Veronique Sanders joined Chateau Haut Bailly in 1998 and became General Manager in 2000. In October, she kindly set aside time to discuss her career, developments at the property and Bordeaux with Liv-ex’s Sarah Phillips. You can read the full interview below.
How did you become the General Manager of Haut Bailly?
My grandfather, Jean Sanders, inspired me to continue his work and Robert G. Wilmers allowed me to oversee this jewel after he acquired the property in 1998. Wine is a philosophy of life and an exciting job that combines the present, draws its strength from the past and is always looking towards the future. Thanks to Bob Wilmers, I have been living my dream for the past 19 years. His skill, his passion, his sensitivity and the means he provides are all valuable assets for Haut Bailly.
How is that relationship?
It’s a wonderful relationship built on admiration and respect. I have the luxury and privilege of working for an amazing man. Most of the owners of Haut Bailly have been strong personalities, and he’s one of them.
He is the motivator for all of our team. He is extremely passionate about his property and his will for constant excellence gives us an enormous amount of encouragement.
Twenty years ago you didn’t have many women in the wine business; he put his trust in me.
Was that a challenge?
There were challenges for sure, but I always saw it as an advantage. When you were a woman at that time, no one would ask for your advice. So in the first years, I was able to look and understand how things work, and learn. You learn a lot when you listen!
Has it changed in the last 20 years?
Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years. There are more and more women in the wine industry. It’s a positive change to see.
I believe men and women are complementary, and what we achieve at Haut-Bailly is the result of a team which is passionate, meticulous and attentive in preserving and developing our soil and our vines in search of the optimal quality. This is why, at Chateau Haut Bailly, there is a perfect parity in all fields.
[Bob Wilmers was recently awarded ‘officer’ status in France’s Legion of Honour system, one of France’s highest civilian honours.]
What were the first changes that you made at the chateau in the early days?
First, we worked with a historian to find out about our past. If you want to work for the future, you need to know where you’ve come from. Second, we looked at our terroir – we dug everywhere to understand whether we had the right combinations of rootstocks, grape varieties and soil. Third, we began to invest in, and renovate, different parts of the estate. All of this helped us to improve the quality of the wines.
In a way, we start from the beginning every year, trying to understand how to improve the wines while keeping the style of Haut Bailly.
What do you think makes Haut Bailly unique in Bordeaux?
Haut Bailly has a very definite style; a strong personality, and originates from an amazing terroir.
It is also very consistent. We can make great wines in great vintages but we can also make surprisingly good wines in more challenging years. The wine is elegant with infinite balance and a lovely purity, reflecting the style of every single vintage. I think that’s why it’s special.
How have your yields changed over time?
Yields are lower than they were 25 or 30 years ago. This is partly due to climate change, but mostly due to stricter work in the vineyard.
What is your favorite vintage from the last 20 years?
Over the last 20 years we’ve been able to produce an amazing range of great wines. I love 2000 and 2005, but 2004 is an incredible wine. 2008 has a great purity; it would be a dream to make wine like that every single year. We were blessed in 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016.
Robert Parker favored the 2009 – 100 points. How do you make a perfect wine? Is there a formula, or is that just the magic of some years?
It’s definitely the magic of some years, but also the magic that will match the taste of somebody. Every year we strive for perfection; every year we hope to be as close as possible.
Was Robert Parker’s impact on Bordeaux a good thing, or is the new diversity of critics better?
Robert Parker helped the wine industry a lot; he pushed all of us to make better wine. So, on the whole, it was definitely positive.
However, I’m also impressed to see the power of the new generation of critics. There isn’t a single one taking over. Instead, there are around 20 very influential critics around the world and their views are very important to us. If you are loved by the 20 most significant critics, it’s as important as being loved by one huge critic.
With the rise of social media, is the role of the critic changing?
There are lots of people talking about wine, and that’s great. However, few people have the expertise, the time, the history and the knowledge of every single property and every single wine looking back at many vintages.
The role of professional critics – with their expertise – is therefore fundamental. Today, there is too much information. Going forward, the key will be to find the right information.
How is Bordeaux 2017 looking?
There was frost all over France, including Bordeaux, so we lost a bit of our production. Fortunately at Haut Bailly the historic plots on our magical hillock were not touched, so the quality might be even better this year.
It will be a good vintage, but it will not be an exceptional vintage. It will not have a fantastic reputation because of the frost, and even if it was outstanding, I’m not sure the market would accept another great vintage. It comes after two great years, 2015 and 2016. People need to come and taste; they will be surprised.
How do you go about deciding the price of your release each year?
I look at Liv-ex. I analyse our current position, looking at the prices of previous vintages and the current market for our wines. There is nothing worse than a price that is too low or too high. It is a very difficult decision. Getting it right is key for the future of that vintage and for the vintages to come.
Today we have tools that help us to make educated decisions about price. We have information that we didn’t have in the past.
How about volumes at release?
You have to provide enough volume for your wine to be well distributed, but you also have to be aware that there has been a change in the distribution. Some people prefer to buy the wines a bit later rather than at En Primeur. That’s why, every year, we try to find the right balance between putting enough wine on the market and keeping some to feed the market later on.
How do you time your releases?
The timing is also very important. The market is very sensitive and you have to find the right time to release your wine into the market. I love that moment.
You can predict three days in advance what you want to do. However, if something goes wrong in the market, you also have to wait or speed up. You have to be extremely reactive. It’s like driving a fast car. If something comes on the roads, you have to brake or speed up. It is exactly the same at En Primeur.
What sort of things will make you speed up or brake?
A misjudged release.
From another chateau?
Yes. Or anything that could cool down the market in the broader economic climate. It could be a problem with the currency. Look at the UK after the Brexit vote last year – the pound dropped. It can be many things around the world.
Haut Bailly has been hugely successful on the secondary market. What has made it so successful?
You only create a success story while thinking long term. You need quality, which is the basis for success, and then to work on sales. It takes hard work and requires consistency. We try to reach perfection every year; that is what motivates us.
Haut Bailly is a magic wine. It’s an “insider wine” with a strong following. People who know Haut Bailly love to buy it every year.
Where are your strongest markets?
The UK is definitely our first market, but we are very well distributed globally as well. America and Asia are both important regions for us. There are always countries where we need to progress, but Haut Bailly is lucky to have a strong and balanced distribution thanks to the great sales force of the négoce and faithful clients around the world.
What are your key strategies for promoting it around the world? I always see you at tastings…
We love to meet people. We have the luxury of working in a field where people who love wine, love life, love culture, love many things. We are privileged to spend our time meeting amazing people. We have a shared passion. It’s part of our life and it’s a wonderful life. We also love to welcome people at Haut Bailly, to show them our home and where our wines come from.
From the perspective of a producer, what’s your view of Liv-ex?
It’s a great tool, it has excellent analysis, and it gives us the opportunity to stand back and look at what is happening. We’re always busy and with Liv-ex we can really gain perspective on the market.
How do you feel about your wines being traded openly on Liv-ex? There are some producers that object to it…
I don’t have any problem with it, although the volumes are unclear which may alter the perception of the price.
Do you read Liv-ex blogs and reports?
Yes, I read everything. It is an excellent insight into the market.
Chateau Le Pape was acquired by Haut Bailly in 2012. What are your plans for the estate?
Le Pape has a great terroir and some old vines – it’s next door to Haut Bailly.
We produce red wines only at the estate. They are very accessible and super sexy. It’s a beautiful brand and we’re excited about continuing to work hard to improve the quality. The property was entirely restored after a three year renovation and has been opened to guests for two years.
Chateau Le Pape also boasts a popular B&B. After our interview, Veronique received news that the property won a gold award from the Best of Wine Tourism.
Consumers are increasingly interested in wines of the new world. Do you see these as competitors?
The rise of wine from the new world is just a reflection of the fact that wine is becoming more global.
That’s helping Bordeaux because you will always have more wines, and this will engage more consumers. One day, those consumers will want to taste Bordeaux, and one day they will want to taste great Bordeaux.