ASSEMBLAGE Newsletter N°43 - June 2012

BY Philippe Marion











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Although often referred to as boring and irrelevant, history, and especially the history of Barton & Guestier is passionate and rich. Almost three centuries of wines, labels, markets, people and passion...

Discover hereafter the images and complete texts of the B&G booklet that was edited in 1925 (!) on the occasion of 200 years of existence of the Barton & Guestier company. It was sent to us by a French consumer earlier this month who discovered it in his grandparents' house. A treasure!

Here is the complete text...

BORDEAUX 1725-1925

This year (1925), the firm of Barton & Gustier is celebrating its bicentennial. This is very unusual - even in France where, more than anywhere else, long-standing traditions are faithfully perpetuated. Furthermore, the business has always stayed in the same family, whose current owners and managers are direct descendants of the founders, and the corporate headquarters have never moved. This is very rare indeed, and due to a strong psychological attachment to tradition.

The firm has long benefited not only from the business acumen of its directors, but also from the fact that they pour their heart and soul into their jobs, with a commitment much stronger than that found in a usual partnership. An extremely positive fusion occurred from day one. A combination of backgrounds made the company into archetypal wine merchants - so successful that the name of Barton & Guestier became inseparable from that of Bordeaux. That is why a monograph on this historic firm is, in fact, the iconic story of a traditional Bordeaux négociant.

No other business calls for such typically French qualities as the wine trade: intuition, dynamism, common sense, composure, and a mix of cautiousness and boldness. The number of foreign wine merchants in Bordeaux has grown steadily. However, over time, these foreigners became true Bordelais, with no dreams of returning to their native country. There are an impressive number of négociants in Bordeaux managed by people whose family originally came from Northern Europe, but for whom this is but a dim memory.
This is not the case, however, with Barton & Gustier because the Irish Bartons contributed much-appreciated complementarity to the quintessentially French qualities of the Guestiers. The firm continues to draw its strength from these two different origins, enabling it to span two centuries with ever-increasing vigour and prestige.

In 1725, Thomas Barton, called "French Tom" by his friends, left Curraghmore townland in Ireland to settle in Bordeaux to work in the wine trade. This was quite a challenge, even though Bordeaux has always welcomed foreigners. The region was suffering from a severe overproduction crisis at that time. A huge number of vines had been planted over the previous twenty years and a series of plentiful crops inevitably caused a major drop in prices. A noted economist of the time, Father Bellet, wrote that "a third less area under vine would make the province rich. As it is, a third too much is leading to ruin". It is therefore not surprising that the government forced winegrowers to grub up healthy vines, and that it was forbidden to plant new ones for thirty years. It is also easy to imagine the difficulties encountered by Thomas Barton when he first started out. He nevertheless overcame all obstacles thanks to his energy, vision, and cautiousness.
His status as an outsider helped rather than hindered. Like most other foreigners in Bordeaux, he maintained close contact with the mother country. At the time, Ireland was, in fact, the second largest market for wine exports after Holland. Much more Bordeaux wine went there, for instance, than to England.
The great wines of the Médoc were almost all shipped to the British Isles at that time. Château Lafite, Château Margaux, and others were aged there in good cellars while less exalted wines were largely shipped to Holland and Northern Europe.

In any event, efforts by Thomas Barton and rival Bordeaux merchants brought unheard of prosperity to Bordeaux. Exports went from 480 tonnes in 1728 to 6,000 in 1785. The colonies, which had taken 4,000 tonnes in 1728, took in some 37,000 in 1785. By the latter date, some 125,000 hogsheads of wine, out of a total production of 200,000, were exported.
Bordeaux was therefore grateful to the people who made a fortune thanks to their hard work since this also benefited the entire region. Thomas Barton was welcomed with open arms and did not have to worry for his safety during the disastrous Seven Years' War. He was even elected to head a delegation of Bordeaux négociants in 1760 - proof that his young firm had gained considerable wealth and status. His son and grandson followed in his footsteps.
Like the rest of the country, Bordeaux underwent a great deal of turmoil during the French Revolution, and the firm's very existence was threatened. Hugh Barton was thrown into prison and nearly guillotined. However, his devoted wife managed to save him. She succeeded in smuggling women's clothes into his cell, from which he escaped to Dublin. Before leaving, he even took the lock and key to the guillotine meant to sever his head! These curious relics remained in the Barton family for many years and are now exhibited in a Dublin museum.

Hugh Barton stayed in Ireland for seven years, corresponding regularly with his partner, Daniel Guestier. The friendship between the two men was so strong and based on such trust that they never felt the need to confirm their business association in any formal way. It took until 1802 for them to sign a contract for a duration of nine years. Since then, simple exchanges of correspondence have sufficed to renew the partnership, which has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
It is two hundred years since "French Tom" arrived in Bordeaux, and the seventh generation of both families maintains a close relationship based on tradition and friendship established by their ancestors. This is probably a record for continuity in the same firm. And even if it is not, can another company boast such an unbroken line of descendants for each partner, united not only in business but by family relations?

The Bartons had been living in France for a hundred years, or for most of that time, when they decided to acquire vineyards. Hugh Barton bought Château Langoa in Saint-Julien in 1821. Three years later, he also purchased part of the Léoville estate, now well-known under the name Léoville-Barton.
However, as a good Irishman, he also wanted to own land in his native country. He ended up acquiring the Straffan estate, in county Kildare, where he peacefully spent the last years of his life. He passed away at the age of 89, in 1854, leaving his son to head the family firm in Bordeaux.

Daniel Guestier, whom we mentioned above, was from an old Breton family. His grandfather, a former officer in the French navy, had to resign after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes because he was a Protestant. He married in the Saintonge (in the Charentes region) and then went to Bordeaux.
At the beginning of the 18th century, his son François established himself in the legal profession, going on to became lieutenant general for Marquis de Ségur, in Pauillac. François managed the extensive estates of this feudal lord for quite some time, having earned his total confidence and friendship. He was also the first member of the Guestier family to make a name for himself in Bordeaux. However, Bordeaux only really accepts people who are born there. This was indeed the case with his younger son, Daniel, who was responsible for forever linking the names Guestier and Bordeaux, to the extent that mentioning one immediately brings to mind the other!
Born in 1734, he went to sea at the age of 14 on one of the 600 ships that went back and forth between Bordeaux and Santo Domingo. He soon had his own personal share of this thriving trade. A naval captain and shipowner, he created a solid import-export company and acquired a famous plantation near Santo Domingo, which was managed by his brother.
The Dominican Republic's proclamation of independence unfortunately led to his financial ruin. However, Daniel was not easily discouraged and he started another business with his brother to supply the "insurgents" in the American colonies. His speedy boats left from Arcachon and succeeded in running the English blockade. The exploits of vessels such as the Grande-Nancy are legendary on the banks of the Garonne - as well as the banks of the Ganges.

We have already explained when and how Daniel Guestier developed a partnership with Hugh Barton. Paradoxically, far from harming the newly-formed enterprise, the forced separation of the two associates considerably increased their business activity. Barton & Guestier became one of the largest wine merchants in Bordeaux, and has never moved from its original location, in the aristocratic Chartrons district. This was, at the time, outside the city, but has since become part of the centre.
The 6,000 m² Barton & Guestier cellars have long been one of the city's main sites of interest. Much the same as today, important visitors to Bordeaux have always requested a tour.
If these cellars could speak, the history of great wines would not need to be written... Constructed by the founders and their children to be close to the wines that accounted for their fortune, they house unique wines that slowly develop to perfection underneath the famous Pavé des Chartrons. The present day Pavé was once separated from the city by the Château Trompette fortress, whose glacis overlooked the river and the city. The cellars were gradually expanded by purchases of land once the fortress was demilitarized and later demolished. The three levels - cellars, ground floor, and first floor - still constitute most of the block formed by the Pavé des Chartrons, rue Notre-Dame, rue Constantin, and rue de la Verrerie. They have entrances giving onto all four streets. Thanks to their constant temperature and ideal level of humidity, these vaulted cellars are ideal for ageing fine wine. They also make it possible to bottle all year long. Their layout was designed so that the wine requires very little handling, as has been recommended for centuries.
Some two and a half million bottles and twelve thousand barrels are stored in these tranquil cellars. Wines from the most recent vintage stored in growers' cellars are immediately brought in to take up any space vacated by wine put into barrel or bottle.

Above and beyond the wines they buy every year, based on the quality of each vintage, the company directors also own Château Léoville-Barton, a second growth, and Château-Langoa-Barton, a third growth, both in Saint Julien. From the very beginning, Barton & Guestier have bought the wines of the most famous châteaux on a futures basis, and even had long term contracts with Château Lafite from 1771 to 1779 and with Château Latour from 1844 to 1853. They have also taken part in all major subscriptions for Château Margaux, Château d'Yquem, Château Coutet, Château-Filhot, etc. while, at the same time, creating increasingly popular affordable brands such as Léobourg and Louis d'Or.

Major vineyard owners as well as important négociants, Barton & Guestier have a position of the utmost importance in Bordeaux - not to mention the esteem in which they are held around the world. The firm exports massively and nowhere more than to England, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. The "B&G" brand was unrivalled in the US from the 18th century up until Prohibition when, for perverse political reasons, the government confused our light, healthy Médoc wines with demon alcohol... What encourages us, however, is the certainty that Prohibition will last less long than the practice of wine drinking. What has been for so many years will continue to be, one way or another. The past was yesterday's present and, despite appearances, nothing is so much like the present as the past... What difference do a few years make compared to centuries?
In fact, however far back we go in both sacred and profane history, wine has an honoured place. As far away as India, the ancients celebrated Bacchus, the proud young god of wine parading in a chariot drawn by panthers and tigers overcome by his radiant goodness. Wherever he went, people were friendlier, morals were more relaxed, and life was remarkably enjoyable. He received his true name in Rome, where he was no longer called Bacchus, but Liber, because he was the god of free men.
From Persia to Egypt, from Egypt to Greece, and from Greece to Italy, the vine took over the world. However, it must be said that it is particularly at home in France. This has not changed over the years, nor is it likely to. The Romans appreciated Bordeaux wines and, during the Middle Ages, Richard the Lionheart made sure to protect his vineyards and imposed a taste for Bordeaux on the English nobility. It is also said that recognition of Bordeaux's superb quality owes a great deal to Duke de Richelieu, who became Governor of the province of Guyenne. However, nothing is less sure, since the most famous vineyards in the Médoc were only planted in the 18th century... In any event, Bordeaux had firmly established a fine reputation by the 19th century and the art of appreciating its nuances reached perfection by the middle of the last century. The cult of fine wine has never been more fervent than it is now.
A case in point:
A former British consul in Bordeaux, M.H. Scott, served friends a bottle of 1828 Mouton, a very famous wine, at dinner.
- One of his guests asked, "How many bottles of this do you have left?"
- Scott replied, "Alas, only a dozen".
- His friend exclaimed, "I'll buy them from you for 12,000 francs".
- Scott answered, "I'll part with six of them for 6,000 francs if you like".
- He friend retorted, "No, I want all of them so no one else can offer such a wine to his friends".
- Scott acquiesced, "Alright, but let us talk no more of this," turning to his butler and saying, "Bring up two more bottles".

Drinking well was an art then, with its rites and high priests. How many believers are there still? And, outside Bordeaux itself, who is able to appreciate the finest vintages of our great wines?
There may be only a few people, but they still manage to perpetuate the tradition. Nevertheless, the future is what concerns us. We have faith in the future, despite the difficulties of the present time. The crusade against wine does not impress us. Although of a different kind, in the long run, it is just another sort of vine disease, like phylloxera... only less fearsome. Mankind does not eternally work against its own best interests, and the medical world is already prepared to reconcile social norms and joie de vivre.
At the end of the day, it seems that "the Bible according to Pussyfoot" does not make people either happier, stronger, or better. On the contrary: without having to look any further than our own cellars, we note that the reasonable consumption of good wine seems to have done particularly well at maintaining the directors of Barton & Guestier in excellent health. Two of them lived into their nineties and two others celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with their children and grandchildren. Their minds were alert and they stayed vigorous and full of life until their dying day.
It is also widely acknowledged that nothing important and useful happens in Bordeaux unless a Guestier has been involved. No one has devoted more time and energy to the city's well-being than they have. It is therefore hardly surprising that three members of the Guestier family have presided over the destiny of the Bordeaux business world. The long career of B&G's present managing director, Daniel Guestier, President of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce from 1911 to 1919, epitomises not only the history of trade in Bordeaux, but Bordeaux itself. He exhibited great skill and authority during the dark, difficult war years.

A history of Barton & Guestier would be incomplete without reference to the olive oil trade.
It is said that "mighty oaks from little acorns grow". When the first shipments were made to the United States at the beginning of the last century, no one could have predicted that the firm would go on to ship some 40,000 cases a year.
How can such a success be explained, other than the fact that the olive oil was as good as the wine?
Furthermore, an official report, submitted to a court of law in 1919, bears witness to the superior quality of the B&G brand.
France is fortunate to also produce extremely fine olives. The intrinsic quality of the fruit is complemented by the expertise of the people who grow the trees and make the oil. The Nice region, especially in the hills surrounding the city, has the best olive groves. France has made sure to preserve age-old traditions and the use of stone presses. This has unquestionably proved to be the right decision, since modern processes seem to remove some of the oil's most precious properties, without adding worthwhile ones...
The purity of the product makes it worthwhile for cooking and medicinal purposes. Gourmets know that if olive oil is not of the highest quality, no food it is used with will be any good. Doctors, as well as Thomas Barton (for whom olive oil is good for the health, a natural laxative, and quite nourishing), well tell you that it needs to be pure and of fine quality. Women appreciate olive oil's cosmetic virtues, giving their skin a natural warm glow and their hair an opulent magnificence. American women have also discovered its marvellous advantages.

This has been a brief history of Barton & Guestier.
It is really necessary for us to draw any conclusions? Won't the reader have done this of his own accord?
The facts speak for themselves... It is self-evident around the world that France is the country of good taste thanks to specific terroirs and a climate that strikes a unique balance between icy winters and torrid summers. This temperate climate, which avoids all excesses, conveys delicate flavours that account for France's universally appreciated food and wine. Wine from nowhere else can vie with the finesse and generosity of French wines, and no other is comparable to the wines of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux offers a nearly infinite range, from eminently affordable wines to rare and expensive ones, and they all exhibit the qualities that have led to the region's international reputation. Bordeaux wines are straightforward, light, and extremely healthy. They encapsulate the qualities of the French people: elegant, vibrant, and reliable. They are not only charming, but also full of character. What is taste, if not the delicate expression of character?

Anyone wishing to take a sip from the glass of wine that France has held out to the world for two centuries should contact one of the most venerable Bordeaux wine merchants. Barton & Guestier are both the oldest négociant and the leading one in terms of the professionalism of the people who manage it and their devotion to French and Bordelais traditions. Having feted the bicentennial of the firm's foundation, they are well on their way towards the tricentennial celebration - because nothing helps you stay young as much as our fine Bordeaux wines!

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