Philippe Dufrenoy

Interview by: Oleg Cherne

Philippe Dufrenoy is an exceptional person. At 62, he believes he’s already living through his third life. Over the past 8 years, this former engineer has been working as an artist, «the man who paints with wine,» as he refers to himself. He is the first-ever professional artist to decide to use wine as his paint. But it’s not just about the material. Wine is also the very essence of his paintings, and they are imbued with the spirit of this outstanding drink.

Philippe enjoys his new life because it has allowed him to meet so many new interesting people. He is friends with numerous celebrities who dream of getting their own wine-painted portraits one day.

— Do I understand correctly that you’ve never had any professional artistic training?

— Yes, that’s right. But it’s still my calling. Painting has always been a kind of a hobby for me, a way to pass the time, like how some people might enjoy playing golf. I used to work as an engineer at a construction company. Then one day we were bought out by a firm from the USA, and the new owners fired 10% of the staff, about 100 people at once. I have no idea why, but I was among the people laid off. Then one of my friends gave me some advice I’ll never forget: «Forget about it! Forget everything you used to do, all your connections…»

— Who told you that?

My wife! I mean, at the time. Eventually I left her behind too. Do you know what happiness is in my opinion? It’s the ability to live multiple lives. Three lives, three wives, three children… Everything comes in threes. In any event, that advice helped me keep my spirits up. It gave me a chance to discover what I’m really passionate about. For instance, if you like gardening as a hobby, you could try ditching your day job and make gardening your primary occupation.

My hobbies are music, photography, and painting. For over a year I was in love with African-American jazz performers, they were all I painted. I even traveled to New York and San Francisco twice to sell them. Once in 2000, I went to a restaurant in Bordeaux. I didn’t have a canvas, I was alone, and I only had a paint brush with me. So I was sitting in this restaurant waiting for my order, and I just took my brush and dipped it in my wine glass, I don’t even remember what kind I was drinking. It was just a cheap, everyday lunch in Bordeaux. So there I was, painting something or other on those paper tablecloths you always find in that kind of restaurant.

Just sitting and painting. And I got this idea (all in just three minutes) that I was onto something! So I stayed in Bordeaux. I knew that 2000 was a good year for Bordeaux vineyards, and that people would be earning good money. That’s how my wine story started. Later, I learned the correct technique for painting with wine, developed and perfected it.

— Is it true that your professional career started with pictures where the former prime minister of France Jacques Chaban-Delmas posed for you?

— Well, we used to work together before. Out of my three lives, that was in the second. We worked together, and he was also my friend as well.

— Was he your friend when he was working as the prime minister?

— No, we met long before all that. He fought along with de Gaulle, was minister in the postwar years, headed the National Assembly… When I started working with him, he was the mayor of Bordeaux. And he stayed there for half a century! Since I had worked with him in my past life, the very first portrait I presented to the public was of Chaban-Delmas. He was a true friend of mine, and everyone here in Bordeaux loves him. He lived a long life.

— What materials do you use for your paintings? You’ve probably tried various kinds of grapes, right?

— When I was painting Chaban-Delmas, for example, I used Bordeaux wine. I mostly used Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, until I started working with more Americans… In the Napa Valley I collaborated with Robert Mondavi, he was kind of a patron for me.

— Interesting, because Mondavi was known to perceive wine through the lens of music.

— Not just music, but a number of other art forms as well. His wife was a talented painter, she even had several of her own exhibitions. They also organized a jazz music festival. Robert was very passionate about jazz. In my opinion, Mondavi’s wines and Bordeaux wine have a very similar structure. They’re filled with tannins.

— Have you ever tried painting with Saperavi wine?

— No, I haven’t. But you know, I don’t really have a favorite kind of grape. I’m more interested in the difference between regions. For instance, I never work with wines from Beaujolais or Burgundy. Their wine is too light for me, it has no color, no depth to it. By the way, American journalists say I’m the only painter who sucks on his brushes. And that’s true, I always do that to wet them.

Have you ever painted a joint work with Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild with Opus One wine?

— Yes, I painted a portrait of madam Philippine de Rothschild. Opus One is part of the Rothschild family.

— So that means personality plays an important role in your perception of wine?

— Right, I often identify wines with the person who created them. For example, there are two exceptional, absolutely amazing people in Bordeaux. On the left bank, there’s Anthony Barton, owner of Chateau Leoville-Barton. An outstanding and very intelligent man. And on the right bank lives Thierry Manoncourt from Chateau Figeac. Thierry Manoncourt is fantastic in his own right as well.

— Are there any major differences between young and old wine, in your opinion?

— I only paint with young wine. The problem is that old wines have this ruddy shade. I can’t paint a picture in just a couple of hours after I open a bottle. Most pictures take me 7 or 8 days, and the color of an old wine might change dramatically over this time. So that’s a real issue…

— Does that mean the great winemaker of Petrus Jean-Claude Berrouet posed for 78 days straight?

You’ve seen that painting, right? How did you guess? (laughing together) Well, Jean-Claude was retired… But in reality, I usually take a bunch of pictures. It’s a very hard work, almost like surgery, to paint realistically. And celebrities rarely have that much time to just sit and pose. That’s why I have to paint by photos of them. First, I take 30 to 40 pictures of a person to see what I need, trying to catch the essence of their nature…

— Would you consider painting Vladimir Putin’s portrait? He’s a big fan of Chateau Cheval Blanc.

— Chateau Cheval Blanc? Right, he was at a tasting session there once… You know what, why not? You’re right! I really should paint a portrait of Putin! It’s a big event when national leaders visit our chateaus.

— What wine would you use?

— Chateau Cheval Blanc, what else? We’ve been on good terms with Pierre Lurton, the manager of the chateau, over the last 10 years. He personally welcomed Putin at the tasting session a couple of years ago, and I know that Mr. Putin personally requested to visit this chateau, because he loves their wine. This is exactly what happened with the Dalai Lama as well. I never met him in person, but I sent my photographer there and he took all the photos I needed. I only met His Grace later, when I personally handed him the portrait. As for Putin, the only possible option is of course Le Cheval Blanc 2005. This is his favorite wine… But I probably wouldn’t paint him smiling. He does smile sometimes, right?

— Pierre Lurton told me that when Putin smiled, it left him with an unforgettable impression.

— It’s settled then!

— What’s your personal opinion on this wine?

— I believe that the two great pillars of Saint-Emilion are Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc. They have two very different stories. Ausone is a family enterprise. They guard their traditions, and continue to mine stone and carve out cellars in rock like the Ancient Romans did. Plus they never promote their wines or participate in tasting sessions. Nevertheless, their wines are still one of the most expensive and prestigious in the world. Chateau Cheval Blanc is undoubtedly no less great, but their approach is dramatically different. Bernard Arnaud and Albert Frere have grandiose plans, they want to reconstruct and renovate everything! Bernard Arnaud even invited the best architect in France. It’s really going to be something when they’re finished. Their wine is quite popular among connoisseurs. For instance, Charles Aznavour always orders three bottles of Chateau Cheval Blanc to his box at the theater.

 — Monsieur Philippe, do you know of anyone who follows your technique?

— I know about some artists who try to replicate what I do, but their works turn out very different, more like caricatures. There is also one French artist, a very pleasant man, who goes around to various vineyards, chatting with the winemakers. He spends 3–4 days with them, eats, drinks their wine, paints and then leaves his paintings with the owners as gifts. Still, he isn’t a professional. Recently, someone told me there is a woman in California doing what I do as well. You know, life goes on, that’s why I’m not going to stay in one place, I’m always developing my design.

If more painters with wine come on the scene, that means I should move on and do something even bigger. It took me 3 or 4 years to learn how to paint like this and master the ins-and-outs of portraiture. Now, I’m learning to work more with dimensions and spatial design. Imagine a wine bar and 6–8 paintings like this one on the wall. The atmosphere it would help create is simply divine!

— How much do your paintings cost?

— Around €3,000. You should understand that paintings like these simply can’t be cheap. First of all, I’m the first painter in the world to start painting with wine. Secondly, I’ve already done portraits of countless celebrities. And above all else, I use expensive wine materials. A lot depends on where I paint—whether I do it in Bordeaux, or have to travel to another country. I don’t limit myself to portraits, I often paint castles and houses as well… sometimes people order promotional paintings. Recently I was asked to decorate a restaurant. They want landscapes, scenes depicting the winemaking process, bottles of wine. Expensive restaurants sometimes order panel pictures, like the ones Philippe Starck does.

What is the most difficult part of painting with wine for you?

— I like it when everything goes smoothly, then I feel positive about my work. Two or three times I didn’t manage to establish a friendly connection with the client, and it’s extremely hard to work when something like that doesn’t click. In order to catch the feeling in a person’s eyes and paint them right, I need to feel sympathy towards them. It’s more than just technique. An artist paints with their heart.

— Does that mean wine painting is only fit to make portraits of positive people? Perhaps, the wine rejects unlikeable individuals…

— You know, that’s true for all artists, not just wine painters! All I want is to live a happy, content life…

— Wine is a living product, and sometimes it has reactions of its own…

— You’re absolutely right. I breathe in its aroma… I often just grab an empty bottle, go straight to a vat with the chateau owner and pour out some wine. Once, a businessman wanted to have his portrait painted with Chateau Haut-Brion. I made a call to Chateau Haut-Brion, and they said: «No problem!» So the owner of the castle and I went together down to the cellar to grab a bottle… I was so happy that day! The painting turned out fantastic. Even the chateau owner signed the canvas, and the client was thrilled.

What’s your favorite genre of music?

— Jazz. I told you already about how I used to paint jazzmen. When I have some free time, I like going to concerts. Sometimes I fly to London or New York…

— What is your favorite wine to… drink?

— Wines with a Cabernet Sauvignon base. I drink only red wine, never white. I just don’t like white wine. I love potent, intense wines. For example, I once visited Plovdiv and tried the Mavrud wine there. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I also painted a beautiful house there using that very Mavrud. The painting still hangs there today.

Can you single out one chateau that you like the most?

— I’d like to keep that a secret, if you don’t mind. On this matter, I agree with Michelle Rolland. I asked him once: «What wine do you consider the best? Whisper it to me, I won’t tell anyone!» And he said: «You know, Philippe… I was once in a port town in a small restaurant. I was 19 years old and I was there with a girl. And I was deeply in love with her. I was drinking some rosé… and that was the best wine in the whole world!»

Do you see what I mean? It depends on where and with whom you are at the moment… Let that be my answer. The best wine is the one that makes unforgettable memories.