Les Kellen is the owner of the Villa St. Simon Guest House in the town of Blaye, situated about 50 kilometers north of the city of Bordeaux, France. Both Blaye and the adjacent region of Bourg include about 800 wineries.
Les not only runs his rest house, but leads wine education seminars and guides tours to local wineries.
On this warm morning in September, Les sits at a table for breakfast inside the downstairs dining room at his Villa St. Simon. He wears blue jeans and a white collared shirt with red vertical stripes. A gold chain hangs around his neck. He pours orange juice from a flask and offers me a chocolate croissant from a basket.
“I’ve been into wine since I was 21, which was over thirty years ago. I had my first bottle of red, a Portuguese Dao. I loved it. Slept the whole afternoon.
“I studied law in South Africa. Quite frankly, I hated every second of that profession. Eventually I ended up teaching law and economics and setting up a private group of schools and universities called the Boston Education Group. It’s still in existence. We had seventeen private schools and universities. That was sold in an IPO on the Johannesburg stock exchange when I was 38. That enabled me to travel to Europe. I was lucky, really. Right place, right time.
“For me there are only two kinds of wines in the world – French and others. I knew one day I would end up here. This particular place is very convenient because Medoc is just a hundred meters away by ferry, we are forty minutes from St. Emilion, and we have the privilege of the most wonderful wines in the world of Bourg and Blaye, which fortunately at this stage have not been ‘discovered’ and are therefore the best value wines in the world.”
“We found this building more or less by accident. It took a year and a bit to renovate. It had been in one family since 1860. When we completed the transaction in the notary’s office, shivers went down everybody’s spine because the date of birth of the last owner and me are exactly the same. Same day, year, and month.
“I went to complete the transaction at the notary’s office in Bordeaux. I went to the train station to get a cab there. The cabbie had worked on the King’s Road in London for seven years and spoke perfect English. He dropped me and I took his number. I went into the notary’s to do the completion. They said, ‘Where is ‘your translator?’ I told them I didn’t know I needed one. Eventually, I said, ‘Actually I have a translator.’ I phoned the cabbie. He came back, left his meter running, and did the translation.
“Three years later I was one of the two witnesses at his wedding, because Jean Louis and me have stayed friends ever since.
“Serendipity? I think that’s for anyone who’s open to what the universe sends to them. Sometimes the universe does try, and we don’t respond. So I always try to give everyone a hearing. I’m open to everyone. I’m always available for whoever walks in.
“I love meeting with families that run small vineyards and eating with them and tasting their new wines. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in the blending of some of the wines. I even named a wine. We were going to call it Orbit because the wine is being made with whole grapes and stalks in a barrel that rotates. But it seems the name was not suitable, because we didn’t know that in French it has a sexual connotation. The marketing people were not going to be happy with that.
“Most people who come here are surprised at the variety of wines, the authenticity of the place, and the tranquility. They have an experience way beyond anything they imagined.
“The first four years were really tough. Wasn’t quite sure I was going to pay the electrical bill and stuff like that. It was just money going out for renovations. We didn’t have a stick of furniture. There were no light fittings. No one knew us. First four years were total loss making. This is the seventh year.
“I love the size that it is. We have a lovely place where I can give each person individual attention. That’s what I like doing. I don’t want to be running anything that’s even vaguely like a hotel or big tour organization.”
“The feedback we get? Ninety nine percent of them good ones.
“I’m supplying fourteen private cellars around Europe and England and France now, including the conductor the Queen of England’s orchestra in St. Martins-in-the-Fields. All the wines in his private cellar are my choice. He’s been here quite a few times.
“I think I can help de-mystify French wines for foreigners. It is a bit of a mystery if you don’t take the time to figure it out. We do it while we’re having fun. Otherwise it’s not worth it. It’s done in an unpretentious way. That’s the way I think wine should be. You can enhance it with a bit more experience and knowledge, but we try to keep it a simple pleasure.”