One of the world’s most prestigious wine cellars isn’t where you think it might be. It isn’t nestled beneath a grand chateau or presidential palace, but buried in the backyard of an average Joe, a retiree of humble background who has been collecting the rarest wines, bottle by bottle for the past 50 years.
Michel-Jack Chasseuil is ranked among the top five collectors of wine in the world. Among his treasure: Chateauneuf du Pape, Montrachet, Cheval Blanc, all the “Grand Cru” of Bordeaux dating back to 1855 and a complete collection of Petrus since 1914, to name a few. He has more than 40,000 bottles sitting in a labyrinthine cave, built with his own hands beneath his grandmother’s country home (where he still lives). The cellar is a veritable Fort Knox, accessed by a series of staircases, narrow tunnels and fortified doors, lit like a chapel.
The air vents stick out discretely from the ground in his garden, camouflaged by a vegetable patch and chicken huts. The collection beneath has an estimated value of $40 – 50 million, but Michel-Jack hasn’t had it appraised because he wouldn’t be able to afford the insurance.
The son of a postman by day and barber by night, he was raised in a small village in France. His grandfather was a coffeemaker, who was often paid in barrels of wine, and gave 50 bottles to his grandchildren at the start of the year for helping him bottle the wine. When he came of age, Michel-Jack found a job with the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation, working in the factory as a coppersmith before making his way up to the design office as an industrial designer. He was sent abroad for work, meeting important clients and sitting at important tables, slowly training his palette. From a young age, Michel-Jack was already collecting stamps, minerals and roman coin, but it was during these years that he truly caught the collecting bug for his true calling.
In the 1960s, Mr. Chasseuil still had a comparatively modest wine cave of about 600 bottles, all purchased with his own salary, but in the 1970s, he met the ailing heiress of Château Feytit-Clinet by chance, Madame Mary Domergue. A real-life Miss Havisham living in solitude, he took care of her and supported her for the remaining years of her life. When she died, she left him half of the estate in her will and he became the benefactor of four hundred cases of wine.
Following the advice of his aviation boss, Marcel Dassault, Michel-Jack became a pioneer of oenological collecting and saw the value of major vintage wines early on when they were still sold at affordable prices for an average salaryman; when a month’s salary could buy him two cases of 1982 Pétrus for example.
He owns a bottle of Port dating from 1735 and the only known bottle of Porto Noval made from two thousand year old vines in 1931, which Michel-Jack considers the Mona Lisa in his collection.
In 1988, Mr. Chasseuil brought two bottles of wine at auction in Versailles that were destined to be served on the ill-fated Titanic. He purchased the wine produced in 1912, which contains 22-23 carat gold shards, from the descendants of Louis Renault (the automobile dynasty), who himself was supposed to cross the Atlantic aboard the vessel in April of 1912, but for unknown reasons decided against it. Research revealed that bottles from the same cuvée, which had the reputation of “purifying one’s blood” with its gold flakes (first created by a Dutchman in the 16th century), were indeed served aboard the Titanic.
Other gems of Michel-Jack’s cellar include an 1811 cognac bearing the engraved effigy of Napoleon from his cellar in Fontainbleau and an 1853 Lacrima Cristi from the cellar of Tsar Nicolas II bearing his coat of arms.
By the new millenium, Mr. Chasseuil’s collection, which he intends to leave to the state, was museum-worthy and needed a storage facility to properly preserve it. But incredibly, Mr. Chasseuil couldn’t find an association willing to house his collection. So with financing from the sale of a few bottles, Michel-Jack took the decision to build his own cellar alone, brick by brick.
But of course, where there is treasure, there is also danger. In the summer of 2014, a gang of criminals disguised as a delivery team arrived at the home of Mr. Chasseuil hooded and armed. They threatened beat and held the collector hostage (then 73 years-old) in his own home for several hours attempting to obtain the cellar’s keys in vain, which incidentally, were being kept at the bank. The gang left with his car and a dozen cases of Pomerol that weren’t in the main cave, as well as and a few personal items.
Despit the traumatic event, Michel-Jack attended the trial of his attackers and even shook their hand, saying, “I forgive them, but I do not excuse it.”
The now world-renowned collector in the world of viticulture hasn’t lost his spirit. The vivacious retiree still regularly welcomes journalists into his cave and his dream is for the cellar to become an official museum, classed as a historic monument.
But you must be wondering – does he ever drink any of his precious wine? In the course of his lifetime, Michel-Jack has savoured some of the most mythical wines in the world, but only opens them on very special occasions with his family. At the age of 80 years, he continues to growing his liquid “Louvre”, hoping to preserve it for generations to come.
If you speak a little French (or even if you don’t), meet the charming Michel-Jack as he takes the cameras into his Aladdin’s Cave…