I was saddened to learn of the death August 23 of Philippine de Rothschild. She was the owner of Château Mouton Rothschild, the legendary (and occasionally controversial) Bordeaux First Growth. I had the pleasure on several glittery occasions of meeting the Baroness, who insisted I call her Philippine and who I well recall was the very embodiment of “star power.” And yet, after many gala evenings where she was always the center of attention, my most cherished memory of her is of an evening with no cameras, no glitter and a very unlikely star with humble origins.
Through a rather convoluted chain of events she came to my home for dinner, a meal at which we did not have Château Mouton Rothschild. She told me that dining in an American home, she wanted to have American food, so I extended that to wine as well. I figured she had plenty of opportunities to try Mouton, so I poured a Ridge zinfandel and a Beringer Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon.
I had spent most of the afternoon cooking, trying to keep the menu simple and down-home while still being suitable for my star guest. Philippine showed up at my door precisely on time and of course, very chic in casual dress.
Having met her before, I knew she had enjoyed a long career as an actress before moving more into the wine company built into a Bordeaux powerhouse by her father. Over dinner we talked about favorite movies and after enough wine she talked about her days on stage at Comédie Française with Catherine Deneuve. I would have been happy continuing that part of the conversation, but she made sure to spend time on the dinner. She complimented the wine, she complimented the food (crab cakes, beef tenderloin and a fruit tart for dessert) and at the end of the evening asked for a recipe. Not the recipe for the crab cakes or the sauce choron, but for my cornbread. This she said, either out of surprise or graciousness, was a "delicacy" she had never tried. I was smitten.
My big takeaway in retrospect is that Philippine de Rothschild was just as much the life of the party at a dinner for four as I later saw her being at a banquet for 40. Always gracious, elegant and intriguingly down to earth. She was an entertaining storyteller and a subtle but insistent brand manager. I suspect that was her stage skill coming through - she knew how to balance an evening. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I saw a great deal of her in her wine. Never mind the wine was essentially created by her father - it was a legacy she embraced and extended.
I believe that behind every great wine there is a great story (and usually more than one). Baroness Rothschild … excuse me, Philippine … is a great story behind Château Mouton Rothschild. Like many great stories, the plot varies slightly depending on who recounts it. I think I have one bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild in my cellar, and this would be the ideal time to dust it off and have a toast to a grande dame of French wine.