“ A living thing, bound to an extraordinarily precise dynamic, which you must respect and preserve in a spirit of profound humility.”
With an eloquent brevity, this is how Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), describes its vineyards.
But where is the Domaine? And what is it that makes wine lovers willing to pay so much for a bottle of wine?
While executives the world over debate how much of their advertising budget to spend on Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram et al, and more traditional PR agencies laud the benefits of hard copy in face of the digital onslaught, in the wine village of Vosne Romanée, life carries on pretty much as usual. Except that life as usual, is not really very usual at all.
With a quantum of ad spend that would bring a smile to the face of the most parsimonious of CFO's, this apparently sleepy village, has created the world’s most famous and valuable wine brand. And it’s like a conjuring trick. Everyone in the wine world, and a lot of people not in it, would recognise the initials DRC - the hallowed acronym for Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. But where is it? Corporate Headquarters - no thank you. Brand imagery? Brand what? Not even a sign in the village indicating where they are (apart from the plaque!). You could spend half an hour walking the few streets that exist in Vosne and still not find them. The brand exists, and if anything gets stronger, in a counter advertising culture. It is not just that they do not do anything positive to promote the brand, they are actually in hiding from the demand! The only visible presence is the label on the wine bottles, the balding pate of el-supremo Aubert de Villaine, and the reverential publicity generated by being so successful. And of course, the plaque!
Well, it’s not magic, nor is it by accident, but rather the result of a strategy to continue a successful formulae. The ultimate example of less equals more. If providing information might dent the mystique, better not say anything!
The web site could support a thesis on minimalism. It appears to tell you everything, but actually says very little - or at least little of interest to anyone who might like to know a bit more about the viticultural management of the estate. Is it organic? Biodynamic? Certified? Not a sausage. OK, well what about the history? The founding fathers, the Vergy family and the Monks of St Vivant? Not a mention. The plaque? - What plaque? The paucity of relevant information, and generality of what there is, would do credit to Donald on one of his better days. Of course, for purchasers of DRC, they do not give a fig what is or is not on the web site, - so why include something of interest, if you don’t need to?
So where is the problem you may say? Great product, early mover advantage, burgeoning world wide demand, a recipe for continued success. And the other winemakers in Vosne Romanée benefit from the halo effect. So on the face of it, no problem. The only question that might legitimately be asked, is whether, when so much of their success is due to the land, they might say a bit more about their farming practices in the hope that others might follow their example. A sort of social responsibility that goes with being the market leader. However to remove the mystique, might also lead to the conclusion that many other winemakers are now doing the same!
The church of St Saturnin sits on the side of the hill of Vergy. It was built in about the 12c by the Vergy family. The story which links the Vergy to Romanee Conti starts much earlier, but as the church is the last remaining in tact monument, built by a family that ruled in Burgundy for 1,000 years, it seems appropriate to start here.
Just below the church is the ancient village of Reuille Vergy, which has developed into something of an artisans enclave. A young couple who used to work for Cartier have opened a jewellery workshop, where they sell their work, and do not mind if you watch while they make it.
The Vergy family occupied a fortified chateau on the top of the hill. It had fourteen towers built into its walls, and was generally regarded as impregnable. The entire edifice, with the exception of one tower dedicated to St Denis, was dismantled on the orders of Henry IV in 1610, at the end of the French religious wars. The King decided the family were too powerful now that Burgundy had been subsumed into the kingdom of France. Walking over the top of the hill, it is easy to understand how the position could be protected from an attacking force, unless of course the force was that of the King of France!
One of the Vergy had given the followers of St Vivant some land on the southern side of their hill, to build an abbey. A bit later on (in the 13c), they gave them land in the village now known as Vosne Romanée, to plant vines to make wine. These fields are now the vineyards of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and they are at a distance of just under 10km from the remains of the St Vivant Abbey.
So a St Vivant monk, every morning, would wake on his bed of straw (before day break), put on his monk's habit, say his morning prayers, and set off for Vosne. The Abbey is about 500m above the plain, so in Winter the snow would be on the hill for weeks, the cold penetrating the stone of the Abbey, making it not much warmer inside than out. Down the hill of Vergy, and up the hill the other side of the valley; through the Forest of Mantuan, then down the other side through the hamlet of Concoeur; across the flat top of the Côte, before descending again to the vines. At the end of each day of hard manual labour, the return trip awaits. And the reward for this harsh existence? Well, almost certainly a clear conscience!
The way of life was similar for the Cistercian Monks planting out the Clos de Vougeot, just a little to the north of Vosne, who also lived a spartan existence at their abbey at Citeaux; the Monks of Beze, planting out the Clos de Bèze in Gevrey Chambertin; and the Chanoines of St Denis (who also lived on the Hill of Vergy) planting their Clos St Denis in what is now Morey St Denis. Until the land was taken off them by Revolutionary Councils at the end of the 18C, the vineyards in Burgundy were either in the hands of the Church, or in the case of Romanee-Conti, owned by the The Prince of Conti. (follow the link to find out more about the Prince and the circumstances in which he purchased the estate and how it came to be named after him).