How Bordeaux works – Commanderie de Bordeaux

October 2012

The casual visitor rarely sees them, but France is home to more than 1,500 food and wine confréreries, the colourful trade brotherhoods whose history dates back to the Middle Ages. Although they were  abolished during the French Revolution, many reformed as more informal marketing and promotional bodies during the 20th century, and today you can find associations for producers of everything from cheese and cassoulet to garlic, snails, paté, artichokes, sardines, truffles… And of course, this being France, wine.

Bordeaux alone has 13 wine confréreries, each composed of chateaux from different geographic areas within the region. In 1952, Henri Martin, a legendary figure in the Bordeaux wine industry and then President of the Bordeaux Wine Bureau, had the idea of gathering them together under a new entity called the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux (GCVB), whose mission was to promote the wines of Bordeaux around the world. Today, the GCVB oversees not only the wine brotherhoods within Bordeaux itself, but also the network of 85 Commanderie de Bordeaux wine clubs around the world that have grown up to celebrate this iconic French wine region. These clubs (known as ‘chapters’) are run independently from the GCVB, although the head – Grand Maitre – of each one is appointed by Bordeaux, and members pay nominal subscription fees to the Bordeaux organisation. In return they get receive regular visits and tastings organised by member chateaux of the wine brotherhoods, and supported in various educational missions and scholarships, and are invited to visits, dinners and tastings held throughout the year both in Bordeaux and around the word.

Angus Smith, Grand Maitre of the US chapter of the Commanderie du Bordeaux, grew up in the north of England before leaving for a career in finance that took him all over the world before finally ending up in Philadelphia.

‘It was finance that brought me to the Commanderie,’ he remembers, ‘as it allowed me to take up my first role with the society as its treasurer. But we are not a commercial organisation, and most members are professionals from a variety of areas, who join simply to share good Bordeaux wines with friends who have similar interests, and to benefit from closer contact with chateaux owners, attend tastings, and have opportunities to get ‘behind the scenes’ on visits to Bordeaux itself. We see our role primarily as being educational. And it’s great fun. For me it was simple – my father always loved wine, and Bordeaux was the reference for him, as it is now for me.’

Smith, along with eight other Grand Maitres from overseas chapters of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, was invited in January 2011 to join one of the year’s biggest festivals in Bordeaux; the Fete de Saint Vincent, which celebrates the patron saint of winegrowers. Together they joined the Commandeurs de Bontemps in full ceremonial robes and marched, accompanied by drums and trumpets, to the ornate Saint André cathedral in the heart of Bordeaux. These events – and the annual Fete de la Fleur, a marathon black tie dinner and dance held in big-name chateaux such as Mouton Rothschild, Lascombes, du Tertre – form part of the most glamorous events in the Bordeaux calendar, and overseas Grand Masters have the opportunity to buy tickets and bring their members along. They may even be intronised into the Commanderie de Bontemps at one of the ceremonies that inevitably kicks off the evenings, but when back home are heads of their own chapters, with their own membership lists. 

As a wine lover living outside of Bordeaux, you have several options for getting in. First, you can hope to be intronised (to become a Membre d’Honneur) directly into the Commanderie de Bontemps, the Jurade de Saint Emilion, or one of the other 11 Bordeaux wine groups. To do this, you pretty much have to ensure you are either a head-of-state, actor, politician or vastly influential wine merchant, and if you can’t tick off one of those, try to find a local Commanderie de Bordeaux chapter close to you, and ask if you can join. 

Alternatively, you can always start your own. Most recently, in June 2012, a chapter opened in Sydney, Australia, with Jean-Marie Simart as the first Grand Maitre. Again a former banker, he is at the head of the first chapter within Australia, and has already gathered 45 Commandeurs, with their first annual dinner attracting 133 people, with 28 new Commandeurs anointed. Simart is looking to open partner clubs in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide, and wants to ensure a good mix of French and non-French members, and with the common passion of wine.

Today there are 86 Chapters of the Commanderie de Bordeaux in 27 countries, with each chapter having between 100 and 200 members. In the US, the society has 31 chapters and several others planned for the near future. New York is the oldest and largest, opening in 1957 (officially inaugurated in 1959), and Philadelphia the second oldest.

And although it is not exactly cheap to join up, there are moves towards making it more accessible. It’s not the joining fee that costs the money (there is simply a small administration fee), but buying into the wine cellar and attending the tasting dinners, which members are expected to support, can add up – a recent vertical of Chateau Margaux held in San Diego, for example, cost US$1,000 a head, although for that you got to taste bottles heading back to 1924.

‘A club like ours needs young blood to survive,’ says Smith. ‘Various high profile Bordeaux estates have been supporting us with our efforts to attract younger members; offering to provide wine for dinners if over half the attendees are under 40, and expected contributions to the club wine cellar are often significantly smaller. New York is being particularly successful with getting younger members, and is one of the biggest clubs with over 300 adherents. But we don’t set targets; we do this because we enjoy it. We simply hope to counter the image of Bordeaux being old and stuffy...’

As with the Burgundy Tastevin society, the Bordeaux Commanderie offers educational opportunities as a way to connect with the younger generation of wine lovers. For the past 12 years, the US chapters have offered three scholarships per year, one with the Masters of Wine, one with Cornell School and one with the Culinary Institute of America. The schools themselves chose the winner of the award, and the Commanderie sets up a series of trips to chateaux and merchants, and organises stays in the estates themselves. A further initiative aimed at encouraging the next generation of wine lovers is the Bordeaux Left Bank Cup, a competition held since 1992 to help promote estates from the Medoc, Graves and Sauternes regions of Bordeaux (which all fall on the Left Bank of the Garonne river). Set up by the Commanderie de Bontemps, this was originally a wine tasting competition for the most prestigious business schools in France, but in 1994 was widened to include Oxford and Cambridge universities, and in 2011 to business schools from across Europe, the United States, Hong Kong, China and Singapore.

The Commanderie clearly know its market - as the prices of the classified wines of the Médoc and Sauternes head upwards, future business leaders are almost certainly the way to go – the Left Bank Cup promotes Bordeaux wine to this target market across the world. And with the finals held in the candle-lit cellars of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, they also ensure that some of the magic of Bordeaux stays with the competing teams whether they win or lose.

The local Grand Masters in the US and elsewhere take an active role in helping the university tasting clubs prepare for the competitions (XX, the winner from Wharton in 2011, remembered fondly the generosity of her local chapter for sharpening her palate during training sessions), while the Grand Maitre of the Commanderie, Emmanuel Cruse, visits universities several times a year, hosting events with their tasting clubs and encouraging a greater understanding of wine. Just in the last few months, that has included Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, and ENA in Strasbourg. ‘I do this in my personal capacity as owner of Chateau d’Issan, as the Commanderie can’t be seen to be favouring one university over another, and we encourage all our member chateaux to do similar trips.’

‘The idea,’ he continues, ‘is to export the Commanderie outside of France. We probably get three times the applications to join as we can let in, but ensuring the Commanderie stays fresh and appealing in new markets is essential. The Left Bank Cup attracts not only younger members from different cultures and nationalities, but also a different demographic – invariably there is a split of almost 50-50 between men and women, which is something we are thrilled to encourage.’

Baron Eric de Rothschild, owner of Lafite Rothschild, has far simpler aims for his role with the Commanderie. Speaking during the dinner to celebrate the 2012 finals of the Left Bank Cup, he says (before launching into song, and opening the dancing among the fine oak barrels), 'I can think of no better way to get young people excited about wine. I want the students to realise that wine doesn't have to be taken too seriously, and that it should be fun. They arrived at Lafite a little nervous and intimidated at the surroundings. They are going home with a great understanding of how wine can bring people together'.

The hottest tickets during the year are those for evenings organised by the two biggest Bordeaux brotherhoods – the Jurade de Saint Emilion, and the Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc, des Graves, de Sauternes et de Barsac. Together, these group several hundred chateaux from both the Right and Left Banks of Bordeaux, and are headed up respectively by Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angélus in Saint Emilion, and Emmanuel Cruse of Chateau d’Issan in Margaux. Cruse, to complicate things, is also Grand Maitre of the Commanderie de Bordeaux (so overseeing all chapters outside of the region), and of the GCVB.

The Jurade is one of the world’s oldest confrereies, tracing its roots right back to 1199 and a Royal Charter issued by King John of England. Albolished in 1789 at the Revolution, it was reformed in 1948. Just a year later, chateaux on the Left Bank of Bordeaux clearly decided it was high time that they also reformed an ancient brotherhood, and the Commanderie de Bontemps was born. ‘Bontemps’ sounds like a straight description of what the club is for – one translation would be ‘Good Times’ in French – but in fact refers to a tasting cup that was invented in the 9th century, in which cellar masters beat egg whites that are traditionally used for fining and clarifying the wine. The cup has been used by the Commanderie as inspiration for a key part of its uniform – a small velvet cap, claret-coloured for the member chateaux making the red wines of the Médoc and Graves, and golden-yellow for those producing the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Add in a claret-coloured velvet robe, with its ornamental clasp, and the staff carried by the senior Commandeurs, and you have the overall look. This is the wine brotherhood to join if you want to live the dream offered by fine wine  – and to experience life in some of the most glamorous and prestigious chateaux in the world. Every summer, the Commanderie hosts the Fête de la Fleur in Bordeaux, a marathon black tie dinner and dance held in big-name chateaux such as Mouton Rothschild, Lascombes, du Tertre… where Michelin-starred chefs cook meals to accompany the best wines of Bordeaux, and diners enjoy entertainment such as – for one particularly lucky set of diners, in June 2003 – Placido Domingo singing arias from Verdi.

Then in 1957 [story here of how Commanderie de Bordeaux was started. The first was in NYC--whose idea was it, someone from the GCVB or someone in New York? Has the Commanderie de Bordeaux always been part of the GCVB? Which was the next country to have a Commanderie de Bordeaux? Give total number of countries with Commanderies and total number of chapters.]

In the US [rest of article can talk about U.S. Commanderie de Bordeaux: how many chapters and members, the grand maître, how you get in, its activities, what its relationship is with the 13 brotherhoods that are also part of the the GCVB, etc].

BOX: Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux
The Commanderie de Bordeaux is overseen by the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux (GCVB). This principle inspired the formation of the GCVB: in 1952 Henri Martin, a key figure in the Bordeaux wine industry and then President of the Bordeaux Wine Bureau, had the idea of gathering the various regional brotherhoods and other organisations promoting Bordeaux wines into a new and separate entity. Each of these 15 brotherhoods was an association of wine growers and traders that undertakes to maintain local tradition, to defend and promote its wines, and to communicate their own winemaking principles. That new entity was called the Grand Conseil du Vin de Bordeaux (GCVB). In 1975 the GCVB became a non-profit organisation with the authority to represent all the appellations of the various Bordeaux wine-producing regions, both in France and abroad

Commanderie de Bordeaux