Chinese tycoon, French vintner missing in crash

AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

French police were searching Sunday for a Chinese billionaire and a French vintner who were missing and believed dead after their helicopter crashed into a river in southwest France.

There was little hope of finding alive Lam Kok, a 46-year-old Chinese tea-and-property tycoon, winemaker James Gregoire and Lam’s interpreter after police recovered the body of Lam’s 12-year-old son from the back of the wrecked helicopter, lying in 7 meters of water in the Dordogne River, early Saturday.

The four had boarded the helicopter, piloted by Gregoire, on Friday to make a celebratory tour of a Bordeaux chateau and wine-growing estate that Lam had just bought from the Frenchman.

Lam’s wife pulled out of the flight at the last minute, saying she was “scared of helicopters,” said a photographer who witnessed its take-off.

The doomed flight took place after a lavish event Friday marking Lam’s multimillion-euro purchase of the 65-hectare wine estate, Chateau de la Riviere.

After searches Saturday involving police divers and sniffer dogs, authorities planned to use a sonar to try to find the missing bodies on Sunday.

Police reinforcements were planned for the more than 100 officers already carrying out the search, a gendarme commander said.

Diplomats from the Chinese Embassy in Paris have been at the scene since Saturday “to follow the search and provide assistance to the families,” local French officials said in a statement.

Mangled parts of the chopper’s fuselage and a camera were retrieved from the crash site, the photographer saw. Police said strong currents were complicating the search for the three missing.

On Friday Lam had celebrated his purchase from Gregoire of the Chateau de la Riviere, one of the region’s oldest estates, when he held an extravagant event.

He held a news conference and spent time introducing himself as the new owner to staffers before hosting a sumptuous meal.

Gregoire then offered to take Lam on a short tour of the vineyards and surrounding grounds in the helicopter.

Gregoire was seen patiently carrying out his preflight procedures with a checklist resting on his knees.

When the four did not return after 20 minutes, employees at the vineyard contacted emergency services.

Gregoire himself had bought the property, the largest in Bordeaux’s Fronsac wine-producing region and close to the prestigious Saint-Emilion domain, in 2003 — a year after the previous owner died in a plane crash.

During Friday’s publicity event, the vineyard’s managing director, Xavier Buffo, told reporters that Lam’s purchase was the largest Chinese investment in Bordeaux property to date.

On Saturday, Buffo expressed shock. “We can’t believe this,” he told a reporter. “We can’t take it in, it’s unthinkable.”

The local mayor, Philippe Buisson, said it was too soon to say what Lam’s wife will do with the estate. “Right now, she is displaying courage and great responsibility,” he said.

Lam and his wife headed a Hong Kong-based group named Brilliant, which specializes in rare teas and luxury hotels in China. They had plans to turn the chateau into a high-class tea- and wine-tasting center.

The group — whose interests range from Pu’er, a dark fermented tea from China’s Yunnan region, to top-end resorts — also planned to build a hotel near the vineyard.

Wealthy Chinese have developed a taste for fine French wines, and their extensive buying power has been credited with pushing prices for certain vintages to record levels.

In recent years, they have increasingly taken to buying French vineyards as well.

The value of each transaction has generally been under €10 million ($13.6 million), but Lam purchased Chateau de la Riviere for €30 million ($41 million).