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Mouton-Rothschild's Labels  (December 16, 2002)

In 1945 Baron Philippe de Rothschild, proprietor of Château Mouton-Rothschild, had an inspired idea – one that has since been emulated by many wineries around the world but never bettered.

To celebrate the end of World War II, he commissioned a young French artist named Philippe Jullian to produce a graphic for the top band of his wine label. The design was to incorporate Sir Winston Churchill's trademark "V" for victory sign. That 1945 vintage was one of the best years of the twentieth century and Mouton '45 is still drinking well today.

Every year after until his death in 1988 Baron Philippe made it a practice to choose a different painter to celebrate the harvest. His daughter, Baroness Philippine, continues the tradition, and today the roll call of artists who have accepted the commission reads like a Who's Who of the international art world.

In the beginning, Baron Philippe chose well-known artists from his own circle of friends. Jean Cocteau designed the 1947, another great vintage, and Léonor Fini, who scandalized Paris with her lavish fancy-dress parties, drew the 1952 label (a moderately successful though not long- lasting wine). But it was an invitation to Georges Braque to illustrate the 1955 vintage (a good but not a great year) that caught the attention of the art community worldwide. Braque's acceptance persuaded other international luminaries to commit their art to a wine bottle: Salvador Dalí (1958: a minor vintage), Bernard Dufour (1963: one of the worst of years), Henry Moore (1964: a rather light, dilute wine), Joan Miró (1969: mediocre and rather tannic) and Marc Chagall (1970: a magnificent vintage, still going strong).

The honour of representing 1973 went to Pablo Picasso. The vintage itself was unimpressive, but '73 represented the culmination of Baron Philippe's endless lobbying to have Mouton-Rothschild elevated to the august ranks of the First Growths alongside Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild (owned by Baron Philippe's cousins), Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion. The Classification of 1855 for the Paris Exposition had ranked Mouton as the first of the Second Growth Médoc wines. According to Feret, the bible of the Bordeaux wine trade, the reason it was not ranked as a First growth historically was that "there were no living accommodation, only an ancient farmyard, particularly squalid at that. The vineyards were in the hands of an Englishman, a dilettante and a neophyte in viticulture, who lived in London." There was no question that Mouton, whose prices were as high as Lafite's, should be a First Growth, but it took Baron Philippe twenty years to convince the authorities of the justice of his case. The unconfined joy and sense of celebration in Picasso's dancing figures must have mirrored the Baron's when the news of the elevation was delivered to him.

As the years went by, Baron Philippe refined the concept and set down the ground rules for his artists. They were free to create whatever they wanted as long as their image was inspired by one of three themes: the vine and the vineyard, the pleasures of wine drinking or the ram. The ram, the emblem of Château Mouton-Rothschild, embellished the very first label the Baron had commissioned for the watershed year of 1924. That year he decided not to ship his wine in barrel to European markets, as was the Bordeaux custom, but to bottle it himself in his own cellars – to ensure his clientele of the integrity and quality of Mouton. A label was now required for the bottles. He chose the famous designer Jean Carlu, whose striking Cubist image incorporates the fan of arrows representing the different branches of the Rothschild banking family and the dominating ram's head. The French legend proudly announces that the entire harvest was bottled at the château – a revolutionary decision in those days, one that is now written into French wine law for all Bordeaux classified growths.

Each artist selected for the honour is sent a specimen label showing the dimensions of the required art (100 mm × 42 mm). "Saving your patience," read the instructions, "herewith certain restrictions on your work... To contrast with the dark wine and the black, red and gold of the lettering, the design should be colourful."

No-one took this more to heart than the late film director John Huston, whose work graces the magnificent 1982 vintage, one of the finest Moutons of the century. His watercolour depicting a ram dancing ecstatically under an orange sun and rich blue sky next to a bunch of grapes ready for picking is perhaps the most complete realization of Baron Philippe's creative vision – even if its dimensions are much larger than the regulations state.

Only four times in fifty-four years has the painterly image concept on Mouton labels changed. The 1953 label bears a portrait Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, the patriarch of the family who had acquired the property 100 years previously. In 1977 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited the château and a typographical label without art was designed to commemorate her visit. The following year, the Montreal artist Jean-Paul Riopelle was invited to submit his ideas. He sent two designs suggesting the ring stains left by an over-filled wine glass. Baron Philippe could not make up his mind as to which he preferred so he split the run and used both.

Baroness Philippine, whose taste in art is more adventurous than her father's, succeeded in having the 1993 Mouton label banned in the United States. A pencil drawing of a naked, reclining nymphette by the French artist Balthus proved unacceptable to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the only way Mouton 1993 could be sold in the US was with a blank label where the image should have been.

Mouton-Rothschild's labels have become collectors' items in their own right – especially the rare blank 1993. But when they're attached to the bottle they have an even greater attraction: a complete library of the wines from 1945 to the soon-to-be-released 1999 (by poster artist Savignac) is the dream of every wine lover. Such a collection of single bottles from '45 to 1994 was auctioned in Toronto in 1996. It was purchased by The Royal York Hotel for $40,000.

And if you're curious as to what an artist of the calibre of Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon or Keith Haring received for their work – apart from the cachet of gracing the bottles of one of the world's greatest wines – the answer is, wine. Four cases of two different years of Mouton-Rothschild, including the year that bears their design.




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