BEHIND THE LABEL
BY JACK GROSVENOR
The legendary Bordeaux estate Château Mouton-Rothschild is as revered for its labels as it is for its exceptional First Growth wines. Each year since 1945, the estate has commissioned a different artist to put their own unique stamp on the year’s vintage. The list reads like a who’s who of modern art, from Salvador Dalí to Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and even some more unusual entries such as H.R.H. The Prince of Wales.
However, one or two of these labels have attracted controversy over the years. Chelsea Vintners Private Client Specialist Jack Grosvenor tells us more about Mouton-Rothschild 1993 and one of the château’s most notorious labels to date.
Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola
You may know Count Balthazar better by his pseudonym, Balthus. Born in 1908, he was famed as one of the most compelling, artistic and intelligent minds of his generation and counted Camus and Fellini amongst his friends. His work was influenced by great classicists such as Cézanne and was often inspired by the beautiful landscapes of Europe, from the Morvan region of France to Italy and the Swiss Alps.
The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, the first woman in five generations to take the helm at her family’s vineyard, greatly admired Balthus and his work. She was therefore extremely pleased when he agreed to create a sketch for the 1993 Mouton vintage.
‘The Dreamy Adolescent Girl’
The work that Balthus presented to Mouton was a simple pencil sketch of a reclining nude, described by the château as ‘the dreamy adolescent girl, wilful, graceful and fragile’. However, whilst the majority of buyers and drinkers perceived this label as a beautiful, delicate and ultimately unprovocative work by one of Europe’s most respected artists, there were those who disagreed.
Baroness Philippine had been overjoyed when the image had been approved by the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; a notoriously conservative branch of the US government famous for their tight restrictions and a history of rejecting ‘risqué’ wine labels. Indeed, Mouton had begun shipping the first consignment of a few hundred cases of the vintage over to the USA when a group of California-based objectors calling themselves ‘Concerned Adults’ began a petition to remove the label on all bottles around the world.
Tant pis … too bad for them!
The objections from Concerned Adults focused on both the label itself as well as some promotional materials for the wine which had been released that described ‘the fragile and mysterious girl … [who] seems to hint at some secret promise of undiscovered pleasure, a pleasure to be shared’. They rallied against what they perceived as subtle hints at child exploitation and normalisation of child abuse, as well as an affront to American family values. A petition with 300 signatures was circulated and protesters even approached a significant number of Napa vintners for their support (with limited success).
Ultimately, Baroness Philippine, whilst unimpressed with the fuss, made the decision to remove the label from the American market. The château considered substituting another artist, but eventually decided that the remainder of their US allocation would simply remain blank. In an interview with the New York Times in March 2000, the baroness said of the accusations, “the idea … was abominable. To me, it was a miracle having Balthus. But out of respect for a part of public opinion, we asked the BATF to rescind the label. Then we told ourselves, ‘If it’s not Balthus, it’s nobody,’ and we left the label blank for Americans. Tant pis, too bad for them.”
And too bad for them indeed. Despite a small victory for the protesters, the end result was rather different to what they had hoped for; the few US bottles still available with Balthus’ label became an iconic collector’s item, boosting publicity and demand for Mouton’s wines even higher than before. Even today, nearly thirty years on, bottles of the 1993 retail in the region of £400 and are a sought-after collector’s item for any Bordeaux lover.