A bombshell in Burgundy...
The venerable Domaine Bonneau du Martray - owners of a spectacular 11-hectare parcel of the Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne (the same parcel donated to the church by Emperor Charlemagne in the 700s!) - has been sold to american billionaire Stan Kroenke, owner of the LA Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Rapids and Colorado Avalanche sports franchises (as well as my favorite soccer team, Arsenal in London.) Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière and his family had owned the domaine for over 200 years, and announced the sale yesterday. The price was not disclosed, but it was surely stratospheric.
All of us in the Burgundy community are stunned, to say the least. For one of the only domaines to have remained in the same family hands from before the French revolution to suddenly get snapped up by foreign, corporate money - certainly nobody saw it coming. Is this just a fissure in the rock, or is it another large step toward the changing of the face, if not the very soul, of Burgundy?
A few years back a Chinese businessman out bid a consortium of local vignerons (and vastly over-paid) for the Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin. Then luxury-goods magnate François Pinnault bought Domaine Réné Engel in Vosne-Romanée (now re-named Domaine Eugénie), then last year the LVMH conglomerate purchased Clos des Lambrays. And now Bonneau du Martray!
This is what so many of us in the Burgundy world worry about a lot. Burgundian vineyard land has become the most valuable on the planet, and at the Grand Cru level it is only people or companies with way too much money who can afford to purchase these properties. There's no way they'll see a return on their investments for 50+ years - these estates are being bought as trophies. The estates end up in the hands on non-wine people - and from what we've seen of the various luxury goods groups purchases in Champagne, the wines have clearly not seen much benefit from their new deep-pocket owners.
It's no secret that large number of small family domaines are struggling in Burgundy these days, after a difficult run of small harvests that have left many families barely clinging on. A number of these cash-strapped estates are likely to be sale targets in the near future, and we can project with pretty good authority that the new buyers will not be mom-n-pop operations.
Burgundy is more than a place - it's a culture and it's a mind-set. It is something very precious and unique, and seemingly now precariously perched for continued erosion. We have not yet heard why Bonneau du Martray sold - my best guess is that various family members wanted or needed to cash out, and French inheritance laws make things ridiculously difficult and expensive to pass assets to one's heirs. Regardless of the reason, it's a sad loss.
I had the pleasure of working with the domaine for a few vintages a while back, and there is not a classier, more elegant gentleman than Jean-Charles. I saw quotes from him today in various French publications indicating that the sale "for a man of the soil, like him, it was so very sad". It will be interesting to see and hear more as the full story comes out.
All of this is not to say that Burgundy as we know it is going to disappear anytime soon - but I wonder where this all leads 20-25 years from now. More as it happens...