Over the past century, women have made great strides in the world of wine. While the wine industry and winemaking profession remain male-dominated, women now make up a substantial portion of its workers. The industry, in turn, has begun to recognize the important contributions that women have made to the field. In the past few months, for example, women have been featured on the covers of Wine Spectator more than men (Baroness de Rothschild was on the March 31st cover, followed by Helen Keplinger on June 15th’s issue). We too would like to recognize some of the outstanding women in the winemaking field, beginning with one of its best-known leading ladies: Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy.
Lalou Bize-Leroy is the owner of Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay and is also a shareholder of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Maison Leroy was founded in 1868 by Bize-Leroy’s great-grandfather and it grew rapidly as a négociant and producer of fine wines. In 1919, Lalou’s father, Henri Leroy, joined the firm and further expanded the family business, purchasing half of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and gradually cultivating it into what it is today. Henri encouraged Lalou’s work among the vines from a young age and In 1955, she gave up plans of pursuing her love of mountain climbing and joined the négociant business. She quickly developed her now-legendary palate as well as her strong convictions about terroir.
Madame Bize-Leroy became president of the négociant business in 1971, and has since worked untiringly to raise Leroy wines to an even higher standard of excellence. She also co-managed the DRC alongside Aubert de Villaine from 1974 to 1992, where she proved herself as a first-rate winemaker. In 1988, finding it increasingly difficult to find growers willing to meet the high standards of quality she demanded for the Maison Leroy label, she expanded the estate’s own vineyards by purchasing the vineyards of Charles Noellat and Philippe-Remy, and founded Domaine Leroy. Subsequent tensions began to arise between her and other shareholders of the DRC, who viewed Domaine Leroy as a rival and threat. In 1992, Bize-Leroy was ousted from her co-director role in a controversial move (though she remains a shareholder). She has since devoted all of her incredible passion and energy to Leroy wines, building the estate into an undisputed leader of the region.
Under Bize-Leroy’s leadership, Domaine Leroy has consistently produced wines that flawlessly encapsulate the uniqueness of each terroir while adhering to the most ecologically-sound practices possible. In fact, she asserts that because she and her employees demonstrate such respect for the land, her wines effectively make themselves. After having her staff fastidiously inspect all grapes to ensure that only the best make it into the wine, she claims that she can simply leave the bunches in their vat and let nature take over. The terroir and vineyards lend far more character to the fruit than she could, leaving little to be done in the cellar.
According to Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and other prominent wine writers, Bize-Leroy’s reputation precedes her. Known best for her fiery intensity, bold decision-making and meticulous approach to winemaking, she has certainly faced her share of critics. She began working in the field during a time when women were just beginning to break into the professional world, let alone the heavily-fraternal wine industry. A petite woman with a big personality, utterly determined to raise her family’s firm to the pinnacle of Burgundian winemaking, she was bound to ruffle some feathers.
There’s no doubt that Lalou Bize-Leroy is a force to be reckoned with in the industry. However, while she has faced criticism over her business practices and brazenness, even her critics agree on one thing – the beauty of her wines.
This post is the first of a recurring series on female winemakers and proprietors.