Robert Wilmers, Proprietor of Château Haut-Bailly - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Robert Wilmers, Proprietor of Château Haut-Bailly

A Remembrance

Haut-Bailly is a wine of quiet elegance. Like many wines in Bordeaux, it reflects the character of the team behind it, Robert Wilmers, the owner of the château since 1998, and Véronique Sanders, the general manager.

Wilmers, who grew up in New York and Belgium, purchased the property from Sanders’s grandfather, a Belgian in Bordeaux whose father had purchased it in 1955. Wilmers proceeded to gently move Haut-Bailly toward the forefront of contemporary Bordeaux. By the time of his death, unexpectedly, this past December, at the age of 83, Haut-Bailly had become a central part of his remarkable life.

As the fourth generation of Sanders at Haut-Bailly, Véronique recalls, “It was my dream to run the estate, and I was a bit disappointed when Bob bought it. He said to me, ‘Work for two years with your grandfather and we’ll see.’ I wasn’t part of any deal,” she says. “It was just part of Bob’s decision to trust a young girl at that time.”

Wilmers had already tested his skills at joining a community, having left a finance career in New York City to run M&T Bank in Buffalo, heading up a group of partners that invested in the bank’s stock. As chief executive since 1983, he commuted between Buffalo and Manhattan, successfully expanding the bank to a major regional player while building his own network in Buffalo. According to Reuters, by 2017, the bank’s assets had grown to $120 billion from the $2 billion in place when he came onboard. His personal involvement in the arts institutions and educational opportunities in the city were as notable as his conservative management of growth at M&T Bank, which needed no government bail-out during the financial crisis of 2008.

Long before he purchased a property in Bordeaux, Wilmers settled at an old farm in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. It was the late 1960s, when land in Stockbridge was going for a song, and like many of the sites chosen by the early settlers, the hillside with a white farmhouse and a rustic barn was one of the more beautiful pieces of land around. It’s how I got to know Bob, as I live on Washington Mountain, a few miles to the east. Several years before Wilmers, my father had bought property in Lenox and though our families summered in the Berkshires for decades, and I eventually moved there, I never met Wilmers until we were brought together by wine.

I had met Véronique Sanders in Bordeaux and she had connected Wilmers and me in the Berkshires, where we all met for lunch at his farmhouse with his French wife, Elisabeth, and her daughter’s family. That was back in 2007. It was hard not to be charmed by Wilmer’s nonchalance around the French. Or, for that matter, his gracious calm in New York City, at the Knickerbocker Club, where he hosted a tasting of Haut-Bailly wines in 2008. Or his and Sanders’s ability to bring together the good folk of wine at Vinexpo, for an informal dinner at long harvest tables where they had somehow convinced Christian Seely to pour Quinta do Noval Nacional and Jacques and Fiona Thienpont to pour Le Pin. It was brilliant brand positioning for Haut-Bailly, taking all pretension away from these legendary wines and presenting all of them in the context of simple, honest enjoyment. It was a coup that could easily go unnoticed, the kind of “refreshing paradox” that his son, Christopher, described in a eulogy at the service for his father in New York City: “He was never the center of attention, but always the center of gravity.”

Elevated this fall to an officer of the French Legion of Honor, Wilmers will be buried in Léognan after a memorial service on January 11.
Recently, Sanders described how she and Wilmers worked together. “Bob was a very talented grand patron. When we were talking together, he could have a vision long term, but also wanted to know everything in the details. In the everyday life, he would trust us—as he had his own job in America. But he gave us the means to invest in the fields, in the cellar, at every step, in order to be more precise, to go more in depth or in detail.”

At lunch in Stockbridge this past October, when Véronique Sanders was in town with her husband, Alexander van Beek, of châteaux Giscours and du Tertre, Wilmers was in top form, chastising me for not subscribing to the Berkshire Eagle, the local newspaper he and a group of friends had recently purchased. I subscribed when I got home after lunch, and then, while looking up his zip code to send him a thank you note, I came across an article about how he had recently become a billionaire, based on the value of his M&T Bank stock. Later, after hearing of his death and speaking with Sanders about plans for a memorial service in Léognan, I received the Sunday edition of the Eagle with Bob’s mug on the front page and an outpouring of local love for the man—it was the first time I’d heard about all of the support he and Elisabeth had given to the arts and historical organizations in the community, from Jacob’s Pillow to the Mount. You didn’t have to go far in the Berkshires, or New York City, or Buffalo or Pessac-Léognan, to find lives Bob Wilmers had touched and projects he had helped.

Elevated this fall to an officer of the French Legion of Honor, Wilmers will be buried in Léognan after a memorial service on January 11. “For us, it means a lot,” Sanders told me, as does the fact that his son, Christopher, will take over at Haut-Bailly.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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