Valérie Reboul-Schneider’s life was already mapped out. With her father, Ernest Schneider, as chairman of the Breitling board of directors, she could easily have slipped into a role at this famous watch company, but destiny had other plans. Today, with her husband Rémy, against the magnificent backdrop of the Alpilles, they produce quality wine and pure olive oil to the strictest organic standards.
“Where are the sheep?” Valérie Reboul-Schneider walks towards the olive tree groves looking for something in the distance. “A thousand sheep cannot just disappear!” She is guiding us around 200 hectares of an outstanding property in the heart of the Alpilles, a mountainous massif in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. As we walk between rows of olive trees at Château d’Estoublon, the silvery foliage shimmering in the sunshine, Valérie talks about her family’s history.
“My father was passionate about hunting and adored nature. He settled in the Camargue with my mother and bought a small house in Saint-Rémy. Gradually, always enthralled by the region, he bought so much that it seemed he wanted to buy the whole of Provence! I was born in Switzerland, but went to school in Arles and finished my baccalaureate in Neuchâtel: a fine mix of genres. I continued my studies in England and America before spending three years in the Maldives. I had a trial run with Breitling and worked for three years in the marketing department. That was just before I met Rémy and fell in love!”
It’s the end of one story, but another was just beginning.
“At the end of the 90s, the owner of Château d’Estoublon, a neighbour, died. The property, which was built in the 18th century, was very run-down. My father wanted to buy the château and land, which I categorically refused to be involved with at the time – me become an olive grower? No, that was not my thing,” she reflects. “I had so much to do with my family – three children and three dogs – and guests at the bed and breakfast we managed in Saint-Rémy-en-Provence. I thought I’d reached the pinnacle of my dreams.”
Fate, or rather this visionary father, decided otherwise. One evening in 1999 after a meal together, between the pears and the cheese, he said: “A Swiss guy has just bought Château Estoublon.” His daughter retorted, “He must be crazy to go on such an adventure!” But her amusement was short-lived when her father replied, “The Swiss guy is me!”
Valérie was annoyed, she dug her heels in and refused to get involved in the project. Suddenly, Ernest Schneider fell ill. He had shingles, which disappeared when Valérie and her husband Rémy – “My father’s accomplice…” – finally agreed to participate.
“This property is the diamond of the Alpilles, the most beautiful of them all. Valérie, it’s an opportunity you cannot let slip,” said the be-loved father, who died in 2015. “And he was right,” admits his daughter fondly.
“At the time it was a nightmare! The château was in a dire state, we had no idea about olives or vines, not to mention organic agriculture. The wine produced was undrinkable. We could have put it in beautiful bottles and sold it anyway, but for us there is a line one does not cross: you don’t cheat in life.” At the start, she was even afraid that all the work would destroy her family, but the opposite happened. “Our children respect us all the more because of our total dedication to the project.”
We return from our promenade in that special light associated with sunsets in Provence. The estate is vast, with a chapel that has been authentically restored. Arriving at the château itself, we sit at the welcoming, elegant bar and Valérie picks up where she left off: “It has taken us 15 years to achieve what you see here today. We started from zero and are still working at it 100%.”
Several million euros have been invested in the project. The result is a sublime country château with a habitable surface area 1,500m² including suites and bedrooms, all ensuite and furnished with taste. It takes 20 guests very comfortably. Valérie and Rémy hire out this prestigious property for special events, family parties and seminars. Chef, butler and maid are available.
“It is not a hotel, but a private family home where you can feel at ease,” explains the owner. “We also like inviting friends and guests to spend a few carefree hours in this elegant ambiance. We have built a heliport, pool and hammam, and improved all the services you would expect in such a residence.” Sincerity and passion are the common threads running through the life of the Reboul-Schneider couple. They are convinced that ‘without work, there would be nothing’ and share the tasks simply and honourably.
Rémy soon joins us. His passion has always been the wine. Like his wife, he learned his craft on the job. The estate has 20 hectares of vines, with 16 red and four white grape varieties – all organic, of course.
“We owe it to our planet and our children,” he says. He trusts ancestral wisdom too: “We do the maximum to preserve the original Provence with all its treasures. It’s the most valuable asset we have! We respect the land and, above all, categorically refuse to use any chemicals. Man can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening”.
Rémy produces 80,000 to 100,000 bottles a year, a third of which are exported to European countries, another third to America and the rest remaining in France. A quarter of total turnover comes from the shop attached to the château, where you can also find their organic olive oil as well as Provencal specialities.
Back to the distribution of tasks! While her husband was learning how to cultivate vines and make wine, Valérie took several courses to become a skilled producer of olive oil.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t taste the difference with pure olive oil, but now I adore it, like a fruit juice! I can immediately spot the smallest variations,” she explains quite proudly as we taste six different varieties. “Our oil is a luxury product because it is extremely refined. The olive varieties are harvested separately and it is me who decides on the blend. It’s like creating a perfume, and is why we use elegant bottles.” It will come as no surprise to hear that Château d’Estoublon’s olive oil and wine bear the European quality label, AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). Valérie produces 40,000 to 50,000 litres of oil with her team. Normally, they would have produced double that amount, but for the last four years the harvest has halved. The climate? The flies that infest the olives? Valérie doesn’t know, but at least she does not have to worry about demand. Their olive oils sell particularly well in Switzerland, Austria, Japan and America: “We are in selected stores and not supermarkets. The customer is ready to pay more for products like these.”
Valérie and Remy’s story is like a fairy tale: a loved and loving father, a chance encounter, falling in love, starting a family, becoming a wine grower and producer of olive oil, and living peacefully in the heart of Provence.
And the sheep? Well, they provide fertiliser for the vines and olives. What could be more natural?