He has a formidable business brain but he also wants to make great wine. Christian Seely, the new man in charge at AXA Millesimes, talks to JOHN STIMPFIG about his ambitions.
Despite an exhausting US tour and a 12-hour flight from LA to London, Christian Seely looks pretty perky, kitted out in his preferred pinstripe and dicky-bow. But perhaps his demeanour isn’t so surprising. After all, Seely is barely 40 and has just been promoted to one of the wine world’s most high-profile positions as managing director of AXA Millesimes. ‘It’s a dream job,’ he says. ‘They don’t come any better than this.’
His new role is to manage the giant French insurance company AXA’s portfolio of wine estates in France, Hungary and Portugal. Without doubt, this comprises a premier league line-up with star players such as Pichon-Longueville, Cantenac-Brown and Suduiraut in Bordeaux, as well as Quinta do Noval in the Douro and Domaine Disznókö in Tokaji. ‘Yes, it is extremely challenging,’ he says, anticipating my inevitable opening salvo, ‘but I’m very excited, honoured and flattered to be doing it, particularly after what Jean-Michel Cazes has achieved before me. It’s a tough act to follow.’ However, I suspect that Seely wasn’t altogether surprised to have taken over from his former boss, who announced his retirement late last year. Cazes appointed Seely to run the famous Quinta do Noval in 1993, soon after AXA had acquired the port house, which at the time was in a state of decline. He was just 33, spoke no Portuguese (he’s fluent now) and had no prior experience of running a premium wine estate. However, he repaid Cazes’ confidence handsomely by transforming the under-performing Noval in remarkably short order and it is now back to purring on all cylinders. Meanwhile, the two men built up a close relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Noval was the perfect apprenticeship for his current role. Apart from winning his spurs, Seely got to know the group’s other properties, together with all its key people, making him hot favourite for the job. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that AXA and Cazes had anyone else in mind.
Seely, nevertheless, will be very much his own man in the new role. The links between Jean-Michel Cazes’ properties such as Lynch-Bages and Ormes de Pez and those of AXA have been severed and Seely intends to implement more of an ‘independent’ winemaking approach for each AXA property. ‘Thanks to Jean-Michel, we have some very good people in place at all our estates and, as a staunch believer in terroir, it is my view that great wines take their character from great vineyards,’ he says. ‘As a result, we will continue to make wines which are the fullest and most harmonious expressions of each individual property. There is no question of me trying to impose an AXA style on our winemakers.’
Seely admits to being a passionate traditionalist when it comes to wine. ‘In all our properties, I have a clear vision of wanting to create classic wines, made in the traditional manner. However, my head is occasionally more modernist because sometimes technology can enable you to achieve something better. I’m not ruling out the use of technology, but we will never use it to the point where we end up making technological wines which mask the unique character of a particular vineyard.’At the same time, Seely’s business background, (particularly in venture capital) reveals him as a high-flying executive who is very much at ease in the corporate world of his insurance paymasters. Certainly, he is under no illusions about having to produce the right numbers as well as the right wines.
‘My objectives are clear,’ he says. ‘To maximise the long-term capital value of our vineyard investments. Now, I realise this might not sound terribly romantic but, in fact, it corresponds exactly with how to run great vineyards properly. Because to achieve AXA’s financial objectives I have to maintain and improve the quality of our wines and vineyards as much as possible. And that’s the part of the job that excites me most of all – making great wine.’Seely denies that big business and high-grade vineyards don’t mix. ‘In one sense, it is very pleasing to think of a property belonging to a family over generations. But what if that family can’t provide the long-term stability, cash and management needed to produce great wines, as occurred with Noval? AXA stepped in and bought the family-owned estate at the right time and price, following a period of decline. We then re-invested in vineyards, winemaking and cellaring, adding significant value along the way. ‘Eight years on, it’s not just profitable, it’s making great wines, too. So there’s no question that AXA isn’t in the wine business for the long term – otherwise its involvement just doesn’t make sense.’ Similarly, Seely is also planning a lengthy sojourn in his current position. ‘Ideally, I would like to spend the rest of my career doing this job.’ This could easily mean a 25-year stint, which he believes will help him make sound decisions. ‘In the years ahead, I will have to live with the consequences of decisions I take early on. Personally, I think that is both an incentive and an advantage to help me make the right choices.’
It is some time since AXA created Disznókö and bought Noval, so is it looking at making additional investments? ‘Yes, it is perfectly conceivable that we will find other opportunities and we are very open to such ideas,’ Seely replies. ‘But they would have to be places where we could add value in the form of a classic vineyard that needs polishing or an area, like Tokaji, which offers great terroir and the chance to create something really special. ‘For me, this was Jean-Michel’s greatest and most creative achievement, and right now there are a lot of significant opportunities in Europe, especially Spain, Italy and the South of France. We certainly have our eyes open if something comes up.’
Meanwhile, Seely has been acquiring a run-down house in Listrac. Although it comes with a couple of acres, there is no vineyard. ‘But then I’ve got enough to manage already,’ he says with a grin. Meanwhile, he is looking forward to becoming a Médocain. ‘I speak French and love France and its culture, and I think that when the French see this they are almost ready to forgive you for being English!’ Of course, it is no great surprise that Christian Seely ended up working in wine, particularly in Bordeaux. His father, James Seely, is a well-known wine writer and Bordeaux expert who happened to be writing his first book on the region just after Seely had left Cambridge in 1982. ‘So I suggested that I help him research it, while I thought about my career,’ says Seely. ‘The work was fascinating and I got in on some fabulous tastings, but at the time I considered it fairly frivolous. Now I realise it was actually extremely formative,’ he adds.
After that, Seely pursued a somewhat circuitous route back into the wine fold via a successful hamper business, an MBA and spells with venture capitalist Guinness Mahon and the cosmetics company L’Oréal. Then came Noval where, for seven years, he had the time of his life. ‘It was my baby and so many exciting things happened,’ he says. ‘Plus the Douro is such a magical place. Although I’ll be back on a regular basis I’ll miss my evenings on the terrace with some freshly grilled almonds and a glass of colheita port, just staring at the stars. I would quite happily have spent the rest of my life there, but this challenge was far too tempting to pass up. ‘Perhaps one of the most satisfying things about this job is being part of something that has been going on a lot longer than you and something that will continue long after you have gone. Sometimes, centuries of work have gone into vineyards to create something special, so I feel enormously lucky to inherit this legacy. It’s my job to preserve and improve that and pass it on as best I can.’ AXA’s clients insure themselves against mishap and disaster but it doesn’t look as though the company needs cover for its future in wine, as failure isn’t on Christian Seeley’s agenda.
About Christian Seely
Born: England in 1960
Education: Harrow, read English at Trinity College Cambridge, and MBA from INSEAD Fontainbleau in 1987
Career: Collaborated with his father on Great Wines of Bordeaux in 1982. Founded Presents of Mind in 1983, a mail order wine/ food company. Following his MBA, worked for L’Oreal, then Guinness Mahon. Became managing director of Quinta do Noval in 1993, and took responsibility for AXA’s Disznókó, Tokaji in 1997. Named successor to Jean-Michel Cazes as managing director of AXA Millesimes in 2000.