By Sourish Bhattacharyya
WHEN Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos pairs kebabs with the wines of Chateau Margaux at The Taj Mahal Hotel on Saturday, April 19, she will, perhaps unknowingly, re-establish the old sub-continental connections of her entrepreneurial grandfather, who was responsible for turning around the fortunes of the Bordeaux First Growth.
Andre Mentzelopoulos, the son of a Greek peasant, moved to Burma towards the end of the 1930s, in the footsteps of his sister who had married a British Colonel of the Royal Indian Army, with the dream to make a fortune. For the rest of this most interesting story, let me paraphrase an account of Andre's life that I have read in the brilliantly informative website, A Good Nose (www.agoodnose.com).
The Japanese invasion of Burma in 1941 botched Andre's plans, so he set out for India through China to pick up the threads of his life. After Partition, fired by the dream of becoming an independent businessman, Andre, by now a fluent speaker of Urdu, moved to newly formed Pakistan, got into the cereal trade with Europe, and started making big bucks. Destiny, though, had other plans for him.
Andre returned to Europe, to Paris, in 1958 to be able to marry and live with Laura, Alexandra's maternal grandmother, whom he met and romanced on a skiing holiday in Switzerland. Laura was firm about not wanting to go to Pakistan. For Andre, it must have been a professional setback, for he was close to the Pakistani ruling class and was a good friend of the future Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Love prevailed and brought him to an unfamiliar country, where he bought and re-energised the Felix Potin chain of grocery stores; sired Alexandra's mother, Corinne, who is today without doubt the First Lady of Bordeaux; and bought Chateau Margaux in 1977.
The celebrated chateau, classified as a First Growth in 1855, and whose famous admirers included the American presidents Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon, was then in a state of terminal decline. The French government, in a fiercely nationalist move that saw a re-run when Vijay Mallya made a bid on Champagne Taittinger, had meanwhile blocked an American attempt to acquire Margaux. The Ginestet family that had owned Margaux since 1934 was in a precarious financial condition and the 1970s were a difficult decade for Bordeaux. Some might have considered the acquisition a foolhardy decision at that point in time, but it dramatically altered the fortunes of the Mentzelopoulos family.
Andre Mentzolupoulos brought on board the famous professor of oenology, Emile Peynaud, to put Margaux back on track. Bordeaux's wine guru invested his entire wealth of knowledge into ever stage of Margaux's, and its second wine Pavilion's, development, till 1990. It was his favourite child and he left his stamp of excellence on the wines that the chateau produced. But the man who gave Margaux its new lease of life passed away suddenly in 1980, when he was only 65. That was when his daughter Corinne, Alexandra's mother, came into the business and together with her mother, Laura, she went about systematically to restore Margaux's old glory, befitting a member of that exclusive club of the five First Growths.
Corinne, who is said to exude Mediterranean warmth, studied Classical Literature as an undergraduate student, went on to get a Master's in Political Science and worked with a leading advertising agency, Havas, before joining Felix Potin. It was his unexpected death, though, that brought her to Margaux, with which she had previously very little to do.
She reconstructed the winery's aging and decrepit cellars and fortuitously, when the process was complete, Bordeaux got one of its most memorable vintages: 1982. It was a great year to announce that Margaux was back in the reckoning. The next year, Margaux got a new estate manager, an erudite young man named Paul Pontallier, to replace the aging Philippe Barre. Corinne and Paul, who is now the managing director of the company, rewrote the Margaux story -- she with her sharp business sense and he with his oenological competence -- and it has seen celebrities as diverse as the U.S. basketball star Michael Jordan and former Chinese President Hu Jintao visit the chateau to partake of its history and its superlative wines.
In 1993, to reduce the burden of managing a thriving business single-handedly, Corinne got the Agnelli family, which owned Fiat, to acquire a 75 per cent controlling stake in Margaux. When in 2003, the Agnellis announced that they were preparing to sell that stake, Corinne bought it back and reclaimed the legacy that her family has been jealously guarding since 1977. It is into this tradition that Alexandra, the youngest of Corinne's three children, was inducted in the autumn 2012.
Margaux is certainly not the first First Growth to make a serious attempt to pair with Indian cuisine. Wine snobs may shudder at the thought, but some years back, at the initiative of Frederic Engerer, President of Chateau Latour, the venerable First Growth hosted Hemant Oberoi, Grand Master Chef of the Taj Group, to perfect the match between Indian food and the fine wines of Bordeaux. Will Margaux and kebabs make a good match on Saturday? Watch this space to find out all about it.