Surely there has been no greater ambassador for Bordeaux and its wines than Jean-Michel Cazes (1935-2023), who has died at the age of 88 after a lengthy illness. He never believed the region, however prestigious, should rest on its laurels, and he was foremost among those who roamed the world promoting its wines and its culture.
Home base for Cazes was Château Lynch-Bages, fifth classified growth in Pauillac. It had been acquired by the family in 1939, and they also owned Ormes de Pez in St-Estephe and, for many years, Villa Bel-Air in the Graves.
Forty years ago Bordeaux in general, and the Médoc in particular, was not an inspiring place to visit. Wine lovers were confronted by iron gates barring entrance to the châteaux, and visits were discouraged. Jean-Michel, who returned to Pauillac after a career with IBM in 1973, was among the few proprietors who took the opposite approach. Lynch-Bages was open to some 10,000 visitors a year, who were given guided tours and tastings in various languages. Despite Cazes’ acknowledgement that Bordeaux’s often damp and chilly climate did not allow it to develop wine tourism on the scale of Napa Valley or the Barossa, for many decades he showed what could be done to develop a serious international interest in the region and its wines.
It was no coincidence that for many years Cazes was also the Grand Maître (or head) of the Commanderie, the promotional organisation boosting the wines of Médoc, Graves, and Sauternes. Only the Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy could rival it for the sometimes tongue-in-cheek splendour of its ceremonies and events. The Féte de la Fleur was the great social occasion of the Bordeaux calendar, and although many châteaux and proprietors have been closely involved in organising these banquets, few did so with as much flair as Jean-Michel.
He was a man of exuberant enthusiasm, but never grand or pompous. The Bordelais can be somewhat distant, but Cazes always displayed an almost Mediterranean warmth of character and gregariousness, no doubt encouraged by his Portuguese wife Tereza. It was telling that when I wanted to interview him back in 2000, we met not at Lynch-Bages but at the AXA insurance office in downtown Pauillac. He knew that owning properties in Bordeaux was no automatic passport to riches, so for many years he remained active in the other family business, insurance.
It so happened that one of his oldest friends, Claude Bébéar, was the CEO of AXA and by 1986 was hoping to purchase a group of top wine estates, so who better to advise and manage this project than Jean-Michel Cazes? Together they created AXA Millésimes, a group that includes among its holdings châteaux Pichon-Baron in Pauillac, Suduiraut in Sauternes and Petit Village in Pomerol (until 2020), plus Disznoko in Tokaj, and Quinta do Noval in the Douro. Cazes retired from their administration in 2001, succeeded by Christian Seely.
Not surprisingly, Jean-Michael loved good food and wine. The former was in short supply in Pauillac, so in 1985 he acquired the somewhat run-down Château Cordeillan-Bages and converted it into a Relais & Châteaux hotel with an outstanding restaurant where he loved to entertain lavishly and generously. Later the Cazes family acquired the venerable Chapon Fin restaurant in Bordeaux itself. But even more remarkable was Jean-Michel’s transformation of the sleepy hamlet of Bages, just steps away from Lynch-Bages, into a major tourist destination. Its drab stone houses were converted into a bakery and delicatessen (now bicycle rental), Bages Bazaar (wine shop and gift store), and bistro-style restaurant, the Café Lavinal.
There was more. He developed a small négociant house called Michel Lynch. He bought Domaine de l’Ostal in the Languedoc in 2002, and was an early partner in Brian Croser’s Tapanappa estate in Australia. He founded a wine school, initially in Pauillac, then central Bordeaux. During his retirement he wrote his autobiography, From Bordeaux to the Stars, which was published in English this year.
His father André had been the mayor of Pauillac for four decades, and Pauillac remained the family home. Jean-Michel, unlike most proprietors, lived at his château, and despite his countless activities and projects, he never allowed the quality of his glorious fifth growth to slip.
In a sense, that wine will remain his principal memorial, but for those who knew him, it was his warm and welcoming personality and his crusading spirit that will linger in the memory. When Decanter chose him as Man of the Year in 2003 (now Hall of Fame), there were surely no dissenting voices.
Jean-Michel is succeeded by his son Jean-Charles, who took over from his father in 2006, and three daughters; Kinou, Marina and Catherine as well as several grandchildren. Decanter would like to wish Jean-Michel’s entire family sincere condolences for their loss.