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November 7, 2010

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On being a prince: 'It's run-of-the-mill'

FROM the vineyards of Bordeaux to the bright lights of Hollywood, the journey to becoming CEO of one of France's great wineries was an unconventional career path for Prince Robert de Luxembourg.

Prince Robert traces his father's royal linage back to Henry IV (1589-1610), one of France's most popular kings, and his family owns the famed French Bordeaux wine house Chateau Haut-Brion.

Prince Robert was in Shanghai last month as part of a celebration marking 75 years since acquisition of the winery by his great grandfather, New York merchant banker Clarence Dillon.

The prince took some time out to reflect on his own journey to head up one of the world's most prestigious wine labels.

The prince grew up surrounded by the fertile soil and rich history of Chateau Haut-Brion in the Graves region of Bordeaux.

Wine has been grown on the land since the Romans first planted grapes and a variety of vines was brought together to become Chateau Haut-Brion in 1533 by the winery's founder, Jean de Pontac.

Since then, its fame has grown and it is credited with developing some of the founding technique of modern wine making. Great figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Locke and English diarist Samuel Pepys all paid homage to the Chateau Haut-Brion.

Relaxing in the Fairmont Peace Hotel, before a dinner for the 75th anniversary celebration, Prince Robert said life as a prince is not one of jet-setting glamour.

"It is run of the mill, it has never been something that has particularly affected my life," he said.

"I am lucky to come from a country where the people are very down to earth and I think you are accepted and appreciated at face value and not for a royal title."

But being born into privilege has its benefits and the prince tells of studying Italian in Florence and discovering the world at a young age. He cruised the Nile at the age of 18 and then drove across America to explore its vast interior before attending prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

It was not business, however, that drew the interest of the young royal; the demands of continuing the traditions of the family business first giving way to artistic endeavors

He studied psychology and philosophy, and then fine art, becoming a keen sculptor in wood, stone and clay.

It was during his time in America that he and his future wife became interested in screen writing, eventually moving to Los Angeles where they successfully pitched a script.

The idea was a period piece based on the tales about the libertine Don Juan, and Prince Robert says it received a lot of interest from Hollywood heavyweights.

The couple spent three years in Los Angeles, working for a number of studios through Creative Artists, at that time the most important agency in Hollywood.

"We got a call from them saying they wanted us to become their new young writers and they flew us out first-class and put us up in the Four Seasons," he recalled.

"There was a white limousine waiting at the airport to pick us up and they said, 'Actually, we have someone interested in acquiring your screen play - he's called Stephen Spielberg'."

The script was eventually optioned by Columbia Pictures but never saw its way to the silver screen.

"It is probably sitting on some shelf somewhere gathering dust," said the prince.

The need for the younger generation to take up the mantle of the family business motivated Prince Robert to involve himself more fully in the winery in the early 1990s; he joined the management in 1997.

"There is a sense of responsibility towards the family and continuing the tradition. And I recognized that it was important for our family business to have someone from our family actively involved.

"The business really had not been a business," he said, "but a little farm in Bordeaux. It was at a pivotal point where suddenly this little farm was growing into a sizeable enterprise."

Prince Robert represents the fifth generation of his family to be involved in the business, taking over from his mother, Joan Dillon the Duchesse de Mouchy, as president of the family company Domaine Clarence Dillon in 2008.

During her tenure she had made several key decisions, including reuniting Chateau Haut-Brion with its neighbor across the road when the family purchased Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983.

Dillon also oversaw a major replanting program and renovation of the historic buildings.

A member of the family company's board since the age of 18, Prince Robert has seen the evolution of the business first hand - "from a farm to a global brand." He has expanded the scope of the family company, steering the launch of a super premium brand Clarendelle in 2005.

The first of its type in Bordeaux, it borrows from the successes in Champagne of brands using their names to launch new labels for a product made from fruit drawn from across their particular growing region - rather than limited exclusively to traditional chateau grapes.

The aim is to gain a foothold in the everyday table wine market by designing a wine that leverages the reputation of the first-growth wines and also makes a wine that echoes of the winery's other famous products.

Though this is a common strategy among new world wine makers, it is the first foray of its type by the old world heavy hitters in Bordeaux.

Along with the launch of the super premium brand, Prince Robert also oversaw the move by the company into the world of the negociant in 2005.

The company, Clarence Dillon Wines, not only focuses on managing production, sales and marketing of Clarendelle wines but also acts for several other Bordeaux producers.

The drive to innovate, says Prince Robert, finds its wellspring in his earlier artistic interests.

"What is important to me, as you can see from my background, is creativity in whatever I take up," he says.

"I am not someone who likes to sit still and I like to be able to be creative - and that has also been something that has been rewarding in the world of wine."

As is evidenced by the cities where the winery's 75-year milestone will be celebrated, Prince Robert is steering his company toward the developing markets' growing thirst for premium Bordeaux wines. In addition to Shanghai, the celebratory tour and promotion included Hong Kong, Tokyo and Moscow, as well as traditional markets in Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles.

Saying its small, select release of top-flight wines already attracts a dedicated following in China, Prince Robert sees growth potential in the region for the Clarendelle wine brand to leverage his winery's established reputation for quality.

"Over time the wine culture is going to become a very important part of the culture here in China, much as tea did in Europe in the 17th century," he says.

"It's similar to what happened in the West with products like coffee and even Chinese food - my children are as comfortable with chopsticks as they are with a knife and fork. People will adapt readily and rapidly and over the next 20 years wine will become very much a part of Chinese culture."


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