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Vintner Cultivates Grapes, Planes, Motorcycles

France: Michel Pont's huge collection of vehicles and military jets adorns the grounds of his 14th century chateau in Burgundy. 'Everybody has a hobby,' he explains.

April 26, 1998|MORT ROSENBLUM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAVIGNY-LES-BEAUNE, France — Michel Pont's 14th century chateau is standard Burgundy chic--except perhaps for the 100 jet fighters out back in the vines and 500 motorcycles in the upstairs bedrooms.

Then there's that collection of crimson Abarth race cars in the barn loft, two dozen in all, worth somewhere in the millions of dollars.

"Everybody has a hobby," Pont says with a shrug, standing under the wing of his latest toy, a Russian Sukhoi 7 fighter-bomber. "This is mine."

From the air, Savigny-les-Beaune Chateau looks like a supersonic air base, its jets with swept wings and lethal rocket pods lined up ready to roar. Close up, it is more like an aircraft boneyard.

Pont does not fly, and neither do any of his aircraft. None of his 100 acres of prime vineyard land is wasted on a landing strip.

But where else can you find such a cast of characters? A Russian MiG-21 warily eyes a U.S. F-100 Super Sabre. A pair of sleek British Jaguars stare down a huge French Mirage IV-A.

Boxy little British Vampires from 1950 sit near U.S. fighters built during the Korean War. There is a Breguet off a French aircraft carrier, a Sikorsky helicopter and four MiGs.

For many visitors, Pont himself may be the most curious character of the collection. At 65, with iron gray hair and ramrod posture, he bustles about with the thrust of his F-84 Thunderflash.

Conversation is not easy. He leaves visitors in midsentence to attend to pressing business and then returns much later. He pours out a luscious 1993 Monthelie premier cru, sips briefly and glances at his watch.

Apart from worrying about the 30,000 to 40,000 people who troop through his museum each year, Pont produces an annual average of 275,000 bottles of excellent Burgundy reds and whites.

"It's a killer," he says. "We have to spray the vines seven times a year. And the pruning. All told, each spring, my vines need four million cuts of the shears."

Pont loves to talk of how he bought the falling-down chateau 18 years ago, restoring its four fairytale turrets and rambling grounds, and how he started buying airplanes in 1986.

He eagerly describes the seven years he raced Abarths, which are futuristic souped-up Fiats, winning 146 trophies. He happily recalls the first motorcycle he bought 40 years ago, and all the others since.

But Pont is artfully evasive on the economics of it all.

"It's where I put all my money and time," he says, declining to make any estimates of value. "Look, if you spend money on a girlfriend, it goes, and it's gone. With me, I have all this."

For most of the aircraft, he outbids scrap dealers and does the restoration himself, with a small crew. A few are donated, lent by the air museum at Bourget or traded for planes in reserve.

His largest expense is often trucking a plane to his estate near Beaune, in eastern France. German authorities have held up his MiGs for days on end over the years, reluctant to allow transit for Russian warplanes.

The motorcycle fleet, dating back to a 1902 Swiss Werner motorbike, includes a perfectly restored Vincent Black Shadow along with Nortons, Indians, BSAs, Triumphs and a lot of others.

Clearly, Pont's true loves are the Abarths. He raced in four of them. He bought the rest where he could. Except for a few small models, he has a full set. Some are one of a kind.

Though born to a vineyard family and a winemaker since the age of 15, Pont was an independent race driver from 1965 to 1972.

"I'd wait a year and then buy the car cheap," he says. Caressing a streamlined racer with a 3-liter engine, he adds: "For this, I paid only 200,000 francs ($32,000). Who knows its value today? Add a zero, at least."

The airplanes just happened. Pont was a grunt in the French air force during the Algerian war in the 1950s, but was not tempted by pilot training. Then, in 1985, an officer dropped in from a nearby air base.

"I remarked to him that it might look nice to have an aircraft among those trees," Pont says. "He said he'd see what he could do. A year later, I had my first plane."

Not everyone is thrilled. Some people would rather see traditional Burgundy countryside rather than a ragged row of obsolete aluminum.

Local ecologists closed down Pont's go-cart track after a nasty fight. Many townsfolk who supported him argued that the popular track was near a busy freeway on unused land, but Pont's permit lacked a needed signature.

"Jealousy," he grumbles. "A few unhappy old women who don't want anyone to have any fun . . . ."

Besides, he adds, his roadside attraction has its purpose.

"It draws visitors," he says. "It's not the [$5] entry fee that supports the cost. But they look around, and it occurs to them that we also have wine. So they buy a case or two."

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