The last Clémenceau
A Family History
Jérôme Clémenceau is the machinery supervisor at Lafite, and will be the last of his family to work for DBR Lafite. Conversation with Saskia de Rothschild.
For four generations, the Clémenceau family has followed in the footsteps of the Rothschilds, intertwining their destiny with that of a decidedly family-run business – like the roots of a vine, multiple, tortuous, and solidly interlaced. Jérôme Clémenceau is the machinery supervisor at Lafite, and will be the last of his family to work for the Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite.
In conversation with Saskia de Rothschild – the woman he knew as a child and whom he now calls “ma’am” or “the boss” – the last Clémenceau retraces the path of his family, questions the great changes in the wine culture, and the approach to work of those who will take over.
Saskia de Rothschild: As far back as I can remember, the Clémenceau family has been there, alongside my family. When did our families first meet?
Jérôme Clémenceau: My family is from the Médoc and has always lived around Pauillac. Some people put an accent on the first “e” of Clémenceau, others don’t, so I can’t tell you exactly where we come from… I’d like to retrace our family tree to know for sure. In any case, it’s likely that there were already Clémenceaus around when James de Rothschild bought Lafite in 1868. What I do know for sure is that my paternal great-grandfather was the first to work at the Château in the 1930s.
SdR: It must be in our records; I’ll have a look. So, we must be on the fourth generation of Clémenceau working for the winery!
JC: Yes, my maternal grandparents, the Dhairs, lived in Bel Air, in the middle of the vineyards. My mother was a cleaner at the Château and worked in the vineyard, like her four brothers. Once, when I was seven or eight years old, I took my grandfather’s scissors and pruned some vines. It didn’t take long for him to realize, so he came over to me and grabbed me by the ear! So, on my father’s side as well as on my mother’s side, my grandparents were at Lafite.
SdR: Who were the Clémenceaus? Would you mind introducing them to us?
JC: My father’s passion for the vineyard was the same. The four children of my paternal grandparents, Augusta, also called Louise, and Pierre, nicknamed Fernand, worked for the Rothschilds. They all worked in the vineyard before living their lives elsewhere. There was Guy, known as Nene, in the vehicle fleet, André, known as Jeantot, who worked in the vineyard, Yves, nicknamed Robert – my father – in the garden and finally Claude, known as Christian, in the winery. Then, there were my cousins. Didier, Cyril, Estelle, and Stéphane. And then my brothers, Sébastien and Jean-Christophe, also called Mao. Both retired in the late 1990s. For many years, there were eleven of us Clémenceaus working for Lafite, out of about forty employees. We used to joke that if we all left at once, the Château would collapse!
SdR: Indeed, we would have found it hard to do without you. Looking at the photos, we can see that there was a real family spirit. What about you? Did you always feel like joining the team?
JC: I never thought that one day I would work at Lafite! I was a blacksmith by trade. I had started an apprenticeship when I had an accident. My father then told me to go to the Château and that he would take care of the rest. He felt very strongly about me working for the Château, so he got me hired at 19. I started in 1985 in the winery at Duhart and three weeks later I left for the army! When I came back, I took up my job in the machinery fleet, first as a replacement, then permanently. I always loved my job: maintaining the equipment, using it well, it’s a way of ensuring that the work is done well.
SdR: With all the members of your family working in the vineyard or at the Château, what was the relationship between the Clémenceaus and the Rothschilds?
JC: We would chat as casually as we are now. The Rothschild family and my family are connected. We have always been very close. They were not just an employer. Our relationship was friendly, but always respectful. They saw our children grow up, and vice versa. I remember that I would often drive you to the station!
SdR: I remember it well. The link between family and work was very strong in both our families.
JC: Absolutely. When we were young, they would take us to nursery every morning. My parents would go to work and pick us up at the end of the day. Later, during the harvest, it was the Baron’s driver who would take us to school in the minibus and pick us up in the evening. Madame Picabea looked after us, and I remember that on Sundays we were allowed to have an apple turnover.
SdR: What has changed over the course of four generations?
JC: Everything! Even just for my generation, things have really changed. When I arrived at Duhart, for example, the harvest was festive. It was the culmination of our work, so there was a big celebration at the end of the harvest. Today, we still have a good time, but everything is more regulated, more serious, safer.
SdR: What about the way we work with the vines and the wine?
JC: We have made enormous progress in micro-vinification, which didn’t exist before. To be able to keep the wine longer, to succeed in stabilising it. The machinery is also different. They cost a fortune! When I arrived, I drove a tractor that wobbled in all directions, with levers everywhere. Today, we have on-board GPS, at the cutting edge of technology. And we no longer ride through the vines with the doors open, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and smoking. Now we always wear a work suit and a mask. The regulations have exploded. I imagine that this is progress. It’s good for your health after all.
SdR: I agree with you. The products used are no longer the same either, we are in the midst of a transition to agroecological viticulture.
JC: And here again, everything has changed. Before, hedges were pulled up to plant vines. Now we are replanting hedges. It’s cyclical. For twenty years, I was pestered to keep the vines clean, and now they want wild grass and are happy to see clover.
SdR: What were the highlights of your career at Lafite?
JC: Best moments? There are too many. Every evolution, every achievement in my work is a milestone. And then you, the young people, seeing your evolution, seeing you grow and join in… It’s very powerful.
SdR: I remember the beating you gave to the Parisian football team…
JC: Oh yes, that’s a good memory! At the time, there was a football tournament between the Rothschild bank and Lafite. We used to go on trips to play the games. I had never been on a plane before! It was an incredible opportunity to discover other places. In England, we went to the Chelsea stadium. Rome was also unforgettable. If not for my work, it’d have been impossible for me to visit those places.
SdR: Coming back to Lafite, what is your favourite place?
JC: The Allée du Gaulois. For all the parties, the big tables and the country meals that were organised there. And some anecdotes that I won’t tell!
SdR: Yes, I love that place too with its ancient trees, the chestnut trees…
JC: I got married here. Inevitably, that creates a strong link with the place. Lafite is my life. In my mind, I’ll never leave my job and I don’t complain about it. The new generation no longer has the same emotional link to work or to the place. It’s a real shame.
SdR: Are people looking for a different balance?
JC: Before, we didn’t have a lunch break, or breaks, for that matter. My father would go to work when it was still dark, and he would come home when it was dark. Sometimes I would run into him at the garage, but otherwise we only saw each other in the evening or at the weekend. It was just like that. People are less passionate nowadays. I know that I like what I do, even if it’s not always perfect. You need to stay curious. I’m 55 years old and I’m not very good with computers, but I’m curious about technology. My impression is that people want to avoid the hassle and seek not to get tired.
SdR: You’re right… They have other criteria, other interests. So, who will take over?
JC: I did nothing to discourage my children. On the contrary. But they chose other paths. My son did an internship during the harvest. And he did a very good job! But one evening, he said to me “Listen, working five days a week, seven hours a day, is not for me.” To which I replied: “You know son, if you want to eat all your life, to fill your plate, you have to get up every morning” But he chose differently. He’s on call for the fire brigade, so he works 84 days a year. It’s a different mindset that I have a hard time understanding.
SdR: What message would you like to convey to future generations?
JC: I would like for us to be able to continue to learn in the field, to gain experience by doing. This was the main concern of my friend Sabine, the historic winemaker of Lafite, before she retired last year. She asked me: “what’s going to happen when we retire? My answer was:
“It’ll still be Lafite. Just a little different.”