Corinne Mentzelopoulos: The Innovation Interview

Corinne Mentzelopoulos, Owner & CEO of Château Margaux shares her thoughts on the history Château Margaux, Innovation and the Château Margaux Research & Development Lab.

Having obtained a degree in Classical Literature and a Masters from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Sciences–Po) in 1977, Corinne Mentzelopoulos started her career at Havas, a major international advertising company, before continuing as a Financial Controller at Primistères, the company that oversaw the Félix Potin shops.

Following the death of her father in 1980, she took over the management of Château Margaux. Her young age perhaps prevented her from realizing the immense challenge with which she was presented. Surrounded by the celebrated oenologist Emile Peynaud as well as the team from the property, then supervised by Philippe Barré, Corinne Mentzelopoulos set to work, following the momentum started by her father. Nothing in her training had prepared her for the wine industry, but she soon became passionate about Château Margaux.

Corinne Mentzelopoulos has been managing the estate for over thirty years in a spirit of long-term commitment and excellence thanks to a very talented team led by Paul Pontallier. Mother of three children, she was pleased to welcome her daughter Alexandra, into the Château Margaux team in the autumn of 2012.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Let’s begin with what innovation is not: it is not the quest for novelty and change at all costs. To me, innovation is first and foremost the discipline of doubt and the will to improve:

The discipline of doubt: any technique can be improved, every skill sharpened. Doubt is a driver for innovation, it forces us to question what we believe to be well established.

The will to improve: we should not be satisfied with our status, however prestigious it may be. We can – we must – always strive to do better, even if, in the case of a 1st Classified Growth, the margin for progress is sometimes very limited

Doubt as a driver, progress as an objective, scientific research as a tool. Innovation does not stem from our dreams, it is not the result of a trend, it is experimental science in action.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

All industries most probably need to embrace innovation as I defined it above. In the only case I am knowledgeable about –viticulture and oenology at Château Margaux– risks are significant as it can sometimes take decades for us to appreciate the consequences of a new gesture or technique. This very high level of risk obviously calls for caution yet it should not restrain innovation but merely moderate ambitions. One has to realize that in our profession innovation should not be appreciated over a period of 1 or 2 years but rather 1 or 2 decades.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

It all comes from my father of course. He was first and foremost a great listener as he had a very inquisitive mind and always tried to learn from others. I am not sure I manage to do quite the same but I always have in mind the words of Socrates as he was preparing himself to die: “I know that I know nothing”.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

One can only tell at the very end of one’s life. Everything is so fickle.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Actually I haven’t made up my mind yet, although it seems to many the printed word doesn’t have much future. I read newspapers on my tablet, books on my Kindle, I love all things electronic but I have always been an avid reader of books, and I still am.

Your father André Mentzelopoulos had the vision to buy Chateau Margaux when it was a distressed asset and to invest heavily in turning around the brand without any immediate returns. What were your thoughts when your father first embarked on this project and what are your thoughts today?

I felt something important was happening in the life of the family when he acquired Château Margaux as I realized what a unique asset it was.

Today I feel owning and running Château Margaux is a true privilege that I owe to my father, to the many generations who have led and improved it over the centuries and to my current team.

Thomas Jefferson once famously said “There couldn’t be a better Bordeaux bottle” in reference to a bottle of Chateau Margaux. How do you balance the long and pristine history of the vineyard with new innovations and technologies?

There probably never has been any conflict or contradiction whatsoever between our long history and the constant acquisition of science and technology. Our traditional know-how is actually based on the accumulation of knowledge and full command of technology. From the use of sulphur sticks in the 17th century to today’s most modern technologies, it is experimentation and innovation that have allowed us to build what has today become our tradition.

As the value of Chateau Margaux wines rise, how do you protect the brand and prevent counterfeiting of the highly collectable bottles?

It is a very important issue we have been concerned with for over 20 years now (1989 was the 1st vintage whose every single bottle was laser-etched). Ever since, we have been continuously expanding our range of measures aimed at preventing counterfeiting in order to enable us to authenticate a bottle of Château Margaux with certainty.

But protecting our trademark also implies the building of faithful and loyal relationships with our commercial networks.

When and why did you set up a Research & Development Lab? What new technologies are you currently experimenting with in the lab?

In 1999, we decided to not only create a lab but above all an R&D department as we were convinced at the time – and even more so today! – that brain power would be the greatest source of progress. The aim was –and still is– to question what we believe we know, to organize experimentations that allow us to appreciate the benefits of various techniques, to check the results through micro vinification and , should a fact be established, to set up a new technique.

Numerous trials are in progress:

In the vineyard:
1. We are comparing the pros and cons of organic and biodynamic viticulture.
2. We are also experimenting with some alternative treatments to protect the vines from diseases.
3. We’ve had a large experimentation on clones in progress for the past 20 years.
4. We are trying to better understand and define what the optimum ripening of the grapes is by separately processing grapes picked at different dates.
5. Etc.

In the cellars:
1. We regularly try new grape-treatment equipments: destemmer, pumping, crushing, etc.
2. Wine-making techniques are also questioned: pumping-overs, length of maceration, pressing, etc.
3. A very long-term experimentation has also been set up to compare closures (corks vs. caps); we’ll have to wait at least 20 or 30 years to have reliable results.
4. Etc.

Why have you chosen to experiment with biodynamic wines?

Biodynamic viticulture is an issue that raises passion ranging from enthusiasm to contempt. We felt it necessary to support our judgment with facts rather than beliefs. For the past 6 years, we have been rigorously comparing results from biodynamic, organic and traditional viticulture. Grapes are picked and processed separately and the wines are then bottled and blind-tasted over several years. To this day, the results are not significant.