Wine country renaissance: Vintners salvage past, bank on tourism

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Jean-Francois Janoueix and Jean-Michel Cazes have more in common than producing outstanding Bordeaux wine.

These vintners share a passion for old limestone, and are banking on tourism to revive the wine country's crumbling cottages and dying villages.

"The villages need to be reborn", said Mr. Janoueix, owner of seventeen wine estates, including Chateau Haut Sarpe near Saint Emilion, 45 kilometres (28 miles) east of Bordeaux.

"The great wine estates don't care about these modest homes, but they are the markers of the past. When we demolish them, we gain a few vines but lose a whole piece of the past."

Determined to keep the rural heritage alive, he's personally financing the renovation of the rustic hamlet of Sarpe at the gates of his estate. "I want it to have the atmosphere of the past", said Mr. Janoueix while his full-time mason meticulously restores a facade nearby.

True to his vision, the village steps back in time. An original "rural post office" sign clings to a wall -- no one can quite remember when the building last sold stamps.

Guests can visit an 18th century windmill and the kitsch, 1950's "night club" built for the pickers. In Haut Sarpe's cellars, Mr. Janoueix offers wine tastings amidst a collection of antique tools and equipment.

A few steps away, a farmhouse provides room and board to modern-day pilgrims walking the historic St. Jacques de Compostelle route (just 1,060 kilometres to go!), and soon, an old-fashioned bakery will open on the square.

Banking on another winning combination -- wine and art -- Mr. Janoueix also restored the winegrowers' cottages in his vineyards. Soon, artists will take up short-term residencies and sell their work in a gallery in the village.

Inspired by Napa's savvy approach to wine tourism, Mr. Janoueix hopes to draw tourists to Sarpe, where he can introduce them to a slice of wine history, art and his wines.

Sarpe is well-located for such a project. The local tourist office estimates that Saint Emilion, a UNESCO world heritage site, receives one million visitors per year.

"We would be stupid to be five hundred meters from Saint Emilion and do nothing", emphasised Mr. Janoueix.

Ninety kilometres away in the Medoc region, northwest of Bordeaux, the iconic owner of Chateau Lynch Bages, Jean Michel Cazes, does not have a world heritage site to draw tourists. When he arrived from Paris in 1973 to take over Lynch Bages, "there was not a single tourist".

Yet he sensed wine tourism was the future. Thirty-six years later, Lynch Bages receives 20,000 visitors per year.

In addition to several wine estates, the Cazes family owns a luxury hotel, two Michelin-starred restaurants, a wine estate bed & breakfast, a wine school and a wine tour agency. Twenty percent of their business revenue comes from wine tourism.

Even as his business flourished, the lively village of his childhood quietly slid into ruin.

In 2003, when Cazes needed to enlarge his cellars and the architect proposed demolishing the abandoned hamlet of Bages, located on his back doorstep, Cazes balked.

"I didn't want to see the village disappear", explained Mr. Cazes. "I didn't want to be remembered as the man who knocked down a village to stock my wine."

Instead, he hired craftsmen to restore the historical limestone buildings with the goal of creating a modern village that would attract both locals and tourists.

"We need to brush the dust off the image of the Grands Crus of Bordeaux", he explained.

Cazes' vision has taken shape: a pretty village square, a bakery, a stylish bistro, a refined boutique, a master basket-weaver, an annex to a luxury hotel, a butcher and soon, an upscale wine bar and cigar lounge.

A cheerful playground attracts mothers and toddlers. Free, open-air movie nights bring in the locals. And the buildings retain the names of the original owners.

"Here we have a history, an architecture, the art of living", said Cazes. "The town represents how we see Lynch Bages - conviviality."

He's unfazed by critics that he's created a mini-Disneyland -- "(Disneyland)'s a wonderful success, if only I had so many people..."

However, Cazes is quick to point out that there are no souvenir shops in Bages hawking "t-shirts, baseball caps and fridge magnets".

He reiterates his goal is to attract a cross section of the population.

"Our town is not just for tourists", declared Mr. Cazes. "The day I saw three vineyard workers and Madame Borie from Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, having coffee next to one another, I knew we had succeeded."

Summing up his philosophy: "I want the village of Bages to live."