I am sitting in a cosy kitchen in a building somewhere between Port Hercule and the Condamine. I came to interview Lilly Bui and a little unexpected feast is being prepared to accompany the 2019 Riesling we will talk about. Three year-old Spaniel Zara is falling asleep by my feet and while Lilly is cutting homemade bread, her 14 year-old daughter Michelle is chatting away about her school, her plans (she is off ice skating shortly) and the company that belongs to her mum Lilly – but actually Michelle has been a big part of it, as a morale booster, since Lilly Bui Wines started two years ago.
“I obviously can’t sell the wine yet, that would be highly illegal, however, when I see the opportunity I will market it,” says Michelle: “And my point is not to sell a case just let people know about our brand and then they will remember when they see it or they can even recommend it to someone…”
Michelle was ten when her mum had a serious conversation with her about their future. “It’s going to be tough and we may not see each other much, I will be very busy but it’s our only way out.” Michelle was cool about it: “Let’s roll up our sleeves then!”
And tough it was. In 2017 Lilly’s beloved mum died of cancer. This shook her to the core and she decided to change her life. “I was actually thinking if I was to die now can I go? I thought I couldn’t – there are so many things to correct, to do and I knew I was living the life of somebody else. This was not my life. I had to make a decision and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Saying that, I am a person 100 percent pro-marriage and I would say to every woman and man that if you see a glimpse of hope, save your marriage otherwise it feels like an amputation, especially when you have children.”
“In her last years my mum always told me I should read the Bible. I wasn’t really into it but I did open her own Bible just out of respect and maybe curiosity and what immediately caught my eyes was Proverbs 17:1: ‘Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.’ I closed it immediately and thought how could this be? Nothing could sum up my life better. “
Lilly got divorced, started learning to live the life of a single mum but also with a future income in mind worked tirelessly to get her vineyard going.
In early 2020 Lilly had registered her company in Monaco with the top product now bottled and ready to be sold when two months later lockdown hit everything and all her plans were put on hold.
“This was extremely difficult. I could not have foreseen that we would have this lockdown – knowing it now I would not open the company that year but suddenly it was too late and I had this notion that when you open your business you shouldn’t fail so fast, not in Monaco, not anywhere. I was ready to promote my wines in restaurants but even when they re-opened after lockdown, many were reducing their wine list rather than adding new exciting brands.”
What helped her was what has always worked before. Her faith and her meticulous work within her closest environment – friends, friends of friends, as one door opened another. “There are amazing people living in Monaco and I am very lucky to have many of them as my close friends. Even people that didn’t know me very well offered their help. I love Monaco.”
Lilly is German, she spent her growing up years in Hamburg, “the city of my heart” and from a young age she was adamant to start working and help her mum to run the household. She studied cosmetics and planned to work in the beauty industry but “I was unhappy in love and when a job selling in a boutique on a cruise liner came I snapped it up.”
This was a formative experience for Lilly who worked long hours, learning not only how to sell, but also how to order for seasons ahead and later how to manage. It was on a cruise liner she met her Croatian ex-husband and together they arrived in Monaco in 1998 and started a company that would operate boutiques on several cruise liners.
“We were selling everything from toothbrushes to high-end jewellery.” Hard work but with Lilly at the managing wheel and her “cost consciousness” she kept expenses to the bare minimum. “We were the only chain of boutiques without a warehouse, I bought only what I could sell, no storage was needed. I am and always was a cost-conscious person.”
Within seven years, even during the bad economic situation globally, she made the company debt free. They lived in Fontvieille, later in Jardin Exotique in an apartments of 200+ square metres. Life was good. In 2006 they found a house, or a ruin rather, in Piemonte, Italy. In the same week of signing the deal on the house Lilly discovered she was pregnant which led to the company being sold. “This was non-negotiable for me – I wanted to be a full time mum, I could not imagine working those long hours constantly travelling with a small baby.”
Lilly put all her energy into raising Michelle but also rebuilding the house and getting to know the area. “Somebody told me ‘you know this house had a vineyard once and it was really good’. We thought how romantic, we will re-grow the vineyard and we will start making wine for the village – sort of bringing it back to life.”
“After several years of hard work we succeeded. Our vineyards are located on a beautiful hill, looking south, and therefore get a lot of sunshine and enough air to grow in the best possible way. For me the idea of organic means to help the soil to be best, so to encourage biodiversity we planted seven different herbs between the vines. They help the ecosystem in our vineyard to stay versatile and support the grapes during the growth phase. The chosen herbs were protein pea, phasilia, horseradish, clover, common witch hazel, wheat and mustard. Number seven is Lilly’s lucky number, “it is a holy number” and it also features on the bottles’ labels.
“This is a very traditional method – it is how it was done before, following traditions. I have to say that our grapes are the pride of the region. Other producers come to see the vineyards and they would love to have my grapes so I think we are doing this right.”
The Lilly Bui company is very boutique – at the moment the vineyard produces 2,000 bottles of Alte Langa – and 3,000 bottles of the Riesling.
The wines are offered in prominent restaurants in Monaco. Even HSH Prince Albert did a blind tasting in the palace with his sommelier friends and “they couldn’t figure out that this is actually a Riesling because with Riesling you normally expect to have a lot of acidity – and to cut acidity normally you need to put a lot of sugar in and I am totally against sugar. My products are sugar-free. This is natural sun only.”
The response from the Palace, a very positive letter of appreciation, is proudly featured on Lilly’s website.
As Lilly puts it “success is not linear, there will be hard times but those are here to teach us something”.
“I now create a life that I like to look at. It is my life now. My life and my story. You learn through difficulties and you become a different, hopefully better person. Even in the darkest times we must never lose hope that things will work out well. It’s also all about the balance between giving and receiving.”
“I spend my summers as a volunteer participating in running camps for children www.feglager.de – a lot of the time from a disadvantaged background – and I always feel like I am the one on the receiving end when I see those children being so happy to be there and over the years witnessing how they develop. I think the problem of our time is not that we don’t have enough but that we have too much. The happiest people I believe are those who are giving, not those who have everything.”
I meet Lilly again a week later. She is teaching me how to bake her delicious bread. We drink her wine and talk some more. And as I carry my still warm tin with bread that I will continue to bake for days to come I am thinking: Lilly is right. There are some amazing people in Monaco.