A few years ago, Michael Baynes and his wife were sitting in a hotel in La Jolla, Calif., contemplating the next phase of their lives. They tried a little experiment: Each one would scribble out the place in the world where they’d most like to live. They passed the notes across the table to one another. Both had written "France."
And that, more or less, was that.
Today, Baynes is selling vineyards and chateau properties in the Bordeaux region in the southwest part of France, aiming to put an Anglo-American spin on real estate practices in a country that’s famous for going its own way.
In 2006, Baynes, who had been a partner in a real estate development firm in Newport Beach, Calif., had wound down his principal business and was working as a consultant to local developers when he decided to make the leap, though it wasn’t the first time he had crossed the Atlantic in order to build his career.
A native of England, Baynes earned a master’s degree in real estate economics at Cambridge University and worked for several years for a major developer in London.
"I got the privilege — or otherwise, depending how you look at it — of going through the early ’90s (property) collapse in the boardroom," he said.
"I got to watch (those in) the boardroom thinking about what they might have done differently and make strategies about what to do next, which had a profound influence on how I looked at the world and viewed risk and opportunity and teamwork."
In the mid-’90s he set out for the United States, where he worked briefly for an investment firm in California, then co-founded his own development company, Oxford Homes.
"We built multimillion-dollar palaces along the coastline," he said.
Along the way he acquired his U.S. citizenship and a deep respect for its way of doing business, he said.
"I found Americans and business in America to be a very, very positive and optimistic experience," he said. "But I also find it to be a place where it’s very tough and very competitive. You can’t get anywhere unless you’ve got a good idea and work hard."
Climbing the career ladder in California, he said, is distinct from succeeding in Europe or even, to some extent, on the East Coast of the U.S.
"Your family, your accent, your schooling can get you a lot further" in the latter locales, he said. "In California, it really is a meritocracy — people want to see that you will perform, that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves."
Winding up their affairs in the U.S., the couple began to research regions in France and settled on Bordeaux, the legendary wine region. They arrived there in the fall of 2008, and Baynes set out to recruit partners for a real estate venture.
"I couldn’t imagine doing anything else because I don’t know how to do anything else," he said.
The result is Maxwell-Storie-Baynes, a brokerage whose main office is in Saint-Emilion; other partners in the venture, Karin Maxwell and Doug Storie, also are Britons.
Not being French hasn’t been a particular impediment, said Baynes, adding that he speaks the language.
"Well, if you asked a French person, they would say no, I don’t (speak French)," he said, laughing. "But if you were to watch me, you might say yes.
"Two years in, I’m definitely not as fluent as I’d like to be," he said. "If I’m dealing with a negotiation or in the escrow office, it’s tough for me to make myself fully understood in the nuances of a deal.
"But if it’s something where I’m trying to make a proposal to somebody, I can usually muddle my way through it."
Besides, he said, many of his clients can speak English. The company’s website, MaxwellStorieBaynes.com, is in English, and the firm maintains a California-based phone line.
"We have two kinds of buyers: buyers who first and foremost are businesspeople seeking a commercial business and who have a clear idea of what they want to do," he said. "It might be a South African, for instance, who wants to (buy a vineyard) and distribute wine to a South African market.
"The other kind is the one who looks at (owning a vineyard) as a hobby," he said. "They don’t want to retire and be bored or play golf. They have an interest in wine already and recognize that Bordeaux is the Rolls-Royce of the wine world."
U.S. residents, he said, started calling his brokerage during a recent surge in the dollar, though there’s already an established American population in France that numbers more than 100,000, Baynes said, and most are property owners.
"They come, they buy, they stay a bit, then they go home," he said. "I hear by e-mail almost every day from Americans."
His company perceives a niche in being able to provide service to them in a way they’d expect back home, he said. He became convinced of a need for it in his own French real estate search. Things in France are just done — he paused — differently, he said.
"When I was in the States, my wife and I contacted a number of agents," he recalled. "We would leave a voicemail during business hours that said we were in this budget range and we’re going to do this and that, and we wouldn’t get a call back at all.
"We were astonished."
He said such a business attitude in France may be rooted in a deference toward sellers rather than to buyers. France, he said, deeply respects "producers" — of fine wine, fine cheese, fine breads, fine anything.
"Look at the big Bordeaux vineyards," he said. "They don’t do any marketing at all. Some of them will have websites, but they’re typically promotional, with the history of the vineyard or the chateau.
"For the big, famous vineyards, the buyer is allotted their share of the wine," he said. "The producer decides who gets the privilege of buying their product.
"That’s at the very top," he said. "Filter that down to other areas of business practices and other industries," and in real estate, it translates into a cultural bias toward the owner of a fine piece of property.
Vineyards, he said, are the perfect mix of commercial and residential properties. For some buyers, he said, the vineyard is a business with a house attached. Others look at the buy as a house with a business attached.
In any case, though, vineyard marketing and sales transactions can be prolonged affairs, typically drawn out over 12 to 24 months.
The "more liquid side of the market," he said, are the high-end country and village houses and chateaux that the brokerage, a Christie’s Great Estates affiliate, specializes in.
The market has been improving recently, he said.
"Below the 700,000 euros (about $974,000) market has been quiet this year," Baynes said. "Above 700,000 euros has been brisk but not overwhelming. It’s been constant, stable."
What’s helped, he said, is that the 2009 Bordeaux vintage has gotten strong reviews.
"It makes people think they should be investing in wine real estate," he said. "That’s what shrewd investors have been doing."
Although his company focuses on the priciest end of the market, some who daydream about relocating to the French countryside might not find it as quite bankrupting as they presume, he said.
"If you want something that’s turn-key and pretty nice, with a lovely view and close to a village and walking distance to a delightful restaurant, you could get a little country-type property for about 380,000 euros, in the low $400,000 range," he said.
A "nice" vineyard could be had for under $1 million, he said. Or $2 million. Or $3 million.
Or considerably more. It is, after all, the local specialty, and well-funded buyers could tend their vines in particular splendor.
Perhaps you’d be interested, say, in a 15th-century feudal castle surrounded by vineyards. Or a 19th-century chateau whose wines have won dozens of medals in recent years.
"The sky’s the limit," he said.
For sale: Chateau Lezongars. Photo courtesy of MaxwellStorieBaynes.com.