Haut-Bailly’s owner dies

Robert George ‘Bob’ Wilmers, the American owner of Château Haut-Bailly in Graves, has died aged 83.

Wilmers died of a heart attack at home in New York at the weekend (16 December). He had undergone surgery some weeks previously but had seemed on the path to recovery when he passed away.

Having made his career in the financial world – he was from 1983 until his death chairman and chief executive of M&T Bank – Wilmers was also the owner of Haut-Bailly which he acquired in 1998.

A life-long Francophile especially of Bordeaux and its wines, Wilmers kept on the property’s former owner and winemaker, Jean Sanders and subsequently Jean’s granddaughter Véronique to help run the estate.

A quiet man, known in Wall Street and the Gironde for his habit of riding around on a rickety old bike with mismatched tyres – even until relatively recently – Wilmers was not an ostentatious owner and to many remained more of a power behind the throne of Haut-Bailly rather than a figurehead.

Nonetheless, he was hugely interested in the running of Haut-Bailly, its viticultural practices and the people working for him and he was a dynamic presence behind the scenes where his support and management of the estate has seen it well and truly elevated into the top flight of Bordeaux’s wines (the 2009 received 100-points from Robert Parker for example).

His love of Bordeaux ran deep and as well as Haut-Bailly, in 2012 he acquired the neighbouring Château le Pape (which he would cycle to each morning when he was there to enjoy its surroundings that he apparently liked very much) and he was also involved in numerous local cultural projects and charities including acting as president of the Amis Américains de la Cité du Vin.

And it was not just in Bordeaux where his quiet but commanding manner and sense of philanthropy came to the fore either.

After turning around the fortunes of Buffalo-based M&T after he took over in 1983 (it was one of only two banks in the Standard & Poor 500 index not to nosedive in 2008), Wilmers is credited with saving and supporting a number of the city’s institutions including the zoo, orchestra and local football team – the Buffalo Bills.

He also expanded the bank to be one of the region’s biggest employers. His friend and fellow financier, Warren Buffett, said in a statement: “He was a remarkable banker, an even more remarkable citizen and a wonderful friend.”

A Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur since 2008, Wilmers was made an officer of the award only a few months ago in October.

He is survived by his wife Elisabeth, son Christopher and grandchildren and step-children and grandchildren.

In an initial statement from the estate, it would appear that Christopher will take over from his father. Véronique Sanders told the drinks business she knew Christopher, Elisabeth Wilmers and their family, “will continue in the same spirit and with the same dynamic as Bob did in the last 20 years.”

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