Madame Descaves: Queen of Fine Wine

Bordeaux—I started visiting and writing about Bordeaux in 1976, and as I learned about the local wine trade, I discovered it had a queen: Madame Jeanne Descaves. Married at 18, she had helped her husband, Jean, build the highly respected (and appropriately named) wine-merchant business Maison Jean Descaves, with its long list of Grands Vins de Bordeaux Authentiques. Upon Monsieur’s death, in 1968, Madame took over the reins—and tens of thousands of ancient bottles she famously never undersold.

I wrote to the reclusive Madame Descaves several times over the years, suggesting that we meet for an interview, but she always fobbed me off with extreme politesse. In 1994 I gave it one last go. At 92, Madame Descaves was still very much in charge of the business, living above the warehouses and offices in a grand 19th-century stone building on the Cours du Médoc. Finally, early in the morning on my last day in the city, she agreed to see me.

I made my way up the handsome stone staircase to her office-cum-salon. She presided at a paper-strewn desk in the middle of what was more of a parlor than a workspace. Her tools were three heavy old telephones, sometimes all in use, a master price list, and, in a corner of the room, a fax machine that she seemed to regard with suspicion.

With her head of chestnut-colored hair and patterned-silk dress, Madame Descaves seemed a remnant of the quill-pen era. She motioned me to sit at her desk while she conducted two or three uncompromising deals in a gravelly, Piaf-like voice. “I don’t have time to read you my tariff,” she barked down one line; and “Twelve magnums of what?” down another. I must have done something right, because by 10:05 A.M., she had opened the small refrigerator in the corner and asked whether I’d prefer Laurent-Perrier or Ruinart. I popped the cork and poured the Champagne into two ancient engraved coupes.

Madame Descaves passed away on Christmas Day, 1999, at the age of 97. Since her death, women have continued to run Maison Descaves: first Madame’s former assistant, the delightfully named France Chauvin, and currently, director Ariane Khaida. As for the queen herself, she remains without question the most remarkable woman in wine I have ever met.

Unfortunately, Maison Descaves is not open to visitors. For restaurants with excellent wine lists in and around Bordeaux, Robinson recommends Le Chapon Fin (, Le Saint-James (, in Bouliac, and Cordeillan-Bages (, in Pauillac.