to pay. It is extremely difficult to secure any of Domaine Leroy’s 1993 red Burgundies, nearly all of which sold out before they even arrived in this country this spring. In fact, the most expensive bottles sold quickest.

So what, exactly, has Lalou done that is so extraordinary? For many observers, it’s hard to get past the soap opera that has unfolded over the past few years. Undeniably interesting, it’s really of little consequence. What matters are the wines. And they are revolutionary.

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The revolution Lalou has wrought involves a radical rethinking of standards. Even though Burgundy makes the world’s most expensive red and white wines, demand always exceeds supply. Quality starts in the vineyard. And one of the key elements is yield: How many clusters does the grower allow to ripen on each vine?

Ostensibly, French government regulations limit yields. In practice, they are flouted. Besides, the levels established are pretty generous, so enforcement wouldn’t really mean much. Keep in mind that demand exceeds supply so far that growers can sell everything they produce, if the vineyard is prestigious enough.

Because of this, it may not be surprising to learn that many, if not most, red and white Burgundies are made from vines that support what can only be described as excessive yields. Yet among the large clutch of sinners is a small cadre of saints. Really, they are heroes.

Despite the fact that--Lalou excepted--the world will pay only so much for a wine of a certain vineyard pedigree, and no more, they don’t care. They want to make the real thing--and that means seeing less money each year than their neighbors.

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The heroic ideal of a low yield has been steadily ratcheting downward. For example, a typical premier cru red Burgundy comes from vineyards with yields of about 3.5 tons of grapes an acre, or 45 to 50 hectoliters of wine per hectare (2.5 acres), which is how yield is expressed in Europe. You can make a pleasant wine at that generous level but never a great one, no matter how exalted the vineyard.

The best growers know that’s too much. So they prune their vines for a yield of about 30 hectoliters per hectare (hl/ha) or 2.2 tons of grapes an acre. That’s a good, admirable low yield. At that level it’s possible to make truly fine wine.

But, according to Lalou, that’s not nearly low enough. She insists on yields that are dramatically lower yet, typically 15 hl/ha or about one ton of grapes an acre. Sometimes it’s even less, reaching such absurd levels as 7 or 8 hl/ha. (Even she agrees that’s too low.)

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Does such extremism really make a difference? Absolutely. Domaine Leroy’s wines repeatedly prove it. But Lalou’s vineyard rigor isn’t limited to painfully low yields. It derives from an equally rigorous practice of organic cultivation called biodynamic agriculture.

Based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian teacher and philosopher, biodynamic agriculture takes conventional organic practices and pursues them well beyond the limits of scientific verification or even sympathetic rationalism. Its premise is that literally everything is alive--soil, rocks, plants, grapes--and therefore cohere in a larger cosmic rhythm.

Biodynamic agriculture incorporates what rationalists consider supernatural bosh (such as astrology as a guide for timing vineyard and winery practices), as well as more comprehensible practices such as forswearing herbicides, pesticides, synthetic chemicals and non-organic additions to the soil. Its practitioners do use sulfur to control mildew in the vines and limit bacterial damage during the winemaking, but the levels employed are much lower than usual.

Does biodynamic agriculture make a difference in the wine? Hard to say. Much of its philosophy makes for admirable vineyard practice, never mind its intellectual validity. If you think along biodynamic lines, its respectful practices guarantee low yields. Vines will be treated as tenderly as household pets.

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In a fashion, it’s an agricultural version of keeping kosher. Sorting out the precise boundaries of cause and effect is ineffective. The overall result is what counts. And you have to believe.

Lalou believes. The remodeled Domaine Leroy winery has an enormous zodiac composed of different colored stones set into one of its interior walls. She is not especially swayed by astrology (she is a practicing Catholic). Rather, Lalou feels that the biodynamic philosophy makes bone-deep sense. Astrology is just a vocabulary for expressing that sensibility.

But Domaine Leroy’s revolution is not just in the vineyards, even though that’s radical enough. It also involves winemaking practice. The same demanding simplicity applied in the vineyard plays its role in the winery. There’s nothing fancy about the equipment. Nor are Lalou’s winemaking techniques especially radical.

Instead, what sets her winemaking apart is a vision of nothing short of a new Burgundian aesthetic. Lalou has long believed that many Burgundies are too obvious. “There’s too much ‘signature’ in Burgundy winemaking,” she asserts. “As in a great magic act, you shouldn’t be able to see the hand of the winemaker. Only the voice of the vineyard should be heard.”

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The winemaking serves that cause. There are no pumps, no filters; the wines in barrel are racked less often. Nothing she does is unusual, yet the result is like no other. The wines somehow convey an unsuspected delicacy, with a paradoxical lightness allied to massive depth of flavor.

Moreover, she believes that Burgundy wines have lost density of flavor and, especially, rich texture. “Yields are much too high for greatness. They should be much, much lower. And the soil . . , " she adds. “It is being killed by herbicides, artificial fertilizers, all kinds of destructive practices. The soil is alive--or should be--with microbes, bacteria, fungi. Now, however, too much of Burgundy’s soil is sick. We must return it to health.

“Various winemaking tricks can never substitute for something hard-won in the vineyard through the lowest yields and truly healthy soil,” she declares.

In her wines, Lalou seeks a magnified delineation of flavors. Each wine offers a kaleidoscope of sensations, each of which is distinct from the other with no blurring or muddiness. Because of this, it is virtually impossible to mistake one vineyard for another in a Domaine Leroy wine. Lalou seeks a degree of purity, allied to extraordinary concentration, that is almost unmatched by any other producer.

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Because of this, some of Domaine Leroy’s wines are so rich, so intense, so dense in taste and texture that they are disturbingly original. Sometimes this magnification is so great that it forces you to reevaluate all other renditions of the same wine. At its most extreme, such as Domaine Leroy’s Corton-Charlemagne, a grand cru white Burgundy, the scale of the wine is so spectacularly outsize that it can seem aberrant. Is her Corton-Charlemagne the true voice of this famous vineyard? And if it is, what does that make all the other versions?

Whatever the answers to such questions, Domaine Leroy’s wines have forced a wholesale rethinking about what makes for a great Burgundy. Other growers are beginning to emulate Lalou, as best they can. This isn’t easy, if only because of money. No one else has Lalou’s audacity in pricing.

But Burgundians do command a premium for their wines, enough so that dedicated producers can approach Domaine Leroy’s standard. Chances are, much of what Lalou has demonstrated in her wines can be achieved without going to quite such an extreme. But then, that’s why Lalou gets the big bucks, deutsche marks, francs and yen. Extremism in the defense of Burgundy is no vice.


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