I'm so sad, I can barely contain my grief

October 8, 2014

In Blog

Chinese billionaire killed in helicopter crash as he tours newly-acquired French vineyard

Businessman had been pictured outside a French vineyard he had bought hours before the helicopter he was travelling in crashed

Chinese billionaire feared dead after helicopter crash

Chinese billionaire Lam Kok (2nd R) and his wife with James Gregoire (2nd L), the former owner of the Chateau, photographed less than an hour before the helicopter crash Photo: AFP/MEHDI FEDOUACH
By , and Colin Freeman

Lam Kok, 46, a hotel magnate who had diversified into the upmarket wine trade, was killed along with his 12-year-old son when the helicopter plunged into the Dordogne River near the town of Lugon-et-l’ile-du-Carnay.

The helicopter was being piloted by James Gregoire, who had sold Mr Kok the 150-acre Chateau de La Riviere just hours earlier on Friday. A further body, believed to be that of an interpreter, was recovered during police searches that continued yesterday.

Mr Lam’s wife, Liu Xiangyun, who had posed for photographs with the two men earlier in the day, pulled out of the flight at the last minute, saying she was “scared of helicopters”, according to eyewitnesses. By an unusual twist of fate, a previous owner of the Chateau de la Riviere was also killed in an aircraft crash in 2002.

Mr Gregoire’s helicopter was on a short tour of the vineyard and the grounds of the chateau, which dates back to the 8th century and is associated with Emperor Charlemagne, also known as the King of the Franks.

Mr Gregoire’s helicopter was on a short tour of the vineyard and the grounds of the chateau, which dates back to the 8th century and is associated with Emperor Charlemagne, also known as the King of the Franks.

Earlier in the day, Mr Gregoire had introduced Mr Lam to the chateau staff and hosted a dinner for him, as well as putting on a press conference for local media. When the helicopter flight did not return after 20 minutes, other people at the event contacted emergency services, who launched a search using emergency helicopters, police dogs and around 100 officers on foot. Witnesses to the crash said that shortly afterwards, they saw two people struggling in the river, which was in full winter flow.

Michel Galardini, 58, a local duck hunter, told the local newspaper, Sud Ouest: “The helicopter was flying very low, only 10 or 15 metres over the water. I thought that was a bit strange.”

A few minutes later, he added, he heard a “deafening crash”. “There was a huge amount of foam and I could see two people struggling in the water.”

Officials from the French gendarmerie said that mangled parts of the chopper’s fuselage had been retrieved, but that strong currents in the icy waters were complicating the search for the three missing.

Hong Kong-based Mr Lam and his wife were chief executive and president respectively of Brilliant Group, which originally specialised in rare teas and luxury hotels in China. Their purchase of the chateau was the biggest Chinese investment to date in Bordeaux wine, reflecting a growing taste for luxury vintages in newly-affluent China that has pushed wine prices to record levels.

Chinese entrepreneurs have already snapped several dozen other French chateaux in Bordeaux, where well-known vintages such as Pétrus are now hugely in demand among status-conscious businessmen in Shanghai and Beijing. As Mr Gregoire, who bought the Chateau de la Riviere in 2003, remarked in an interview in 2007: “A bottle of Pétrus or a Château d’Yquem can sell at any price in China. It is a symbol of wealth.”

The Chateau de La Riviere was also regarded as a highly prized piece of real estate in its own right. Built in the 16th century on the remains of a fortified tower constructed by Charlemagne, it has turrets, gargoyles and commanding views of the Dordogne valley, a region known for its spectacular gorges and fine foie gras.

The chateau also has nearly 20 miles of tunnels running underneath it, which are used to store nearly a million bottles of wine, which sell at around £30 a time. Mr Lam and his wife, who are believed bought the Chateau de La Riviere for around £25 million, planned to turn it into a high class tea and wine tasting centre, and also build a hotel near its vineyard.

Mr Lam had also twinned his home town in China with the town of Libourne, 20 miles from the city of Bordeaux itself, and the regional centre for the Saint-Émilion and Pomerol vineyards.

Otherwise, relatively little was known about him and his wife, who, like many Chinese plutocrats, guarded their privacy jealously. Mrs Liu grew up in the south western Chinese province of Yunnan, where she was also a helped advise the local Communist party. That also made her well-placed to trade in the province’s speciality, Pu’er tea. Together with her husband, she created a series of luxury resorts nestled in the tea plantations, with rooms at £400 a night complete with an English-speaking butler for foreign guests.

In a rare interview with Hong Kong’s New Weekly business magazine, Mrs Liu said of her husband: “He is in charge of managing the money. I know how to make the money.” Her husband added: “She sets the vision, I am more rational.”

A Chinese consular delegation was expected at the chateau yesterday to assist Mr Lam’s surviving relatives.