Even by the standards of many rural estate agents, the elderly gentleman who found Xavier Rolet, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, his retreat near Gigondas in Provence, France, was hardly quick off the mark.
“There was no sign outside the office and he just had an old folder with some yellowing Polaroids of properties nearby. When I pointed to one and said ‘Can I view this?’ he couldn’t remember where it was because he had had it on his books for 20 years and no one else had expressed any interest in it,” says Rolet over a lunch of pan-fried duck with Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus from the potager garden, a few metres from where we’re sitting.
Six months after Rolet’s initial enquiry the estate agent called back with the good news: he’d found the property. The fact that buyers hadn’t been queuing up was understandable; having been empty for 45 years the building was essentially just a few walls, which were filled with piles of sheep dung. Yet Rolet saw the building’s potential and a ludicrously low offer was accepted within half an hour.
Refurbishment of what is now La Verrière was a long process and Rolet and his American-Italian wife Nicole, whom he married in 1997, mentions regular “Peter Mayle moments” – a reference to Mayle’s memoir, A Year in Provence, with its tales of uncooperative workmen and constant setbacks during the refurbishment of a French country cottage.
Now fully restored, the house has a magnificent entrance hall, a library and a large living and dining room with views over the terrace and formal parterre garden. As well as the Rolets’ own bedroom there are several guest rooms, a swimming pool and a tennis court set against a backdrop of mountains including Mount Ventoux.
The harsh beauty of the landscape around La Verrière, the clear air and the sense of space under scudding clouds, could hardly be more different from Algeria where Rolet, the son of a military man, spent his early years, and the grim Paris banlieue of Sarcelles where he subsequently grew up. While at Lehman Brothers in London, where he was head of European and Asian cash equities between 2000 and 2008, he taught French to children in Tower Hamlets, east London, because its tower blocks reminded him of his own childhood.
Rolet did his own stint in the military, serving as a second lieutenant and instructor at the French Air Force Academy in 1981, prior to attending the graduate school of business at Columbia University, where he gained an MBA in 1983. He began his financial career at Goldman Sachs’ New York office in 1984, living in a cramped apartment in a pre-gentrified part of Harlem, and later joined Credit Suisse First Boston as global head of European equities before moving to Dresdner Kleinwort Benson as global head of risk and trading, and deputy head of global equities.
In the early 1990s, when Rolet first spotted La Verrière, he was newly divorced and keen to buy a rural property with a view to exploring wine production. “I knew the area had potential because I talked to some of the old men around here and they said that even though the vines were now overgrown they had always made good wine.”
After moving into the house in 1994, Rolet replanted vines, dug irrigation trenches and built a winery next door to the house. The wine went into production in 2006 and the first reds were released in 2010, with Nicole, a graduate of Vassar College in New York, and who formerly worked in finance, as the driving force behind the marketing of Chêne Bleu. “I took a year off in 1994 to learn about wine production. It was fascinating and very different from my work life.”
In March 2009, Rolet joined the group board of the London Stock Exchange and became its chief executive in May of the same year. “It’s a constant challenge because the economic environment is changing so fast,” he says. “I’ve worked for companies on both sides of the Atlantic and that’s given me a useful perspective in my current role.” His real passion, though, is clearly what he sees as the role that the Exchange can play in funding new businesses when banks aren’t lending. “There’s so much potential in the current climate for equity financing to help companies grow,” he says. “More people should realise that.”
For Rolet, time at La Verrière offers a balance with his hectic working life. “The beauty of being here is that it enables me to truly relax and enjoy some downtime,” he says. “I love the challenges of working in the City but being at La Verrière enables me to put daily life into context and recognise that nature and our surroundings are so important. I can focus 100 per cent here – on work, on play, on rest.”
Rolet has strong views about the wine business in France. “Wine production is really hard work and when you add in the levels of taxes that are levied, that’s why so many young people in France want to leave it and go and work for the government,” he says. More generally, Rolet believes that France is a country “in denial” about its dire economic predicament, although he is too diplomatic to reveal his thoughts on the victory of François Hollande: “I certainly can’t comment on French politics.”
He is particularly scathing about the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system which, he believes, encourages complacency among producers, means nothing to most people outside the oenophile intelligensia and allows bad wines to be sold under apparently good labels. It is hardly surprising then that Chêne Bleu has no AOC.
As we wander down to see the vines and Rolet’s beloved beehives, we pass the oak tree – le chêne – which is, indeed, blue. Now dead and denuded of leaves, it is painted with Bordeaux Mixture, the traditional copper sulphate spray used to protect vines, thereby inspiring the name and logo of the Rolets’ wine.
“I was always determined to make our land and the winery biodynamic,” says Rolet. The estate is part of an 80,000 hectare Unesco biosphere reserve. In the hives near the vines, the bees produce a substance called propolis, which is frozen, pulverised, mixed with water and sprayed on the vines as a natural alternative to insecticide.
As we walk back, Rolet says of the house and estate, which is a family-owned business as well as the winery, “They’ll be my life post career, as well as being something for my children”. Then, perhaps reflecting on our discussion about the conservatism of French wine producers, he adds: “For them to carry on in their own way.”
When he was working in New York Rolet would regularly take a cheap flight aboard People’s Express to New Mexico where he’d learn “natural horsemanship” – riding without a saddle on a horse without shoes. “I’ve always loved horses but I’d never had the opportunity to ride one growing up in the suburbs of Paris – although I did see a lot of John Wayne movies,” he says. “I learnt natural horsemanship from an old Native American-Indian. It’s about focusing on the horse and not the rider.”
In particular Rolet learnt about how a horse’s unshod hooves expand when it puts them under pressure and this, together with the subsequent contraction, help with blood circulation. The plan is eventually to have horses to work the land at La Verrière. Rolet’s equestrian teacher would make traditional Native American items including this tomahawk, which he gave to his French pupil. “Like all his objects, it’s made from the sinews, hair and skins from a deer,” explains Rolet.