Book Review: Bordeaux | People, Power and Politics (Stephen Brook, 2001)

Book Review:
Bordeaux | People, Power and Politics
Written by Stephen Brook
Photos by Gary Latham
2001 publication, 221 pgs

This is an unusual book in that it covers the Bordeaux trade by exploring families, commercial relationships, and market structure. Many of those are interrelated, which make more sense as the book expands upon. The author is a prolific English writer, having authored 40+ books, mostly on wine but on other topics as well, like travel. I have read perhaps a half dozen of his books and enjoy them since he’s a fine wine journalist and thoughtful communicator. Brook is not a critic who will expound on ‘singed alderwood’ in a wine, but rather presents different points of view, and histories, generally with first hand interviews. Given where I personally am in life, I am more interested in the backstory of the property than current releases anyways. I’d also note that since the author is not a typical critic - dependent on hyping sales of the fresh crop - he tends to present a more consumer oriented view than other Bordeaux observers.

Bordeaux: People, Power and Politics

This was published by Mitchell Beazley, which took over the Mark Faber wine imprint, and has now morphed into Octopus Books. It’s out of print, and only one edition was ever released. But it’s still additive to a library, even for those who have Brook’s other recent Bordeaux books. I have greatly enjoyed nearly everything from those houses, which have a Decanter / World of Fine Wine / English sensibility to their worldview.

The first section touches upon how the Bordeaux empire developed, and the various ecosystem members (growers, chateaux, negociants, courtiers, shippers, etc) entered the system. Economic and political cycles also mark changes - sequestration, depression/bankruptcy, foreign entrants, exclusivities - and those are interesting too. I had always noticed how some bottlings were ‘hard’ to find, for no obvious reason, as they were not of Le Pin scarcity/value, and this helps explain some quirks.

The next third of the book covers negociants in depth, along with pricing, and the en primeur system. I consider this the ‘meat’ of the book, and if one is an enthusiast/collector of this region, it’s worth the read. The various forces pushing prices and allocations are explained here, and a few are not obvious, even to long time readers of long WB threads grousing about futures. One item I had not realized is how many mid tier properties may not realize where their wines get placed; once it’s sold into La Place - the Bordeaux marketplace - the chateaux lose transparency into the next levels. This is exemplified by an owner visiting NYC and not knowing where to purchase a few bottles of his own estate. Brook quotes one market participant who claims of the 400 merchants, only 50 have enough capital to actually carry back vintage stock.

There is a great vignette with Jeffrey Davies, an American who’s importing Bordeaux, about how he worked outside of the usual system, and one (unnamed) but easily identified estate. I had never understood the backstory of how/why that wine which was readily available 25 years ago, disappeared for a long time, only now seen at a few direct importers. What’s neat about this is that Brook is able to show the negative aspects of Bordeaux’s typical sales process, which works well for the elite names, which can find homes for 80% of the harvest quickly but is less effective for the product that is less an investment brand, and more of a comestible, to be hand sold based on taste.

British old school merchants - Farr, Justerini & Brooks, etc. - are also interviewed and have plenty of grievances to air. The author notes that what was once a product of only limited exports to Britain and Western Europe, now has global demand - US, China, Japan and so on. The niche role of the courtier, which I hardly understood before, is also expanded on here. They work on small fixed commissions, and rely on their trustworthiness and taste, and the knowledge of what both parties seek/offer. They also provide business intelligence (gossip!) and the friction costs they impose, seem to be tolerated, versus having buyers/sellers having to internally replicate that function. The whole en primeur system merits a whole chapter, and it’s gory details leave me cold. [I had stopped buying indent well before reading this book, but this makes it easy to feel better about that.]

As the book closes out there is section on family power groups, even broken down into family trees. There is a notation that some of the greatest opposition to Mouton’s promotion was their ‘own’ family branch, on the Lafite side. And by seeing all the family connections, and properties, it makes more sense why some clusters like the Lurton wines are all seen at select vendors. I wish Brook had allocated more attention to prominent right bank groups, but it’s thin. There are also discussion of the corporate / bank / insurance style groups.

Overall, I loved the book and it covers topics that are generally not covered in the typical chateaux / terroir style book. It’s brisk reading, with lots of photos, and I’d give it an A on my scorecard, but this balanced, fair minded author, and the publisher, are really in my wheelhouse for vinuous journalism. Used copies are floating around, probably $10 shipped or so, and worth adding to the library, although the books dimensions are a little large. The following is NOT an affiliate link or anything.


Great review, and great topic.

More recent (2018) interview with the author

and his most recent memoir from 2020

1 Like

Awesome report Arv, thanks for sharing.

1 Like

I bought this when it was first published and have not re-visited. I think I need to re-read it!

1 Like

Thanks for those links. I saw that Mark Golodetz had linked to some interview between John Mariani and Stephen Brook a couple of years ago, but that link was a dynamic one, not a fixed one, and no longer points to the interview anymore, and my Googling has been unable to pry it up. If anyone has that it would be appreciated!