Five years ago when Silicon Valley billionaire Michael Baum expressed an interest in buying Château de Pommard, his lawyers advised against it. But Baum liked the direct-to-consumer business model, the cellar master Emmanuel Sala and took quite a shine to this historic Burgundy estate. 90% of the current 100,000 bottle annual output is sold direct to consumer, but Baum is putting the building blocks in place to quadruple that. Geoffrey Dean travelled to Burgundy to meet Baum and his team, see their plans and, of course, to taste the wines.
Château de Pommard has been owned by French families since 1690 until Baum came along
When Michael Baum, the American owner of Château de Pommard, heard in 2014 that the then proprietor, Maurice Guiraud, was looking to sell the 22-acre Burgundian estate, he expressed his interest. “Send me a bank statement to prove you are serious,” came back the reply from Guiraud. Baum did, and was given three weeks to make an offer.
“It was August 1, though, and no one works in France in August,” Baum recalled. “We reviewed the documents for those three weeks, and my lawyers said ‘no, don’t buy.’ But I decided to, for what convinced me was Emmanuel Sala, the cellar master, and the business model: dealing directly with clients with no intermediaries. There was a possibility to do a lot with it, and I liked that.”
A Silicon Valley billionaire and one of California’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, Baum saw his opportunity and has taken it, embracing it with a fervour that has completely won over the staff at all levels on the estate. As much as 90% of the 100,000 bottles of wine it produces each year is sold direct-to-consumer. In the last five years, visitors from as many as 81 different countries have come to the chateau and bought directly from it.
“Wine’s not about making money, it’s about staying in business,” Baum told The Buyer when I visited the estate last month. “Foreigners don’t buy businesses here. Château de Pommard has been owned by French families since 1690 until I came along, but Maurice Giraud chose to sell to me instead of accepting an offer from LVMH. The local people have been very supportive of me.”
Giraud, who was 73 at the time of the sale having owned the estate for 11 years, wanted individual not corporate passion in his successor. “With Michael Baum, we share the same vision of Château de Pommard, the same values that focus on preserving and continuing to make this national heritage shine even more,” Giraud said. “This is why I decided to hand him the destiny of this unique estate. I know that he will have the heart to pursue the development of the château in the same line that has been taken the last 10 years.”
Baum has invested massively in a project that will feature a new state-of-the-art cellar, hotel and restaurant, with completion due by 2023. The kilometres of wall that surround the 22 hectares of vines, for the estate has long been a walled ‘clos’, are also being refurbished. Having this year gained official organic status, the vines are now being farmed biodynamically, with certification from Demeter due to follow in three years time.
Baum’s business plan is for production capacity to rise to a million bottles per annum, although that will mean sourcing a lot of extra fruit of requisite quality. “Now, we have to buy in 30 to 35% of our fruit, but more will be difficult to find – it’s a big problem,” Sala mused. “We want good fruit – we won’t get it from just anyone,” assistant winemaker, Eric Pignal, added.
Sala, though, is revelling in the backing that Baum has shown him. “He’s American, and like the American people, he has the cult of the winemaker,” Sala continued. “He really wants to invest in the vineyard, and all that we need is OK with him. Now that we are bio, we have three horses instead of tractors, but we need five, big ones. Our team in the vineyard is eight when in 2007 it was only four. Then, I was alone in the cellar but we have two there now. Eric, who came in December 2017, does 90% of the job there.”
The move to biodynamic farming has improved the wines in Sala’s view. “Disease is less in the vines, which are more resistant,” he said. “We have more energy in the wine, and the balance is better between soil and plant. There is more tension and minerality in the wines, which are more silky. Not more concentration though, perhaps less.”
The wines from seven different plots within the walled vineyard, as well as several outside it, showed particularly well. The Château de Pommard 2016 Clos Marey-Monge (RRP €125) had beautifully integrated tannins that were firm but fine as well, with wonderful intensity of flavour and a very long finish. The Bourgogne Chardonnay, Famille Carabello-Baum 2017, had attractive lemon fruit, fresh acidity and good length, and represented value at €25. For a step up in quality, the Ladoix ‘Les Grechons’ Premier Cru 2017, from a plot in Côte de Beaune that Baum farms but does not own, was elegant and long, with lovely minerality and concentration.
The United States is currently the biggest importer of Baum’s stable of wines, but he hopes that the UK, the next largest (while behind France), will see a significant increase in sales. Given the quality of the wines, and with Baum’s drive and backing, it is difficult to envisage any other eventuality.