One meets many interesting characters during the course of one’s endeavours. Such is certainly the case in the wine industry where rugged individualists battle the vagaries of nature and markets in order to survive. Our wine scribe Jim Walker has had the privilege to meet up with many of these folks as he has navigated the wild, wacky and wonderful world of wine. One of the most memorable was Jérôme Caillé of Château Robin.
Strange at it may seem we first encountered Jérôme in his room at the Carleton Hotel in Cannes. It was late winter 2006 and we had assembled at that storied pile on the French Riviera to attend a rather spectacular wine convention (see On the Road to Cannes for all the madcap details). We were both just starting out. His family had recently purchased Château Robin in the Côtes de Castillon wine region and our wine importing business was in its infancy.
Jérôme along with his two sisters were part of a prosperous family from the island of La Réunion, once known as Île Bourbon and Île Bonaparte, a French possession located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. Among his parents’ — Laurence and Jean Caillé — many businesses there were a number of automobile dealerships where Jérôme had indifferently toiled for the previous decade. “I was born and brought up in the car world. After learning about winemaking, I realized that my previous professional life had been dull, unfulfilling, devoid of emotion and passion,” he says.
As he related it to me, here’s how he came to be involved with Château Robin. It seems he was there visiting an old school chum whose parents owned the property. They were having lunch when the friend’s father came into the room looking as if he had just seen a ghost. He had customarily sold all of his wine through a négociant (wine merchant) in Bordeaux. Evidently the father was a grouchy old curmudgeon who was nasty to friend and foe alike. Well, it seems he behaved wretchedly to his négociant one time too often and as the result the merchant declared that their business relationship was over. This was a disaster for the friend’s father because he had no other way to get his wine to market. It was at this moment he decided to sell everything. Jérôme, ever the opportunist, thought to himself: “I would love to live here and run Château Robin. I am confident that I could find customers for this lovely wine.” So, he called his father and the rest as they say is history.
The Caillés had acquired a very old estate that was mentioned in the first edition of Guide Féret in 1874. It was a single plot of some 30 acres of 40-year-old vines that included a handsome residence (not really a château) and the usual wine-making outer buildings in the Côtes de Castillon (since changed to Castillon – Côtes de Bordeaux to bathe in the glory of its famous neighbour to the west). This appellation is favourably situated cheek-by-jowl with St.-Emilion and Pommerol. Here’s what Robert M. Parker, Jr. had this to say about the Côtes de Castillon in the fourth edition of his book, ‘Bordeaux’:
Now the most fashionable of the satellite appellations [of Bordeaux], the Côtes de Castillon is a hotbed of activity as well as fertile hunting ground for a bevy of overachievers. Located east of Puisseguin-St.-Emilion, approximately 25 miles from Bordeaux, the appellation is named after the commune called Castillon-La-Bataille, which commemorates the Battle of Castillon. This 1453 battle marked the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War when the English Commander, Talbot, died during the defeat of his army. As one of the older winemaking regions in the area, viticultural practices can be traced to Roman times. Appellation status was awarded in 1955 and there has been significantly more interest expressed in the wines as a lower-priced alternative to the wines of St.-Emilion.
Now, back to Jérôme. We found him to be an engaging, energetic young man who was very excited to hear about our plans to operate a wine club in Ontario. He was successfully working with a similar program in England and told us he would be pleased to support our efforts. Once we sampled his lovely wines, we knew we had the basis of a flourishing partnership.
We started things off with the 2002 Château Robin that was actually produced by the previous owner. But Jérôme kicked things up a notch by packaging the elixirs in wooden boxes and printing special back labels that featured our wine club. Here’s how I described that delectable wine:
The 2002 vintage Château Robin was blended from 60 per cent Merlot, 30 per cent Cabernet Franc and 10 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon. It was aged in new French oak barrels (50 per cent), oak barrels that have been used once before (25 per cent) and the remainder in vats to maintain the fruitiness of the wine. It was a dark red, almost black wine that displayed dried plums and blackberries, almonds, smoke and vanilla on the nose. In the mouth there was an explosion of flavours that included blackberries, raspberries, toast and liquorice. It had great concentration, was full, dense and round and was exceptionally well-balanced. This wine had everything one would expect from a cru classé at a much higher price. It won a gold medal at the Concours Général Agricole de Paris, 2004 and was also included among the Top 100 Bordeaux by the Bordeaux Wine Bureau. A few months later we presented it to our wine club at $24 the bottle.
The wine was popular with our Members as were several succeeding iterations. Things were going so well that Jérôme and I decided to submit his 2004 vintage to the LCBO for a listing. Shortly thereafter we received a very nasty letter, passed on by the LCBO, in which another agent accused us of stealing the Château Robin agency relationship and vowing to make certain that we would be forever banished from the LCBO! It seems that Jérôme had contracted with another agent a couple of years before and had neglected to tell us. Jérôme had not heard from them during that period so decided it was time for new representation … us. Oddly, the other agent was an individual with whom we had seriously considered forming a partnership before deciding to go on our own.
A little while later Jérôme announced that he was going to visit his agent in Quebec and wanted to extend his tour to include us. As coincidence would have it, another of our winery owners, Charles Pacaud of Domaine la Croix Chaptal (see We Found Two Treasures in the Languedoc for more about Charles) was going to be in La Belle Province at the same time and also wanted to see us. So, we decided to have them both stay at our home and to organize restaurant tasting events featuring them and their wines.
Charles and Jérôme managed to find their way to our house, Jérôme without his luggage, that daughter Kate collected for him a few hours later. We had a fine dinner together where we featured new world wines that we knew they would never had confronted before. And, what a pair of characters we had as lodgers! The French love their politics, particularly arguing vehemently about them. And, it was a general election year in France. Jérôme’s views were noticeably to the right of Newt Gingrich and Charles to the left of Tommy Douglas. The fur flew all evening and well into the next day.
We had arranged a couple of special dinners featuring the two combatants, one at Bodega in Toronto and the other at Thyme Restaurant and Wine Bar in Oakville. Here’s are the delectable details of the first:
Both dinners were great successes and the lads behaved themselves quite admirably. In between, on the second day, we took Jérôme and Charles on a tour of the Niagara wine region. They argued strenuously all the way to and fro. As we were motoring along the parkway by the Niagara River, Charles asked if the land on the other side was the United States. When confirmed, he suggested that Jérôme might want to swim across. Incidentally, both opined that there would never be great wine produced in the Niagara region; the soil was too fertile and irrigation was allowed.
Our business relationship with Jérôme progressed nicely over the years, although he was often difficult to reach due to his penchant for world travel in search of markets for his wine. We did manage to contact him just before Hélène and I were to join some friends for a week in the Dordogne. He invited us to drop by the winery and have lunch with him and his wife Alexandria when our trip was over. We gladly accepted and I contacted him once again just before to confirm.
We arrived at Château Robin just before noon on the appointed day. There was no one there! We hung around for a few moments wondering what to do when a sedan drove up. It was Jérôme’s wife Alexandria with their daughters Luana and Théa. It was clear that Alexandria didn’t have a clue who we were or what we were doing on her front lawn. After brief explanations we were invited inside while Alexandria attended to other matters, probably to call Jérôme. There had definitely been a party there the night before as partially-filled wine glasses were strewn about.
A few moments later Jérôme showed up with son Tom. He appeared equally stunned. Clearly he had forgotten about our rendezvous and had neglected to tell Alexandria of our luncheon appointment. Talk about awkward! As Jérôme took us on a tour of the property and wine-making facilities, Alexandria straightened the place up and arranged a makeshift lunch that was prepared by an old retainer the family had brought over from La Réunion. It turned out to be a pleasant but somewhat strained affair.
That was pretty much it for our association with Jérôme and Château Robin. Not too long thereafter we notified him that the LCBO was making it administratively impossible for us to continue and thus we were sadly forced to end our collaboration. We have not been in touch since. In the course of preparing this article I found that the Château Robin website was no longer operational and that Jérôme’s email address was defunct. The only thing I did determine was that the winery produced a 2019 vintage. Perhaps the family pulled up stakes and returned to La Réunion?
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