THAILAND : HONOR FOR VINEYARD OWNER ORIENTAL GRAND CRU
THAILAND : HONOR FOR VINEYARD OWNER
Unique among his countrymen, Pathom Vongsuravatana took the bold decision to buy a French vineyard. Now he is at the forefront of importing wine to the Asia Pacific region. Ken Barrett reports
The number of Thai owners of French vineyards can be counted on one finger -namely the genial Pathom Vongsuravatana who a few .’ars ago purchased the run-down hateau Saint-Lo in the Saint Emilion gion of Bordeaux and has since had ie satisfaction of seeing its wine xome a grand cru.
More than this, at the recent Board ‘ Investment Expo in Thailand – a gantic affair that was reported locally, have attracted a million-and-a-half sitors – Chateau Saint-Lo was offiilly honoured and its label now oudly bears the words Cabinet du premier Ministre (Office of the Prime i inister), to which the Bol is attached. All this was making Pathom a very ippy man, he confirmed, on a recent it to Bangkok for meetings with the magement of the historic Oriental hotel which, along with its two city shops, is Thailand’s sole outlet for Saint-Lo at present.
Any thoughts that Pathom may simply be a wine-loving businessman are, however, quickly dispelled upon meeting him, for, accompanied by his French wife Martine, and speaking French as his second language, it is quickly apparent that France and wine have become his entire life.
A Thai of Chinese descent – his family originally came from South China’s Shantou region, whose people form the largest part of Thailand’s Chinese community -Pathom originally set out to have an academic career.
‘I grew up in Korat. My father, Damrong, was a merchant who owned rice mills and had a rice liquor concession from the Thai government. He made the popular Chinese medicines of the day. But I was too young and too serious to care about all of that. After graduating from Assumption College, my father let me go to France to get my PhD in economics. The university I went to was in Bordeaux.’
‘I has always had this dream of owning my own vineyard producing the best. It took me more than 20 years but I did it’
Gaining his doctorate in 1959, Pathom began to wonder about he intended career path, which had been to return to Thailand and become a lecturer at Kasesart University Meeting and marrying Martine, he knew that France had become h home. But as he explains, there is nr much call for Thai economics lectu ers in France. Another career was needed, and so, encouraged by frienc in Bordeaux, he began to study tl brandy business.
In the 1960s, the Far East ha become the world’s biggest mark< for Cognac, absorbing more tha 50% of France’s annual production.
There was no one better place than Pathom, who knew his wa around Asia and understood Asia ways, to succeed in this market.
Fie became an export manage with a firm named Larson, but it wa when he increased their business 1C iold during the course of a single year ‘ hat he realised he would be better off working for himself.
He became a broker and exporter, ichieving high-volume sales in Japan and Hong Kong.
He added Armagnac to his product range, and saw that succeed also. Realising the importance of brand names and packaging for the Asian markets, Pathom created his Rois des Roi Cognac and Prince d’Armagnac.
‘Thais are developing a great taste for wine, and i want them to enjoy some of mine’
‘Even so, I had always had this dream of owning my own vineyard, producing the best wine possible,’ he says. ‘It took me more than 20 years, but I did it.’
Having studied viniculture at Bordeaux University prior to setting out on the Cognac trail, Pathom was aware of the pitfalls of such a move. Nonetheless, he was undeterred. Pathom and Martine began their search in the mid 1980s, going to see all the Bordeaux vineyards that came on to the market.
‘I knew the history of every vintage in the region, and I knew the best and the worst, and why,’ he says.
Armed with this information, he did not intend to make a costly mistake. It was in 1990 that Chateau Saint-Lo came on the market, and Pathom knew that his search was over. It had been one of the great Saint Emilion vineyards but the owners had died and the estate had been allowed to fall into disrepair.
It was to take three years of hard work, and a lot of money – some US$3 million for start-up costs alone -to restore the 16th century chateau and the vineyards back to their former glory.
The Chateau Saint-Lo wines had until 1986 borne the appellation grand cru, awarded by the French government’s Institut National Appellation d’Origin, but had lost it during what Pathom says were the disaster years of 1986-91. His first goal was to win it back, which he did in 1992.
More was to come, however. The second picking of grapes produces a wine named L’Ermitage de Saint-Lo, and in 1993 this too gained the
Currently producing 75,000 cases a year, but expecting this to rise quickly to 100,000, Pathom is choosing his future export markets very, very carefully. Now, he says, as with Cognac and Armagnac all those years ago, he sees a tremendous potential in Asia.
The Japanese market is becoming an important one for him, and Thailand too. The Thais are developing a great taste for wine, ‘and I want them to enjoy some of mine,’ he says.
Through trading company Italthai, who also own the majority shares of the Oriental, Saint-Lo is being brought into Thailand and sold through the hotel’s very upmarket restaurant outlets. It is also being sold in the two Oriental Shops in Bangkok.
‘The response has been great,’ says the Oriental’s food and beverage manager Jonas Schuermann. ‘Not just in our restaurants but also in the shops.
‘At our newest shop, in Lake Rajada Complex, it immediately became our best selling wine.
‘That proves that the Thai people, who are only just becoming used to the idea of taking wine home to hearts,’ he said. ‘I think there great deal of national pride invol here.’
Pathom has become very ‘ known, and he is greatly liked respected by the Thai people.
‘But also it is a very good wine, as we are selling it in the shops what by Thai standards is a reat able price (it retails at around US per bottle with Thai import di amounting to 123%), it is air tailor-made for the market here.:
Pathom’s youngest son, Rapl has now joined his father in exp ing Saint-Lo to the Asian mar] Raphael himself is also showinj family’s golden touch.
For his own doctoral thesis h< a study of Father Guy Tachard. of Louis XVTs emissaries to the c of King Narai. Publishing work commercially under the ti Jesuit in the Court of Siam, . currently enjoying critical and fi cial success.
In Bangkok, he is delighted t friends that France’s Le Monde called him a ‘Cocktail Thai’ – litc the most francophile of all his f( nri •