This piece was originally published on VICE France
Imagine only being able to look at your wine. No tasting, no smelling – just staring at some of the most beautiful bottles in the history of wine-making, without ever popping the cork.
This is the vow that binds 79-year-old French collector, Michel-Jack Chasseuil, to his cellars. It is a commandment of the collector’s own making: thou shalt not drink. This self-discipline has ended up paying off – Chasseuil has one of the most precious wine collections in the world.
His treasures are kept in a basement in La Chapelle-Bâton, a small village in the Deux-Sèvres region of western France, far from the great vineyards wine lovers usually flock to. However, “Those who want to visit the best wine cellar in the world need to come here,” Chausseuil advises in his book, 100 Vintage Treasures: From the World’s Finest Wine Cellar.
Chausseuil is proud of his roots in Deux-Sèvres. He lives in a house that belonged to his grandparents, who ran a bistro in the town.
The son of a postman, he started off collecting stamps, before moving onto coins and minerals, and finally being introduced to wine in the 1980s. Now, he channels all of his energy and savings into the hobby. He’s known to spend three months’ salary on a batch of two or three bottles, keep one and sell the extras to pay for future purchases. Surging wine prices help to finance his obsession.
Entering his sanctuary – the home’s original cellar, where his grandparents used to store wine in barrels – it feels like going back in time. A reinforced door opens into another room, which is brimming with bottles. This room will eventually be converted into an “alcoholarium”, filled with whisky, rum, chartreuse, sake and everything in between. Chausseuil’s only criteria: it must be rare.
A crack in the wall reveals a passage. With your head down, you squeeze through a bunker-like tunnel, along a corridor and into the main cellar. The walls are covered in crucifixes and religious paintings, while Chasseuil occasionally pipes some ceremonial music from a speaker system to add to the atmosphere.
Here, you will find some of the rarest and most expensive wines in the world, from Pétrus to Château d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc to Coche-Dury.
The exceptional bottles are separated from the merely excellent by a forged iron gate. Only the rarest have been displayed in the cellar-gallery.
“Every day there is somebody who wants to come and see my cellar,” says Chasseuil. “I’m pestered by letters and phone calls. Someone’s son wants to come, or their grandfather, or it’s for a wedding or a birthday. But I don’t allow visitors anymore, I wouldn’t have the energy for it. When they’re here, they don’t want to leave.”
What used to be a dead-end now gives way to a new area that is currently under construction, a cavern capable of displaying 3,000 cases from a collection of over 40,000 bottles. This 50-metre, earthquake-proof bunker will be home to gems whose prices, he hopes, will inflate year upon year.
In 2018, a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti was sold for around €460,000 in New York. Thirty years ago, Chasseuil bought two of them, as well as a 1921 Romanée-Conti, for just €1,500.
While he may not have the energy for weddings and birthday parties, he is keen to make this new showcase an attraction for wealthy tourists. Visitors from all around the world would arrive by helicopter in his garden once a week. A local luxury hotel has already been approached to form a partnership.
“The Puy du Fou [the second biggest theme park in France] started with a cart and four women. Saint-Tropez was a boat and three fishermen,” he says. “So why not La Chapelle-Bâton?”
Chasseuil talks a good game. He enjoys telling his story of being a self-made man, while declaring the contents of his cellar to be “the Louvre of wine”. And yet he is a salesman with nothing for sale. None of his wines are going anywhere. “My reputation is based on my collection, just like the gold of the Bank of France guarantees the currency,” he wrote in his book.
Still, some people have tried to strip him of his treasures. On the 19th of June, 2014, there was a knock at the door from a delivery driver: “Hello Mr Chasseuil, I have a parcel for you, can you sign here please?” Before he had a chance to say anything, several hooded thugs forced their way in through the garage and took him hostage for several hours.
One of the men took a rusty butcher’s knife from the utensil drawer and threatened to cut off three of Chasseuil’s fingers. Tied up and being beaten, he convinced them that the key to the cellar was kept at the bank. The gang ended up leaving almost empty-handed; only a few bottles from Chasseuil’s Bordeaux vineyard (Feytit Clinet and Pomerol) and his BMW were taken. Chasseuil doesn't blame the intruders. "They weren't there for me,” he says.
But many enemies don’t wear masks. He has an endless list of critics and rivals, along with politicians who won’t listen to his ambitions of having a museum. For some, Chasseuil’s main crime is hoarding so many wonderful wines without any intention of opening them. Aubery de Villaine, co-manager of the prestigious Romanée-Conti estate, is saddened by the fact that the bottles will “die” without ever seeing a corkscrew. “Despite my admiration and respect for him, I don’t agree with his project,” says Villaine.
“I’ve drunk everything,” replies Chasseuil when I bring this up. It’s true that, in his house, a window is filled with empty bottles of wine that are anything but cheap. When he worked at Dassault Aviation (an aircraft manufacturing company), business meals often involved alcohol, and Chasseuil would lean on the high class sommeliers serving them to bring out the best of the best. He educated his palate at the expense of his employer.
After a lifetime of drinking the finest, this enthusiast is now devoting himself to his cellar. Among the most treasured items on show here is a small white plaque with an inscription on a red background: his grandfather’s alcohol licence, from when he had his own bistro. There was a time when you simply had a tipple at the Chasseuils’.