To call Emma Watson’s father an oenophile would be undercooking it. “He’s a mega-nerd,” says Emma over a long lunch last September, with a bias towards regional classics, at Bistrot des Grands Crus in Chablis.
“I prefer to say I’m passionate,” Chris replies, taking the measure of a glass of local red. “But I am a mega-nerd.” Chris Watson loves France, and the French. More specifically, he loves rural Burgundy, in the eastern-central part of the country, and especially Chablis, the small Burgundian town famous for its white wine.
But the Watsons are in France, en famille, to toast a new venture: the launch of a gin, the brainchild of Alex Watson, Emma’s younger brother, who until recently was an executive in the drinks industry. It’s called Renais, or “rebirth”, pronounced like “Renée”. And, uniquely for a gin, it is as much French as it is English, just as the Watsons feel themselves to be.
At least partly a tribute to Chris, and to the land – the terroir – that the Watsons love, Renais will go on sale for the first time today, initially in the UK. Flavoured by the skins of grapes handpicked in the steepest, most prestigious grand cru vineyards of Chablis, it is, in Alex’s description, “quite an esoteric product”. And, in its way, a very modern one: the grape skins are organic and the gin is certified carbon-neutral.
Chris Watson, 65, is a high-flying City lawyer, a partner in a large international law firm, with a focus on communications law. He is also an accomplished linguist. As well as French, Watson speaks German, Spanish, Italian, and his Russian is good enough to decode complicated legal documents. His English is also decent. But Chris’s real passions are for game fishing, music and wine-making – and wine-drinking.
He first came to Chablis in 1987, “to pick grapes and carry a hod up and down a hill”, as he puts it, sounding very much like a man who would like nothing more than to be doing exactly that right now. Back then, he was a young English barrister recently relocated to Paris with his then wife, Jacqueline, also a lawyer. During their seven years in France, they had two children, Emma, born in 1990, and Alex, two years later. And even though the family moved back to England when Alex was a toddler, Chris and the kids kept coming back to Chablis year after year. (Chris and Jacqueline divorced in 1995, and Emma and Alex have long since acquired new siblings on both sides.)
Chris bought his first vineyard in 1991. This was easier said than done. It took him eight years to satisfy the criteria of the local authorities so that he could plant his vines. Bureaucracy, I am not the first person to note, is a French word. Then again, so is entrepreneur.
“It was a huge battle,” Chris says. “I had to tick every box to be treated as a local. You had to pay your social security as an agricultural labourer. You had to own half a tractor. You had to own a barn. Initially there was all this resistance, but once they realised I was not some outside speculator hoping to make a killing, but rather more Chablisien than the Chablisiens, it was fine.”
“He drank so much that the locals adopted him,” says his son, Alex.
“I displayed my enthusiasm for the product, let’s put it that way,” says Chris.
Today he owns seven vineyards with friends, and his life is stitched into the fabric of the region. He is one of 25 Piliers, a group of local wine-making worthies and representatives of Chablis (suggested collective noun: a “crate” of Piliers?) who officiate at festivals and events.
“I represent Chablis in the UK,” Chris says. “I am the designated person. You have to give an oath to defend them. You have to appear at ceremonies every year…”
“He belongs to a cult,” interjects Alex. “He literally gets paraded around the town centre.”
I imagine the uniform as a bit Harry Potterish. Quite wizardy? “Oh god,” Chris says. “Yes, it’s very wizardy.”
Emma offers an indulgent eye-roll in confirmation. But there is also photographic evidence, which we examine on Chris’s phone. Here he is in his finery: green and gold robes and a not unfunny hat. And oh, look! Here’s one of him with Miss France.
“Stay with us, Dad,” says Alex, as his father’s attention wanders.
“Try to focus just for a minute,” implores Emma.
They must both do quite a bit of this. When Chris segues into some juicy local gossip Emma intervenes. “Don’t say anything you don’t want in the article, just speaking as someone who has been interviewed a number of times.”
As our hors d’oeuvres are replaced by main courses, the stories of Chris’s adventures in viticulture give way to the genesis of his son’s gin. As a teenager, Alex would come to Chablis in school holidays. “I’d help out in the vineyards,” he remembers. “I’ve always thought it was very special.”
As the younger brother of a movie star, plenty of opportunities came his way. “I was being pushed towards modelling or acting,” he says. He signed with a modelling agency, but he didn’t enjoy it. Rather than walking the catwalks of Paris and Milan, Alex took a first in philosophy at Bristol, but academia didn’t appeal as a career either. Since he was 16, he’d worked in pubs and restaurants: “I fell in love with hospitality.”
“He had lots of offers and he turned them down,” says Emma. “For an 18-year-old boy who, at that point, was on a strict allowance from Dad, to say no to all that: I thought that was really brave.”
At the multinational drinks giant Diageo, Alex was responsible for “third-space marketing: things like supper clubs, cocktail masterclasses, building bars, curating the menus.” He worked with Tanqueray gin, Ketel One vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky. “It was my dream job. But I think that once you have an idea like Renais, you can’t un-have it.”
“It’s truly all he’s talked about for the past two years,” says Emma.
The idea is an ingenious one: to take the grand cru grape skins that would have been discarded, or used for animal feed or fertiliser, and repurpose them as flavouring for a gin. “For 2,000 years,” he says, “since the Romans came and first planted the vineyards, every ounce of effort here has gone into making those grapes as good as they can be. So I was just baffled by what was happening to the skins after the grapes had been pressed. I guess it seemed obvious to me, although it may sound strange.”
There are seven grand cru vineyards in Chablis – the one Renais uses for its key botanicals is one of the only ones using organic farming methods. The grape skins are only available for a two-week window each year, during the harvest season. “It’s almost as difficult a way to do it as possible,” Alex says, “but it’s absolutely worth it.”
Meanwhile, the raw alcohol used in Renais is made at a distillery in Beaujolais, using grapes from the vineyards of Burgundy, including the Watsons’ own. The alcohol and the botanicals that flavour the drink – the grape skins and other ingredients – are combined and distilled in the north of England.
“I think it takes the best of both worlds, English and French,” says Alex. “It takes the inspiration and the quality of the ingredients and the philosophy of France, and applies that to an English drink. And we’ve made every effort to ensure that the juice is good, as they say.”
So numerous are celebrity-endorsed spirits that supermarket alcohol aisles have begun to resemble the displays in old-fashioned video shops, where the latest products from sharp-elbowed Hollywood stars once jostled for shelf-space. Some of these are no more than traditional endorsements, in which a star for hire is recruited as the temporary face of a gin or vodka or whisky. Others are more closely involved. Ryan Reynolds cashed out of Aviation American Gin after two years, to the tune of a reported $610mn. (Nice work, Deadpool.) George Clooney and his buddy Rande Gerber, husband of Cindy Crawford, reportedly did even better from Casamigos tequila. Bob Dylan is the co-creator of a whiskey called Heaven’s Door. (Well, he is knocking on…) David Beckham, Matthew McConaughey and the rapper Drake have all shilled for whiskey brands.
Renais is associated with a famous movie star, but the story is more “authentic” than it might seem.
Emma Watson grew up in a family obsessed with wine, and food, and the culture around it. Alcohol was not illicit. “I was quite surprised when other children were very excited about the idea of getting their hands on alcohol,” she says. “Dad had been giving me water with wine at lunch since I was a child. I didn’t think alcohol was for getting wasted. So I was quite confused when I was a teenager and everyone thought alcohol was this forbidden fruit.
“What I really love,” she says, “is the culture here of the harvest. I like coming together with everyone. I like the rituals around it and the history and the connection with the people here. For me it’s about family and community and it makes me feel grounded that there’s somewhere I can come back to, year after year after year.”
There were some years, when she was on film sets, when she was not able to get away. “There was definitely a gap when Alex took more of a role here,” she says. “But now that I’m not making films every year there’s a bit more time to play with. For me, getting involved with the creative side of the gin has been fun because I have a voice and I can bring everything that I’ve learnt to help. Alex is the expert on gin, and dad is the expert on wine, but it’s really nice to be asked to be involved.”
Emma, a shareholder in the business, describes herself as a creative partner in Alex’s endeavour. She has not put money into Renais, but she brought experience as an investor in start-ups. “Three years ago, I started impact-investing with a group of women. I try to support female entrepreneurs and sustainable ventures. So I have heard a lot of pitches from a lot of start-ups and truly, listening to Alex pitch, I knew that even if he weren’t my brother I could spot someone who simply was not going to give up until he’d made this project a success. I think what he’s doing is for the right reasons and being done in the right way. He’s my brother and I love him, but I’d bet on him either way.”
The imagery, the design, the art direction are all overseen by Emma. “I couldn’t bear to let someone else do it because it’s our family, our history,” she says. “We have to sell a product but I think it would have hurt my soul if it had been done in a way that didn’t feel personal.”
The launch of Renais comes at a time of new horizons for Emma, as much as for her brother. She hasn’t made a movie since Little Women, which finished shooting at the end of 2018. Given she is one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, and has worked steadily, and with spectacular success, since childhood (she was 10 years old during the filming of the first Harry Potter film), her step away from acting is a profound change in her life.
“I wasn’t very happy, if I’m being honest,” she says, over lunch. “I think I felt a bit caged. The thing I found really hard was that I had to go out and sell something that I really didn’t have very much control over. To stand in front of a film and have every journalist be able to say, ‘How does this align with your viewpoint?’ It was very difficult to have to be the face and the spokesperson for things where I didn’t get to be involved in the process. I was held accountable in a way that I began to find really frustrating, because I didn’t have a voice, I didn’t have a say. And I started to realise that I only wanted to stand in front of things where if someone was going to give me flak about it, I could say, in a way that didn’t make me hate myself, ‘Yes, I screwed up, it was my decision, I should have done better.’”
With Renais, she says, “I can’t say where the journey will go. I’m sure we’ll make mistakes. But I can vouch for Alex, I know who he is. I’ve seen what this is. I’ve literally picked the grapes myself.”
More recently Watson herself has found new space to grow. Last winter, she wrote and directed an advertising campaign for Prada. It was a “very” big moment for her.
“People always told me I should direct and produce, even when I was on Potter,” she says. “I was worried it was just technical, not creative, and I couldn’t bring what I think is probably my skill set. It was only Alex coming to me with this, and friends asking for favours – ‘I need to do a photo shoot’ or ‘I’m making a video’ – that made me realise I actually know quite a lot about that. Being a director seemed unattainable. I don’t think I had any confidence in that. I know it seems weird. I mean, I grew up on a film set.”
“You spent more time as a kid on a film set than you did in school,” says Alex.
“More than any other kid since the beginning of time, probably,” says Emma. Prada Paradoxe won’t be Emma’s last directing gig. She’s been asked to direct a music video for someone whose name she won’t reveal but “you will definitely have heard of him”.
Will she act again? “Yes, absolutely. But I’m happy to sit and wait for the next right thing. I love what I do. It’s finding a way to do it where I don’t have to fracture myself into different faces and people. And I just don’t want to switch into robot mode any more. Does that make sense?”
During lockdown she began writing poetry, as well as a series of essays, on love and friendship and relationships, among other topics, and in September she will begin an MA in creative writing at Oxford University. The last time we spoke for this article, in March, her plans to return to acting had become more concrete, with a movie that, all being well, will begin shooting in early 2024.
My last meeting with Alex Watson takes place in a café on the Golborne Road, in Notting Hill, in the chill of London winter. He’s come up for the day on the coach from Oxford. It’s the eve of his 30th birthday. In his backpack he has a sample bottle of the finished “liquid”, as drinks professionals call their products. We borrow glasses from the barista and Alex pours small measures. (It’s 11am, a little early even for committed imbibers.)
We sniff first, and then sip. The flavours I’m looking for are citrus, white grape, floral notes, and a minerality characteristic of Chablis, derived from rock salt and the Kimmeridgian stone that, as Chris had explained, infuses the soil there. The finish is sweetened with acacia honey.
Alex wonders if we ought to try to find some tonic water to mix with it, or at least some ice. But right now, I don’t think it needs it. It’s gin, certainly. But the astringency of London gin is replaced by something smoother, warmer, more complex and more refreshing. I’d happily drink more, and fully intend to. But like you, and the patient people of Chablis, I’ll have to wait. As Chris will confirm, that’s part of the fun too.
Alex Bilmes is editor-in-chief of Esquire. Renais gin launches on 29 April, renais.co.uk