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Burgundy's One-Woman Revolution

The Importance of Being Lalou : A Tale of Mountain Climbing, Family Freuds, Astrology and Incredible Wine

June 20, 1996|MATT KRAMER

It was a scene from a pulp novel. One participant (an anesthesiologist) flew in from Fort Lauderdale, checking into San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton hotel carrying little more than a change of clothes and--most precious of all--his tasting notebook. He flew back the next day. Another, a mortgage broker, arrived from Dallas. A small contingent trooped in from Los Angeles. Most of the rest were from San Francisco.

Fourteen men and two women found themselves seated in the Ritz-Carlton's private dining room, a vision of Georgian-style elegance with sconces placed just so on pastel walls. The long, gleaming mahogany table was set with pristine white linen place mats arranged with a geometric precision worthy of a Mondrian. It looked like an altar.

In a sense, it was. These 16 people were engaged in a rite of what might be called, only half in jest, Burgundian voodoo. As in all such rites, a summoning name was invoked: Lalou. It was murmured reverentially and repeatedly, the power part of an incantation invoking such famous Burgundy place names as Richebourg, Romanee-St.-Vivant, Musigny, Chambertin and Corton. Resplendent as these vineyard names are to Burgundy fanciers, it was Lalou's that mattered most here. It was her name that brought everyone to this table at no small expense when San Francisco wine retailer Jim Smith put out the word that he was hosting a private tasting of Lalou's 1993 Burgundies.

To outsiders, "Lalou" means nothing. But to Burgundy lovers--and they are a worldwide tribe--no name is more significant. Her wines sell for as much as $500 a bottle. That, mind you, not for a fabled old vintage but for the latest release. Sold under the estate name Domaine Leroy, they are among the most expensive wines in the world.

But Domaine Leroy's stratospheric prices are only a superficial distinction, attention-getting though they are. The real draw--what has believers traveling thousands of miles to taste Lalou's latest offerings--is that she has single-handedly reshaped the vision of what Burgundy can be. And that is no small feat for a place that has, after all, been wowing the wine world for 1,000 years. Moreover, it's all happened only since 1988, Domaine Leroy's first vintage. In a mere half a dozen or so vintages, she has swept past all competitors.

Her full name is Lalou Bize-Leroy. (Actually, her real name is Marcelle, but nobody, not even her mother, has called her that.) She is 64 years old. Physically she is, well, scrawny. Lalou is one of those small, finely detailed women who abound in France, the sort who daintily dismember whole birds at the table, leaving behind a pile of bones picked clean as fossils. Only later do you realize, with the barest frisson of fear, just what sort of civilized ferocity was involved.

As it happens, Lalou comes by her aura of strength from sheer hard work. Scrawny she may seem, but she is no weak sister. Rather, she is all sinew and muscle, the legacy of a lifetime of mountain and technical rock climbing. In her prime, Lalou was one of the world's top women climbers, good enough to have been invited on the first women's Mt. Everest climb. (She regretfully declined because it would have taken her away from Burgundy for too long.)

Many people meeting Lalou for the first time are struck not so much by her diminutive size but by her exuberant, casual vivacity. She exudes a charm that often surprises visitors who know only her reputation as a demanding winegrower and businesswoman. Almost girlish in her innocent enthusiasm, she adores Burgundy.

And she is enamored of Burgundy lovers--although more in the abstract than in day-to-day reality. Meeting Lalou is something more dreamed about than realized for most Burgundy fanciers. She rarely comes to the States, preferring instead to shuttle between her vineyards in Burgundy and her apartment in Monaco, where she and her husband, Marcel Bize, climb the nearby cliffs along the Riviera.

Part of Lalou's legend is the acuity of her tasting ability. Her talent for distinguishing the finest distinctions among Burgundy's hundreds of named vineyards is the awe of her Burgundian colleagues. (Once, during the harvest at Domaine Leroy, her winemaker surprised her by putting a dozen grapes in front of her and asking her to identify which vineyard each came from, based on the taste of the grape. She got nearly all of them right. Lalou later admitted that she had never done such a thing before--and didn't know that it was even possible to do.)

Not least, Lalou is the consternation of many of her Burgundian colleagues. "I embarrass them," she says matter-of-factly, not at all embarrassed herself to say so. Far from it. Lalou Bize-Leroy is proud of her provocativeness. She makes her colleagues uncomfortable the old-fashioned way: She makes better wines than they do. And she is not at all shy about declaring them so.

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