Forbes-listed Chess Enthusiast Andrey Filatov Uses Grand Cru Wine and Russian Art Museum in Bordeaux to Develop Respect for Russia in the West

If you go for a ride around the picturesque village of Saint-Emilion, located in the heart of Bordeaux, and take the direction of Chateau Cheval Blanc, at some point you will unavoidably see the giant red letters Art Russe in a vineyard by the road. No, this is not a badly disguised meeting place for the GRU agents. The question what kind of “Russian art” fell here out of the blue sky has been tackling the fancy of every self-respecting Bordeaux motorist for the past eighteen months. The two-lane village road quickly learned what traffic jams were, as everyone came to gaze at the impudent letters and the steel structure resembling a giant hockey puck next to them – the building of the renovated winery in place of the habitual ochre-coloured chateau like most others.

It all started four years ago, when Andrey Filatov, #97 on the Russian Forbes List, acquired Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs (“The Grace of God of the Priors”), founded in 1885, with its ten hectares of vineyards. Russian landlords in the region are still rare, while, say, Chinese capital has been flowing in for some time now, with 140 of nearly seven thousand Bordeaux wineries currently in Chinese hands. In twenty-something years, Hong Kong investor Peter Kwok, for example, has managed to build a small empire of seven wineries. Alibaba owner Jack Ma owns two estates: Chateau de Sours and Chateau Perenne. Locals are no longer astonished at the arrival of their new neighbours, except perhaps for President Macron who, in his trademark style, sternly declares his intention to put an end to the sale of French vineyards to foreigners.

Like virtually all other new owners of old French chateaus, Andrey Filatov had earned his billion long before developing an interest in winemaking. He is a co-owner of the Globaltrans Group, which has been engaged in rail transportation since the 1990s and floated its shares twice on the London Stock Exchange in the 2000s. Now retired from operational management, Filatov remains active in private investments through Tuloma, an investment vehicle he established, and pursues non-commercial projects “for the soul”.

Indeed, five years ago, he became President of the Russian Chess Federation, and then also … senior coach of the Russian national chess team. In fact, the billionaire simply went back to his professional roots, as after his graduation from Youth Sports College 9 in Dnepropetrovsk, with the rank of Candidate Master of Sports of the USSR, Filatov had completed studies to become a chess coach at the Academy of Physical Education in Minsk.

One day, in the early nineties, Filatov travelled to Poland for a chess tournament, only to learn upon arrival that the tournament had been cancelled. He went for a walk around the city, wandering around the shops. And the calculator in the chess-player’s mind started clicking. Before long, he was buying Soviet household appliances in Russia, bringing them to Poland and making ten times the initial investment along the way. In 1993, together with two partners, he established a company, which ten years later would become a nation-wide player, while remaining 100% privately owned. “No one was surprised when many years later, having achieved tremendous success in business, Andrey Filatov returned to the Chess Federation, says sports journalist and Executive Director of the Russian Chess Federation Mark Glukhovsky. “Not unlike fundamental physicists, chess players form a particular subculture. We are drawn to each other, for the simple reason that we need someone to discuss Nakamura’s latest game with”.

Filatov invests a lot of effort and money in the revival of the Soviet children’s tournament “White Castle”. The tournament, which used to bring together millions of Soviet children, has now become international. He also sponsors the annual Sinitsyn Memorial in memory of his coach in Dnepropetrovsk, without whom “there would be nothing that is now.” A cocky teenager, Filatov, like many children of the economic stagnation era, could have well become an urban troublemaker. “Alexander taught me the chess player’s code, recalls the entrepreneur. There were times when I would react to defeat as only a street kid would. Those outbursts were quickly subdued and I was firmly taught to shake the opponent’s hand, analyse the game, identify mistakes and move on.” Now Filatov, father of five children, including two high school students and three little kids, is lobbying for the inclusion of chess in the school curriculum. As an example he cites Armenia, where chess lessons have been on the school curriculum for several years now, and where there is already evidence that the measure led to a reduction in the level of adolescent substance abuse. Chess, after all, develops strategic thinking: you make the first move and suddenly start seeing the entire game.

The story of the chateau in Bordeaux is also merely the first move in Filatov’s new game. In 2018, the old La Grace Dieu des Prieurs winery solemnly reopened under the name Art Russe. Art Russe is also the name of the London-registered foundation managing Filatov’s art collection, one of the largest private collections of Russian art in the world. It consists of more than four hundred paintings of Russian and Soviet artists, including major works by Repin, Serov and Fechin, as well as the largest collection of works of Victor Popkov, one of the representatives of the “austere style”. Among other objectives, the foundation aims to raise awareness of 20th century Russian art. For a couple of years now, the Art Russe collection has been permanently displayed in exhibition spaces at the Beaulieu Palace House, Hampshire. This spring, construction of a dedicated gallery will be completed at the estate owned by Lord Montagu.

A dozen paintings from Filatov’s collection are now featured on labels of each of the winery’s vintages. When the French team won the World Cup in Moscow, Filatov immediately shipped a consignment of his Grand Cru 2015 to Paris. On the labels were Korzhev’s “Hammer and Sickle”, “Demonstration on October 17, 1905” by Repin and “The Mother of God of Tenderness Towards Evil Hearts” by Petrov-Vodkin.

The Russian neophyte winemaker did not invent wine label art, pioneered long before him by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, whose bottles of Mouton-Rothschild famously featured artwork of Dali, Picasso, Chagall and Warhol, propelling the winery to global fame.

What sets the game of the Candidate Master of Sports Filatov apart is the following. His winery is already famous, and therefore, by using his high-art labels, he seeks to introduce wine lovers to Russian art. And boost the value of his art collection along the way. The audience for this intercontinental gallery is estimated at about ninety thousand people a year (if you optimistically believe that a bottle of Bordeaux is usually shared by three wine drinkers). “Here is a bottle with the label featuring “Daisies” by Nicolai Fechin, which I shipped to a friend as a gift, says Filatov. That friend called me some time later, saying that while enjoying the wine they wondered: “Why daisies? Who’s the artist?”; and adding that he was interested in buying the actual artwork as a gift for his wife’s birthday. I sent him a link to information about Fechin. Who knows, perhaps after learning more about the artist he will indeed buy the painting. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. ”

The value of Filatov’s art collection has been on the rise, as if boosted by wine yeast. His investments in the chateau, however, do not promise a quick return. While Filatov does not disclose the financials, experts believe that the project – the vineyard, the “hockey puck”, the red letters and the rest of it, have cost at least one hundred million dollars, i.e. one-eleventh of his wealth.

As a strategically minded person, Filatov invited his fellow villagers to join his project team. Among them, Louis Mitjavile, a descendant from a renowned winemaking family and oenologist, whose Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf wines received high praise from the world’s foremost wine critic Robert Parker. Louis worked during several seasons to reorganise the vines at the Russian entrepreneur’s estate. He replaced the Guyot pruning system with Cordon, thus increasing the space between clusters and, therefore, sun exposure, which resulted in fuller-flavoured grapes. Mitjavile also revamped the winemaking process, introducing the gravity flow system, as it is believed that avoidance of pumps and mechanical force results in more delicate wine. The cellar now boasts Radoux barrels from the limited Radoux Blend edition, made from fine grain French oak. The pores in wood allow wine to oxygenate. Finer pores slow down this process and support softer development of wine. At the same time, wood imbues wine with a great amount of tannins that make wine plusher and rounder. These miracle barrels are like Stradivarius violins, and Radoux delivers them only when satisfied that they will be in good hands. As a result, the wine from this terroir is now a class higher than it used to be a century and a half ago, before the Russian revolution in Bordeaux.

This helps to understand how Filatov succeeded in enlisting the help of the famous architect Jean Nouvel. Nouvel, a Pritzker laureate, built projects such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi or the Lyon Opera House (dubbed as the Nouvel Opera House, similarly to Opera Garnier in Paris, no less). Filatov met Nouvel at the construction site in Abu Dhabi and offered to participate in his “agricultural project”.

The architect agreed. He was born in the neighbouring department and his family home is two hours drive from Filatov’s estate. With the permission and full support of the Russian winemaker, Nouvel came up with the puck design. The structure’s two above-ground and two underground floors now contain cutting edge gravity flow equipment and cellars filled with those very special barrels. The winery produces only thirty thousand bottles of wine per year and only one wine from each harvest.

The grand opening of Art Russe last July was attended by all the honourable neighbours, including the mayor of Saint-Emilion. The Russian Ambassador to France with his family travelled from Paris. Having interrupted rehearsals in Evian for the sake of his friend, and without spending the night, pianist Nikolai Lugansky flew in by helicopter to play Rachmaninoff’s preludes. Another close friend of Filatov, actor Woody Harrelson, also attended the opening (he is currently the only person Andrei accepts to play chess with). With a glass of red wine in his hand, Jean Nouvel told the guests that his favourite painting from the Art Russe collection was “Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power” by Vladimir Serov.

Incidentally, art from the winemaker’s collection also inspired many elements of the reconstruction project. For example, Nouvel decorated the floor of the main building with a reproduction of “Godspeed!” by Anatoly Gankevich, which shows Yuri Gagarin with a halo, his hand raised as that of a saint on an icon. The smile of the first-ever cosmonaut levitating on the floor in zero gravity is reflected on all the winery’s vats. The effect of this Gagarin leaves now fashionable exhibitions of “living canvasses” by the likes of Van Gogh and Aivazovsky as far behind as the Moon.

Filatov’s interest in art developed similarly to that of many other wealthy entrepreneurs of the new Russia. He progressed from gift buying to home decoration to purposeful and informed collecting. According to his wife Elena (she is a financier), while her husband may not know anything about certain artists and their works ahead of a museum visit or an exhibition, once there, he immediately stops in front of the most valuable painting, sensing a masterpiece.

Filatov likes Russian art because it remains undervalued, which makes it profitable to collect. But above all, it is patriotic. “I was formed in the Soviet Union, its cultural and historical environment,” explains the collector. I am proud of this country’s victories and achievements. Indeed, the first-ever space shuttle mission apart, we also had wonderful teachers, a top-notch education system, our children lived interesting lives. I want us to remember not only the tragic pages in the history of the USSR, but also the glorious ones. Take the Russian Empire. Many say: “That was a tsar! That was a country!” But how many literate, educated people did the country have back then? Less than one per cent. They were one hundred per cent during the Soviet era. What was labour productivity at the beginning of the past century? What infrastructure did the country have? What about electrification? Assessment of the USSR is still overly emotional. Too little time has passed for us to give a balanced assessment of the era.”

Well, perhaps now there will be more positive emotions with regard to the USSR, at least in the West. Labels with Lenin or some “Builders of Bratsk” by Popkov are, no doubt, also an element of the very Russian propaganda that is so feared in the best houses of Mayfair and Long Island. However, it seems like it is firmly establishing itself in the inner sanctums of all decent families — their wine cellars.

By Anna Karabash