The Journal / Roots

At the roots of Château Lafite Rothschild 

A fiction of the first day of Baron James de Rothschild in Pauillac

On September 7, 1868, Le Constitutionnel wrote: “Baron James de Rothschild has left Paris for Château Laffitte, Médoc, which he has just acquired.” After that? We asked the novelist and poet Bernard Chambaz to slip into the shoes – and mind – of the Baron.

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For a long time, we did not know if Baron James had been able to come to Lafite after the acquisition of Château Lafite Rothschild in August 1868 and before his death at the end of that same year. Thanks to the research done for our Almanac, we have discovered the end of the story. Record of the Baron’s visit was found on a two-line note, including spelling mistakes, published in a major daily newspaper of the time, Le Constitutionnel.

That piqued our curiosity about this visit and prompted us to ask the novelist and poet Bernard Chambaz to slip into the shoes –and mind– of the Baron.

“Baron James de Rothschild has left Paris for Château Laffitte, Médoc, which he has just acquired.”

It was long held to be a mystery whether Baron James de Rothschild had ever been able to visit Lafite after its acquisition in August 1868. Sadly, he died only a few months after buying the estate, and no record of a trip could be found. But while researching for our Almanac, we stumbled upon an unexpected revelation: two lines, published in Le Constitutionnel newspaper: 

“Baron James de Rothschild has left Paris for Château Laffitte, Médoc, which he has just acquired.”

Far from setting our minds to rest, this fact opened the door to endless speculation – what had happened on that fateful day, over 150 years ago? What had he thought, in his final weeks and months, about the future of his new vineyard? Our curiosity piqued, we asked the novelist and poet Bernard Chambaz to slip into Baron James’s shoes – and mind – for a very particular moment in history. 


Yes, I, James de Rothschild, Baron (although the Barony matters little) am? seventy-six years old, with strong legs and a light heart; I could still ride a horse if I wanted to, but have not danced for a long time. I am generally in good spirits – because fortune has smiled upon me, of course, but equally because life is simpler that way. 

I departed at dawn from a new station, ‘quai d’Austerlitz’; I still very much enjoy travelling by train. The hours spent there are infinite in riches. I am certainly never bored, whether in my office or out and about – but it seems to me that trains evoke a kind of indestructible joy. We have already crossed the Garonne, and I am soon to fulfil a dream I’ve held for thirty years.

I have always greatly loved painting, but have a sense that I will love vineyards just as much. The most beautiful painting, of course, is my Rembrandt; ‘The Standard Bearer’ once belonged to the King of England. Now, I am permitted to contemplate it at my leisure. He is proud and rather jaunty. He parades. And you can almost see the love he feels for his wife, Saskia. There is a certain style, too, in the browns and beiges he wears, a frank expression, a tremendous feathered hat, hands that I never tire of looking at.  Rembrandt hands. 

 I like painters a bit less than their paintings. Ingres, God rest his soul, was vain as a peacock, and whiny too – but, in fairness, painted a lovely portrait of Betty. Why on earth, therefore, did he have to complain that the painting was a constraint and a curse, that he must begin it again “better”, to satisfy his obsession with detail? To each, their own portraitist; Betty had the master, I had one of the pupils. Flandrin, who is far from a nobody. Many say he excelled in his paintings of women. But he did lend a certain solidity and ‘vigour’ – those were his words – to my portrait. If it sometimes seems a little blurred to me, it is surely due to my failing eyesight. Or maybe because of the steam fogging up the carriage window, where my face is strangely superimposed on the view. 

What do I look like, if I am to believe that painting in its frame? A man between two ages. A frank expression, a rather large silhouette, a certain style in browns and beiges, the left hand resting on a cane, a glove in the other – a very classic type of glove. Since then, I have grown older; I look like me, but more compact, a little less solid and vigorous. I confess I prefer myself as seen through the eyes of this new art called ‘photography’. Disderi has invented a process for making business cards, an endeavour he considers to be both an industry and an art. One of his photographs flatters me: I am standing, in a top hat (one might think I am tall) with a cane in my hand – but this time it is my right hand. Soon, it will be this hand that greets my guests, on the platform of the Bordeaux station.

Tomorrow morning, I will take the steamer. It will take me to the landing stage at Pauillac and, in ten minutes by carriage, I will be at the Château. In principle, I should stay there for two days. I will take the opportunity to visit my nephew Nathaniel who has already acquired the adjoining vineyards of Château Mouton. It was the year of the first Universal Exhibition, when I don’t know who had the marvellous idea of bringing together Industry and Fine Arts, my two passions, and when the Chambers of Commerce decided to establish the classification of Médoc wines. Lafite was a premier cru. Lafite, with only one f and one t, as opposed to my address in Paris and the banker I saved from bankruptcy in the past. I bought it for a sizeable amount of money that some people consider astronomical. So, it will be the 7th of September. I love organisation and I love coincidences. I will arrive on the day the harvest begins.


They say that “the position of its vines is one of the most beautiful in the Médoc.” That’s what I had read and I liked it. So, I wanted to see, with my own eyes. And so, I came. And I saw. And I love what I see!
From the village quay, it’s all a big celebration. The softness of the air, the brightness of the vegetation, the pace of the carriage, the path leading to the Château. I was welcomed by Emile Goudal, the descendant of a whole dynasty of highly reputed stewards, son of Monplaisir and grandson of Joseph, an unrivalled guarantee. He makes a very good impression on me, down to earth, bright-eyed, with a lilting accent even if some words escape me. He gives me explanations and I avoid interrupting him with strange questions. Fite is a Gascon word meaning ‘hill,’ so ‘La fite’ is ‘the hill.’ Fortunately, its rolling hills are a very good attribute. In a few sentences, as if taken from a history book, he confirmed what I had been assured of before the sale: that the Marquis de Ségur had developed the quality of his wines and had known how to promote them; that the Dutch grain merchant Vanlerberghe had not deviated from the principles and that “the owners had not shied away from any expense in order to bring to the highest degree of perfection the painstaking care that the vineyard, the vinification, and the wines in the cellar require.”

The succession, therefore, took place a month ago, on August 8th. It was a lively public sale; two of my solicitors raised the stakes against the coalition of Bordeaux merchants. The description of the areas and facilities is a foretaste of the happiness that the Enlightenment promised us: “It has a large cellar, a vat room containing twenty-two vats, a cooperage, a barn, a stable for six horses, a shed for four carriages, and a yard for eight pairs of oxen.” The vineyard has 63 hectares; but I am not forgetting the 73 ares and 60 centiares, as I am responsible for setting up an international association to standardise weights, measures, and currencies.

Goudal then explains the reasons for the rare quality of this land, a soil formed by gravel, clay, and sand, favourable to drainage, ideal for the grape varieties, cabernets and cabernet sauvignons which taste of blackcurrant. After this presentation, we take a few steps on the hill between rows of vines before going back down. Right after that, he takes me on a tour of the cellars, where I can admire the vats and touch the barrels.

At noon, I enjoy the shade under the larger of the two large cedars on the huge terrace, from which we have a splendid view. I can imagine the marquees we will be able to put up there for receptions and the peace and quiet when they are taken down. I know that the castle is in the Louis XIII style, but it has an elegance that does not have the typical symmetry or grandeur, and the beige paint coat of the facade has a nice sobriety. The ground floor has many rooms and outbuildings, including a billiard room. On the first floor there are ten rooms with toilets, servants’ quarters, a linen room, an ironing room, and a fruit shop. The property also includes the marshes, ducks, and woodcock that we can hunt, acacia plantations to bind the vines, pleasure gardens, and vegetable gardens. The place is so idyllic that I may end up watching the peas grow like Napoleon on St Helena.

According to the manager, several vintages are exceptional. Since my birth, the outstanding vintages are 1795, 1798, 1801, 1802, 1814, 1815, 1818, 1834, 1841, 1846, 1847, 1848, 1858, 1864. The list includes both luxurious and honest wines. I usually stick to the list of statements of account and the list of horses that won the Jockey Club Prize. Today I am thinking of a list of the hours and days I could spend here.

An original portrait of Baron James de Rothschild, which hangs in the salon at Château Lafite Rothschild.
Reproduction in miniature of the portrait (Ingres, 1848) of Baron James’ wife Betty de Rothschild, who retired to the Château after her husband’s death in 1868.

The year 1868 has already started well with the discovery of Cro Magnon man financed by a young London banker, the birth of my grand-nephew Lionel Walter who will give the name of Rothschild to the five-horned giraffe discovered during one of his African expeditions, and the opening to the public of the Mont-Cenis railway line. The year continues at a good pace; business is booming and our country is shining with the new Universal Exhibition where I enjoyed a sweet Tokay at the Austrian pavilion and rode an American lift with a safety brake.

All this does not prevent me from worrying about the noise of the boots in Prussia and I have again dismissed that rascal Bismarck. I will never forget the bombardment of Frankfurt in 1796, when I was four years old. The mere memory of the sound of the cannons, the sight of the flames, the smell of burning flesh, and the distress of the people, fed my detestation of war. Nor will I ever forget the joys of numismatics inherited from my father. He had the idea of a catalogue of the ancient coins he traded in. With my mother’s dowry, he had thus built up a substantial fund, what my third cousin, Karl Marx, calls primitive accumulation in his recently published critique ‘Capital.’ My father had been able to engage in successful banking operations that had led to Jewish emancipation and equal civil rights.

To tell the truth, I don’t often read the great philosophers, even the German ones, and I don’t really distinguish between pure and practical reason. But no one will take away from me the idea that Kant is right when he extols the virtues of cosmopolitanism. If I must read, I read the Railway Journal and one novel a year. The Michel Lévy Frères publishing house sent me their brand new Balzac in eight volumes, bound in half-leather, illustrated, on the pretext that Balzac had taken me as a model for his Baron de Nucingen. It makes me laugh, as it allows us to gauge the sometimes extravagant imagination of novelists and the short-sightedness of critics. On the other hand, I have nothing to say about the expression “rich as Rothschild,” which I owe to a man called Stendhal, who owes me nothing.

As to poets, I’ve had my share. Heine, another third cousin, had his eyes on Betty. I am not narrow-minded, but he consoled himself with a working-class woman who sold shoes. His Uncle Salomon, a banker, summed up the subject in a phrase with which I agree: “If he had learned anything useful, he wouldn’t have to write books.” I feel sorry for the musicians. If I had had the courage, before taking the train, I would have crossed Paris to visit poor Rossini, mired in disease, who joked around saying that he was no longer composing but decomposing. On the other hand, singer Adelina Patti was married on July 31st, in a white satin dress, to an Emperor’s squire who is very fortunate in life. According to Le Figaro, which knows about music, she will soon be on stage again, performing the role of Rosina. Newspapers are usually well informed. A short article in the newspaper Le Constitutionnel had announced my departure for the Médoc. I wonder if another one will announce my return.


I said goodbye to my new Château and my vineyards with a touch of regret. I vow to return soon, with my sons, and with Betty if she likes the prospect. Before my departure, I gathered our winegrowers to express my confidence and my demands. I added that I would build a school for their children and that my reprimands would never be too harsh.

On the landing stage, I felt slightly dizzy. It seems that I have a yellow complexion. I’ve never liked looking at myself in the mirror, so I won’t start today. But this colour reminds me of the good old days when I had red hair and, by the same token, of the time in my youth when we had to wear a distinctive piece of cloth on our sleeve. Yellow too are the reflections of the sun on the vine, yellow the boots of the van Heythuysen merchant on the Frans Hals I bought a while ago, yellow the walls of the living room where I spent the afternoon resting after the visit to the vineyards, yellow the canaries in the wicker cage in the bird room. Yellow again the candied pineapple I had brought back from Nice for Patti to thank her for the recital she had given us. Yellow finally the walnut guitar of our poor Salomon.

According to Dr Louis, my complexion is explained by a bout of jaundice. It would come from a fragile liver and my itching would be the symptoms. As soon as I return to Paris, I will go and see a doctor. But I really have the impression that if everything has been going fast for a long time, everything is accelerating again. I was already old, now I’m sick. We’ll see what happens and what bottle of wine I’ll have the pleasure of drinking with my children, to my health first and to theirs.

At the moment I am alive and well. I am about to cross the Garonne, in the other direction, and its waters seem to me browner than on the way out. I am told that this is due to storms upstream and that they are quite frequent at this time of year. This very morning, the winegrowers reminded me again of how carefully the sky has to be watched.

Goethe, who grew up a stone’s throw from my house, said it before me: “In all things, it is better to have hope than to lose hope.” But he has also been credited with the words with which the tribute to Delacroix begins on the day of his funeral:

The dead go quickly.”

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