Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Oslo Syndrome: pimping up Calon-Segur, restraining Cos, and whatever you do, don't mention Michel Rolland at Figeac

It’s fascinating to see the way two St Estephe properties, both wonderful in their own way, have taken different directions.

I tasted Cos d’Estournel and Calon Segur 2014 during en primeur last  month and was mystified by one and delighted by the other.

I have always loved getting up into the St Estephe badlands and seeing the warm yellow stone of Calon Segur. There was always something otherworldly about  it – the great draughty orangery with its stone fireplace was empty of all furniture apart from an oak table, with the courteous winemaker Vincent Millet standing behind it.

The chateau and the outbuildings were always deserted (I never seemed to go there but at dusk), the whole place in a state of elegant decay.

And the wine. There is a reason Calon is held in such esteem by the British trade. It has always been luscious and opulent but also was the most classic, restrained, delicate and fresh of the St Estephes. It made Phelan Segur down the road look brash and rustic, Cos positively meretricious (but more of that later).

Calon was bought two years ago by an insurance company, Suravenir (for €200m, my friend Jane Anson reported on Decanter.com). It's lost no time in sprucing up the property.

Calon-Segur - the new tasting room...
This was my first time at there since the sale. The first thing you notice is that the grounds look rather more svelte. Did they always have those sculpted  bushes? And isn’t the gravel rather deeper and more groomed than before?
There’s central heating – tropical – and bits of artiness, bottles sitting atop perspex plinths, and a large oil (a shiny copy) of the founder, the Marquis of Segur, looking as if he too thinks things have taken a turn for the worse.

A new tasting room has been carved out of the great reception room. There are fiddly lamps festooned  with fake-industrial wiring, lots of steel and glass furniture, pointless louvres on the windows and other bits of tat. It all looks very expensive and busy and has all the character and tastefulness of a big city Sheraton.

...and the old
All that of course could be forgiven. This is Bordeaux after all, where sublime wines come from the most pretentious and overblown surroundings. But the wine has been polished and primped along with the rest of the place. Calon 2014 is an example of what I’ve dubbed “Oslo Syndrome”. It’s the sort of wine that a tableful of businessmen at an upmarket restaurant in Oslo, or any major city of the world, would expect to be pleased with. Oslo Syndrome wines are polished, with dense and present tannins, well-presented fruit, just the right amount of acidity. Above they have to taste like a 100-point wine, or what people imagine a 100-point wine should be.

Calon 2014’s got all this. It’s powerful and ripe and modern, meaty and juicy, with fine  fresh juice to the mid palate. But it contains 19% merlot in year when merlot is bursting with fruit, and that gives it its international, ripe red fruit sheen. Just like the chateau, all the character’s been sucked out of the wine.

Vincent Millet’s explanation: We had to put it in, he said, because it was excellent and low in alcohol, so it wouldn’t  dominate. He said he and their consultant  Eric Boissenot “had a feeling that this was going to be a great year for Calon.”

Lots of people agree. James Lawther MW liked it and reminded me you have to be careful with primeurs. The way a wine tastes depends on the time of day you go, on your mood, and the dynamic of the group you’re with. “And nowadays you can tweet your opinion of a wine and it’s gone around the world in ten minutes.”

How much input would the company have  had? One of my fellow tasters has worked with producers who have been taken over by big finance corporations and he said there’s normally a good deal of interference. “They love to come down and do some tasting, have a bit of input into  the blend, feel as if they’re making a difference. It’s like owning a football team or newspaper.” They are also – of course – very keen on profitability. Mme Gasqueton, the redoubtable former owner, may have had very different ideas as to what constituted a healthy bottom line.

Cos goes the other way

...right to blow its own trumpet: Cos d'Estournel
(pic Panos Kakaviatos)
So it looks as if Calon is going one way, while Cos is going the other. For the last two vintages, since Aymeric de Gironde took over from Jean-Guillaume Prats*, the wine’s transformed. You no longer turn with relief to Pagodes and Goulée (the second third wines) as a relief from the exorbitance of the first wine. de Gironde has a light touch which is exactly in keeping with the current taste for restraint. Cos 2014 is intense, classic, with a central core of concentrated blackcurrant fruit, lean and fresh and delicious and absolutely of its place. We felt a similar change in the style last year, but put that down to the impossible vintage 2012, which demanded a lean style. Now it's clear that de Gironde is set on bringing Cos back to its St Estephe roots.

(* JGP is working for LVMH and getting very excited about an extraordinary project on the China-Tibet border - see my article on Wine-Searcher, and Jane Anson's very complete blog on Decanter.com. She went there - I didn't)

“Calon’s always behind the curve,” one of my companions said. “Now it’s gone all international and fruity when everyone else is looking for restraint. And Cos is going the other way.”

And if you mention Michel Rolland just once more, I'll scream and scream until I'm sick

Sad, isn’t it? It reminds me of poor old Figeac and the way they hired Michel Rolland just as Robert Parker retires. You’ll remember that Eric d’Aramon disliked Parker so much that he set the dogs on him whenever he turned up for a tasting. Then Mme Manoncourt, after sacking her son-in-law (want a tip? Never marry the boss’s daughter), was on the phone to Rolland before you could say “microxygenation”, because as everybody knows he and Parker are thick as thieves, and a few 98-pointers would be a certain path to Grand Cru Classe 'A' status. But as soon as the consultant's signed up at €5000-plus a day, Parker hands over to Neal Martin and Mme Manoncourt looks pretty damn silly.

Anyway I asked the energetic winemaker there, Frederic Faye, a casual question about Rolland and his input (he’s quoted prominently in the 2014 blurb, and Faye isn’t). “Let’s get this straight,” he said, “I’m the winemaker. Michel is just a consultant.” “So how often does he come?” “Hardly at all, once or twice a month, maybe less, I don't know, it's not important.” “But he helps with the blend?” “No, he doesn't 'help' with anything. I do the blend. He just advises.”

It was all very painful. I just couldn’t bear to ask my next question, which was, if Rolland is so unimportant to Figeac, why put his name all over the brochure? Indeed, why employ him at all? After all, there are many properities which manage without him.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Heady days: Moon Mountain District AVA

Repris Winery, Moon Mountain District AVA

This article appears in the current (March 2015) issue of The World of Fine Wine

I spend a heady few days with the wonderfully diverse but close-knit group of entrepreneurs, growers and investors harnessing the terroirs of Sonoma's "newest oldest" AVA

Read the full article here

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Shining a pencil-thin beam into the machine: Philippe Dhalluin at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

(this article first appeared on Wine Searcher)

Philippe Dhalluin is in a very good mood this rainy January morning.

He has just been blending the 2014 vintage at Château Clerc Milon, sister property to Mouton-Rothschild, and he is describing it with that mixture of pride and caution that Bordeaux uses when it has a good vintage on its hands and wants to prime the critics without being accused of hyping it up. "It's good. We're confident about the quality," is as far as he will go.

He started his winemaking career in Peru, at the Tacama estate. It was expedient, he says. There were four posts advertised when he graduated from Bordeaux's Faculty of Enology in 1982: "Two in California, one in Australia and one in Peru. Of course, everyone else wanted to go to California or Australia." There’s another thing: in France, "C'est le Perou" means "It's fabulous", a nod at the fabled city of El Dorado.
He is the managing director of Mouton-Rothschild, its sister estates Château Clerc Milon and Château d'Armailhac. He is also managing director of the other Baron Philippe de Rothschild properties: Opus One in Napa, Almaviva in Chile and Baron'Arques in the Languedoc.

As we know, Dhalluin found his El Dorado. He came back to Bordeaux, to the cru bourgeois Château Beaumont in 1985, and from there joined Patrick Maroteaux at Château Branaire-Ducru, his last job before being recruited by the Rothschilds in 2003.

Was running a first growth his ambition from the start? "It's the dream of every Bordeaux winemaker to run a first growth. They have such exceptional terroir, and we all know it's impossible to find a better expression of quality and character. To have the opportunity to vinify these grapes is an outcome for a winemaker."

It is indeed an outcome, and it's a typically low-key statement from the ever-courteous Dhalluin. There's something about him that sets him apart from his fellows, the elite group of first growth managing directors who bestride the wine world. He doesn't have the suave urbanity of Paul Pontallier at Margaux, for example, or the ferocious reputation of Latour's Frédéric Engerer; nor does he have the lineage of Jean-Philippe Delmas of Haut-Brion, scion of a winemaking dynasty. Pink-faced, suited and smiling, he looks more like a respectable family solicitor than the boss of one of the five greatest wine estates in world.

Dhalluin's resumé reads like a winemaker's wishlist: Almaviva, Mouton, Opus One.
© Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A.; Deepix (C&R) | Dhalluin's resumé reads like a winemaker's wishlist: Almaviva, Mouton, Opus One.

But beneath the understated demeanor is a pioneering talent. Maroteaux, who praises his "huge motivation", recalls how Dhalluin arrived at Branaire and immediately set about persuading him to embark on a €6-million ($6.8m) renovation. "We were the first to install different-sized tanks and the first to have a gravity-fed vat house. That was his idea."
Since joining Mouton 12 years ago, he has overseen a radical and comprehensive overhaul of the Rothschild portfolio. Indeed, his feet were hardly under the desk before he was presenting his plans to Philippine de Rothschild. Some €40m ($45m) later, ("and 66 meetings", he adds), and the rebuildings and replantings are still going on. There's the new vat room at Clerc Milon (completed 2011), and the transformation of Mouton including a vast gravity-fed vinification cellar, many new fermentation tanks (the smallest of which holds no more than 50 hectoliters), and an experimental vineyard that, when I visit, is still a gravelly wasteland.

"This is the future," he says, surveying the perfect rows of tank lids protruding from the oaken deck of the new building. "More and more precision."

Smaller tanks mean they can find "micro-zones" within parcels, vinify them separately, and become forensically exact as to which vines to favor. Attention to detail informs Dhalluin's every move. For instance, he has enough optic sorting machines, which work by taking high-speed photographs of grapes shooting by on a conveyor belt, to process the entire harvest of the 75-hectare (185-acre) property. But he often returns to manual sorting. "It allows more integrity in the grapes," he says.

If he's excited about designing his own winery, the experimental vineyard is also going to be interesting. There's about half a hectare to be planted – "not to Cabernet Sauvignon; maybe Merlot or Cabernet Franc?" – with a view to eventually working out how to "limit the use of pesticides and fertilizer – and put forward a new form of viticulture".

The idea is to be "experimental but not revolutionary". An estate like Mouton, Dhalluin suggests, is not the sort of machine you want to tinker with. So he welcomes experiments with organic viticulture at Opus One, where there is significantly less danger of rot, and at Clerc Milon, 70 percent of which is organic, but at Mouton things progress with circumspection. "If, as a result of [going organic], you lose 25 percent of the crop, well, you have to take full responsibility for that."

So the watchword now is caution. Dhalluin tells me he's reading Roger Dion's magisterial Histoire de la Vigne et du Vin en France des Origines au XIXe Siècle (the History of the Vine and Wine in France from its Origins to the 19th Century). It demonstrates the need for a cool head, he says.

The Mouton cellar is completely gravity-fed.
© Deepix | The Mouton cellar is completely gravity-fed.

"People then didn't have the same means we have. They had the time to observe, and cultivate. It shows you have to take a certain time if you want to do something. That's why I've delayed a year with the new vineyard – because when we plant, we plant for 80 years. You have to get it right."

This doesn't mean Mouton is standing still. Dhalluin sees progress as the gathering of knowledge; he wants to shine a bright, pencil-thin beam into the innermost workings of the machine. He's not interested in debating the merits of concrete versus oak – "vats are simply tools" – but in microbiology.

"The evolution of enology is not winemaking. The great evolution is the power of analysis." We now have the equipment, he says, "to analyse compounds that 10 years ago we barely knew existed, and if we knew of them, we had no idea how they worked". He cites the rogue yeast brettanomyces as an example; it was only recently discovered that it can live in vineyards as well as wineries. "The more we understand these things the better we are equipped to express our terroir."

It sounds as if he likes nothing better than to fossick around in the lab with petri dish and test tube but, of course, that's not the case. He's abroad a lot of the time.

"You're lucky to catch me," he said, when we spoke. "I was in Paris yesterday and tomorrow I go to Hong Kong."

He visits Opus One ("more or less as a consultant") four times a year, and gives nearly equal attention to Chile and Languedoc. Then there's the ambassadorial role – travelling to Shanghai, Taiwan, Hong Kong (and wherever else the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who constitute Mouton's market hang out) with or without his bosses, Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild and Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, the heirs of the late Baroness Philippine, who died last year. It sounds like a lot of administration and glad-handing. Isn't it galling – as you rise in your chosen profession, that you find yourself doing less of what you love, and more of the boring stuff?

Dhalluin laughs and murmurs about the importance of meeting the people and finding out how the wines are perceived.

"I have to do these things. To run the company is my job; making wine is my hobby."

Monday, 15 December 2014

A watermelon salute to celebrate Yvonne May's life

‘You’ve now got a good two hours hard drinking ahead of you,’ Matthew Jukes said, winding up a series of addresses, and occasionally hilarious video tributes, in memory of Yvonne May, the late head of Wine Australia in London, who died of cancer earlier this year.

There’s something moving about laughter at a memorial service, a spontaneous often surprised burst of shared feeling. ‘We can’t give you a 21-gun salute,’ Wirra Wirra boss Andrew Kay, by video from McLaren Vale, announced to the packed hall at Aussie House in the Strand. ‘So we’re going to do a one-watermelon salute instead.’ He was standing in a field, and behind him could be discerned a sort of Roman catapult, a huge spring-loaded wooden contraption, with various busy blokes pulling ropes. The thing worked, sending the fat melon in a high curving arc, and there was a cheer.

Yvonne would have loved that affectionate slapstick. I didn't know her that well but had enjoyed her company at some boozy dinners – one particularly festive bash in Dublin with the McGuigans – and some lunches. I was at the Savour conference in Adelaide last year, where she efficiently and with a nice sense of humour handled the multiple hassles of a big affair like that

She was a calm, friendly and generous individual, and good at her job. After the doldrum years of the mid-decade when Wine Australia here suffered under a hiatus of leadership and, rudderless, alienated some sections of the wine press, she was a reassuring presence. When she was appointed in 2010 I rang her up for a comment – I think it was just before Christmas – and she was happy to chat, had a few plans up her sleeve, and gave some well-turned and diplomatic comments. In six months she’d transformed the trade’s relationship with Australia House.

‘The group was her thinktank,’ Simon Thorpe (of Negociants UK) said, suggesting someone inclusive and democratic, but with a clear sense of who was in charge. It worked. The clever young people she recruited loved her, and were devastated when she became ill.

And not just the staff – the wider trade as well. Thorpe went on, ‘She was someone who thought business should be honest, collaborative, professional and fun.’ That pretty much sums up a type of Australian attitude to work. She was made for the country, knew it backwards, and between her and the wine community there was healthy respect and affection.

The video tributes were straightforward and cumulatively very touching: a series of winemakers (in elastic-sided boots) saluting someone they liked, respected and will miss. One by one, from Andrew Wigan to Neil McGuigan, they expressed their condolences. Some chose to sit in front of a barrel and raise a glass, others to chuck a watermelon two hundred yards – the sentiment was the same.

‘I expected serried ranks of chairs, a sit-down service,’ Charles Metcalfe said (before taking to the stage for a rendition of You're the Cream in my Coffee with Oz Clarke, whose baritone made the glasses hum). ‘But what’s this? It’s a party.’

A party it was, with copious amounts of fizz (Jansz Premium Cuvée), fine canapés, and a dozen good reds and whites to try. The 300-strong crowd was a distillation of the London wine trade, sprinkled with friends and colleagues like Angela Slade, Wine Australia's US chief, who had flown over from Washington DC. David Lindsay, Yvonne’s husband, was his usual upright self, if slightly drawn. He was one of the first people I met when I joined Decanter in 1999, and he’s always been as generous with his time as she was.

Jukes was an efficient MC who knew his audience (he later told me it was the most difficult thing he'd ever done). Halfway through the tributes – from Thorpe, Neil Hadley (of Wakefield Wines) by video, and the Clarke-Metcalfe duet – he announced there’d be a break ‘to top up glasses’. Then, just in case we were slacking, he gave us that reminder about getting down to some hard drinking. We didn’t need much prompting. Yvonne would have expected no less.

Monday, 1 December 2014

'Nothing modest?': The Wine Society

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

At the Wine Society’s Stevenage headquarters there’s a nondescript storeroom which houses the archives of the 140-year-old cooperative. Here are shelves of leather-bound ledgers with membership details going back to the 1870s. Another handsome tome records the minutes of the first-ever meeting, on 4 August 1974, in which Major-General Henry Scott proposed  'a co-operative company' to buy good quality wines on a regular basis to sell to members.

pic: societygrapevine.com
That such evocative artefacts are kept in a cupboard more suited to mops and buckets is a testament to the ethos of the organisation. Where other companies might display their history in glass cases, the Wine Society is more low-key.

The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society, to give it its full name, came into being in the latter half of 1874, during the last of the Great Exhibitions that captivated the Victorian public (the first was the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851). Quantities of wine had been sent by exhibiting nations, and a series of lunches was held to publicise them. Many of the guests showed an interest in buying the wines, and so the idea of a mutual society, to source wines for members, came about.

And that is more or less what the Society has done for the last century and a half. Since then some 372,000 members have come and gone. There are currently 125,000 ‘active’ members, increasing at an annual rate of about five per cent. Each member buys a lifetime share in the Society for £40 (€50), and has access to wines from some 25 regions, sourced by a team of buyers of impeccable pedigree. There are other services: under the ‘Members’ Reserves’ plan, customers can store their wines in one of the Society’s vast warehouses, or the company will compile a cellar on their behalf, laying down red wines and white Burgundy, suggesting drinking windows and so on. The Society also keeps its own reserves, releasing them when the buyers decide they are ready for drinking. It has a retail outlet in Stevenage, where popular wine dinners are laid on in a somewhat soulless new dining room, and another in Montreuil-sur-Mer in France, but the company’s core business is mail order.

Of the 1500 wines the Society lists, about a third are own-label – the ‘Society’ range and the more upmarket, vintage-specific ‘Exhibition’ range. The main part of the list is a mix of the classic regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Italy, Australia – and the new. A characteristic of members, chief executive Robin McMillan says, is that they are ‘keen on exploration. We see this as important.’ The Society was one of the first champions of Sicilian wines, and was an ‘early supporter of Eastern Europe.’ The list is rich in interest. In Spain, for example, ‘Other Spanish Wines’ runs to over 50 entries, some from the smallest and least-known DOs. There are 45 Sherries, there are wines from Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria and Morocco. There are a few holes, notably in the uninspired North American offering, and it’s essentially a conservative list (the top-selling countries are France, Portugal, Italy, South Africa and Chile), but there’s also enough of the unusual and the hard-to-find to satisfy any wine lover.
Warehouse 1, Stevenage

The Society does not pursue growth, so is happy with the modest year-on-year increase in its membership. ‘There is no growth agenda for growth’s sake. We have no outrageous ambition,’ McMillan says. ‘Of course we have to grow to be sustainable but our focus is on servicing the membership.’ It does not advertise, so new members tend to hear about it by word of mouth, or they inherit a share from a parent. ‘Modest’ is the word McMillan likes to use. ‘The Wine Society is really a well-kept secret. We’re here for our members, and not interested in any other agenda.’

Low-key its aims may be, but in reality there is nothing modest about the Wine Society. It turned over £93m last year, and is embarking on an ambitious plan to increase its considerable storage space with two vast new warehouses on the drawing board. When it moved out of London in 1965 it bought the huge industrial expanse it now occupies – the board, chaired by the legendary Edmund Penning-Rowsell, foresaw the need to expand in the coming decades. Currently it has space for around 500,000 cases, of which 230,000 are members’ reserves.

Serious wine merchants regard warehousing as key. As Adam Brett-Smith of Corney and Barrow told me recently, logistics will be the key development in the decades to come. Companies that can store large amounts of wine in optimum conditions can buy direct from producers and keep it for as long as necessary. In Bordeaux this is particularly important as chateaux – starting with Latour – may begin to opt out of the En Primeur system and sell to end consumers directly. Big Bordeaux negociant houses are maximising their acreage. Maison Joanne has temperature- and  climate-controlled space for six million bottles. For the Wine Society, En Primeur isn’t a big part of the business, but it's increasing, and with its vast square footage the Society seems positioned to exploit future developments in fine wine distribution.

And there’s also the issue of provenance. The Society buys only direct from domaines or from agents – ‘never from brokers’, McMillan says – so provenance is guaranteed, which is of vital importance as fraud becomes widespread. McMillan says he has even heard the phrase ‘ex-Stevenage’ used as a guarantor of a wine’s credentials. Again, they are ahead of the curve.

But however far-sighted it is, the Society has to strike a balance between tradition and modernity. The average age of members is a conservative 50, concentrated in London and the south-east, although with decent representation in the rest of the country. McMillan says it’s natural the customer base is more mature. ‘It isn’t for everyone. You have to be at a certain point in your wine journey. You’re choosing from literature, it requires investment and a certain level of confidence.’ Service is paramount: there’s no automated switchboard (‘over my dead body,’ McMillan says), and great store is set by the fact the printed list is available to those who want it. Apparently membership surveys suggest it’s the most digitally-aware members who insist on getting the quarterly booklet.

In terms of its digital presence the Wine Society is not cutting any corners. The majority of wines are ordered online, and spend on digital is doubling this year. This is not to create an achingly modern website, but to ‘enhance the service’, that is to make sure the ‘mobile, tablet and website experience is seamless.’ They're big on social media a well (marketing chief Ewan Murray is a prolific tweeter himself, and looks after an account with 39k followers).

So thewinesociety.com is up-to-date, but with its discreet burgundy- and-grey livery and old-fashioned nameplate logo there’s nothing remotely edgy about it. The one concession to modernity is that the ‘IECWS’ acronym in the logo has been dropped, although it still says ‘1874’.

It could be called staid, but McMillan comes back to a favoured word: ‘modest’. ‘We have an open, transparent dialogue with our members, there’s no hard sell. The tone of voice is critically important’ – but agrees that online is key to attracting new and younger members. To this end there are more features such as ‘Buyers’ Top Tens’ and ‘New wines’. The average age of new members is creeping down to a youthful mid-40s, the Society’s marketing chief Ewan Murray says.

The balance between the modern and the traditional is never more important than in the list itself. Buyers must service members’ taste for the traditional as well as introduce them to the unusual and the new. Pierre Mansour, responsible for Spain, Champagne, Sherry and Lebanon, says that on any buying trip he will spend about a third of his time searching out new talent, and the rest of the time dealing with existing producers. A good example is a recent trip to Rioja, in which he was ‘taken in the back door of Contino’ to make a special blend of the renowned producer’s 2010 Reserva. This will be ‘our own take’ on the 2010. ‘We have to put ourselves in the members’ shoes, and we know they like the more traditional style of Rioja.’

At the same time, he sourced a wine from a new producer who is experimenting with ancient Rioja varietals, indigenous grapes such as Maturana Tinta, Montastell (sic), Tempranillo Blanco, and a local strain of Torrontes. ‘I’ll take the wine if it can tell a story,’ he says. ‘If we can give our members the confidence to try something new.’

The fact that the Wine Society doesn’t pursue growth, with no shareholders demanding profits and dividends, means that buyers have more flexibility to take wines that might not be ready for some years. ‘We don’t have that pressure to push through stock to convert it into cash,’ Mansour says, citing the example of Toro producer San Roman. The Society is listing its 2010 at the moment, but the wine is produced in such tiny quantities that if they had to wait until it was all sold before they changed vintages, the 2011 would be gone. ‘The 2011 is a baby but I’ve been able to snap it up, and keep it until it’s ready for release.’

It’s difficult to find a flaw in the company’s modus operandi. It has won numerous awards, including Decanter’s Retailer of the Year three years running, as well as Wine Merchant of the Year and Wine Club of theYear at the International Wine Challenge. ‘What else could we do?’ the Decanter judges asked in 2013, going on to laud the fact that prices held steady on 1,100 of the 1500 lines, while ‘400 lines actually saw their prices reduced.’ The Society is praised by Oz Clarke (‘The quality of their Sherries alone would be an excellent reason to join’) and by Jancis Robinson MW (‘great value’).

There have been criticisms. The UK journalist Simon Woolf, who also writes on Tim Atkin MW’s website, recently took the Society to task for ‘massively undercutting all other retailers’. He cited various examples, such as the Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Pais from Marcillac which is £8.50 on the Society list but hardly even less than £10 from other independents. This is undercutting, or deep discounting, he suggested.

‘I would change the language,’ McMillan counters. ‘Our intent is not to undercut; our model is to run a business that sources wines and offers best possible value. We don’t want surplus profits, and the mutual model demands we keep prices as low as we possibly can. People are cynical because it sounds too good to be true.’

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Supermarket own-label wines – who holds the cards?

This article is in Issue 5 of Meininger's Wine Business International, October 2014

Own-label wines have been much in the news lately. Wines from UK supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons have been awarded the highest accolades at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International WineChallenge. Marks & Spencer won 280 medals this year, a haul matched by many of its competitors.

‘Another stunning victory for the UK high street via this great-value supermarket wine,’ Decanter declared in July, as it handed an International Trophy to Morrisons for its 2012 Valpolicella Ripasso from the ‘M Signature’ range. The wine retails for £8.99, and is made by Cantina do Soave, a Verona cooperative with more than 6,000ha of vineyards.

Decanter also gave an International Trophy (the top level of the Decanter World Wine Awards) to Marks & Spencer for its Eclipse Bio Bio Riesling from Chile, while over at the International Wine Challenge, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda were garlanded with awards, including the IWC Own Label Range of the Year for Tesco Finest*.

Eclipse: Trophy
Own-label wines – and chocolate, coffee, tea, ice-cream, school shirts, soft toys and baked beans, for that matter – have been with us since the 1970s. Traditionally, own-label was seen as the cheaper alternative to the ‘real thing’: you knew that Sainsbury’s beans would somehow be inferior to Heinz. It’s only relatively recently, due in part to the rise of premium ranges such as Tesco Finest* and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference (both launched in 2000) that supermarket brands have been accorded the same respect as proprietary brands.

‘It’s a great way to get customers on board and trying new things,’ Barry Dick, formerly Sainsbury’s winemaker and now at Accolade wines says. ‘They will trust an own-brand wine sooner than an unknown label. It’s a question of comfort and reassurance.’ A customer who might otherwise fight shy of Valpolicella can be introduced to the style via Morrison’s M Signature, for example.

Then there is the advantage of consistency, a concept dear to supermarkets’ hearts. ‘With own-brand you can deliver a cohesive brand of wine across world markets. It’s very compelling,’ Dick says. He adds that exclusivity is another great attraction of own-label. Anyone can sell a Casillero del Diablo Chardonnay, but only Sainsbury’s can sell Taste the Difference Chilean Chardonnay. In many cases it will be made by the same person. The higher-end ranges promote their collaborations with renowned producers. Domaine André Figeat appears on the front label of the Taste the Difference Pouilly Fumé, and when Denbies Wine Estate in southern England was signed up for the Taste the Difference English Sparkling, Sainsbury’s announced it with a fanfare. ‘It’s a great privilege to be selected,’ Denbies said.

It can also be a double-edged sword. Martin Krajewski, who owns the premium rosé producer Chateau de Sours in Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux, has had a 20-year relationship with UK supermarkets. He currently supplies a wine called La Fleur d'Amelie to Marks & Spencer, and Tesco stocks his Domaine de Sours rosé. Both are in the UK on an exclusive basis.

Krajewski does not supply own-label wines but he recognises the advantages: ‘For some producers having 50,000 bottles in a supermarket is brilliant,’ even though that may compromise any chance of getting the wine under their own name in the same retailer. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, he says, but then ‘you’d be competing against yourself’.

A privilege to be selected: Denbies for Sainsburys
But he also explains that supermarkets hold most of the cards. ‘They don’t give contracts and things can simply change: they can drop you for any reason.’

The price supermarkets pay for own-label wines varies widely. Krajewski notes that he is perfectly satisfied with his arrangements at with M&S and Tesco, with whom he has strong long-term and trusted relationships, but adds ‘some supermarkets are quite capable of trying to squeeze you for less money’ when they are negotiating the next year’s deal.

No supermarket would comment on the relative prices it pays producers for own-label compared to branded wines, but one producer who wished to remain anonymous told Meininger’s that of all supermarkets, the resolutely upmarket Waitrose drove the hardest bargain, generally offering ‘ten per cent less than other supermarkets and selling at 25% more. They are the sharpest at this game.’ A Waitrose spokesman said, ‘We don’t believe this is the case, we provide our customers with excellent value and quality wines selected from around the world.’

On average, across all supermarkets and other wine retailers, more than a third of wines sold are own-label (some market watchers put the figure at 50%). It makes up some 300 of Tesco’s 800-strong in-store range, and almost the entire M&S offering. Sainsbury’s own-label wines are one-third of its range; the Wine Society, the 140-year-old mail-order cooperative, similarly bottles about one-third of its wines under its own banner.

There are many ways to make an own-label wine – it can be simply a matter of buying several tanks of Chardonnay from a cooperative and sticking a label on it. Or there are what one owner, Gavin Quinney at Chateau Bauduc in Bordeaux, memorably described as ‘tender blenders. You put it out to tender, get the samples, get to work with your test tubes, and make your blend according to a formula. It’s not winemaking, it’s a chemistry set.’

That’s the lower end of the spectrum, producing wines that are unlikely to win awards. At the other end, the supermarket is involved at every stage of the process, from drawing board to label design. Quantities also vary hugely. Marks & Spencer made 500 cases of the northern Spanish white Txakoli; a premium Taste the Difference wine at Sainsbury’s would be perhaps 2000 cases, and a mass-selling style like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 100,000 cases.

Getting a listing is not a matter simply of waiting for the supermarket to come calling. ‘You need to know the buyers at the supermarkets and be in close contact with them,’ Krajewski says. ‘Know what they are looking for each year, which are the growth markets or categories, produce products that can fill those niches or gaps, do it early and be prepared to wait one, two or even three years to get a listing. You also need to be pitching at the right price points and be flexible on volumes. ‘

What surprises some people is the degree of expertise the supermarkets have in-house. Marks & Spencer for example employs three full-time winemakers, two of whom are graduates of Roseworthy Agricultural College at the University of Adelaide, while the most experienced member of the department, Sue Daniels, is a veteran of 32 years in the wine business.

‘It’s the untold story,’ Daniels says. ‘Most people think there’s a man tending grapes, and that’s it.’

Getting an own-label wine on the shelf is a long and involved process. In M&S’s case, the initial impetus might come from the food category. ‘We look at things working well in the rest of the business,’ Daniels says. ‘For example, there has been a big push on Spanish foods.’ They knew the north of Spain, the Atlantic coast from Santander to San Sebastian, is renowned for its food, so they hit on the local wine of the region, Txakoli, as an addition to the range. Once two possible suppliers had been identified they were visited – ‘we make clear this is going to be a partnership’ – tank samples tasted and a bespoke blend is put together. M&S buyers are involved at an early stage in order to make financial decisions as to quantity and bottle price. ‘Then we go back later to put the final blend together.’

Supermarkets are often criticised by producers for high-handedness. It is not unusual to hear complaints that buyers drive down prices and demand producers pay promotional and other costs. One artisan winemaker in the South of France told Meininger’s his doors would in future be closed to one particular supermarket – he was offended by the buyer’s demands that he increase the residual sugar in his rosé.

The supermarkets Meininger’s has interviewed energetically reject the notion that local winemakers are sidelined. ‘It’s a very collaborative process,’ Tesco product development manager Graham Nash says. ‘I have never encountered hostility from a winemaker. We encourage them to have their views, but often they don’t want to give views, as they understand we know our customers better than they do.’

Of course, there are opportunities for conflict, Barry Dick concedes. ‘But the clever ones let you get on with it. We will have benchmarked other supermarkets and will know what style works. If they are sensible they have all the numbers in front of them and will see the advantages – they don’t have the knowledge of the UK market that we have.’

Thierry Coulon, managing director of the huge Beaujolais negociant Paul Sapin, has worked with Marks and Spencer for 18 years and provides it with a range of wines from a dozen different countries, from France to the US. He is impressed by the level of commitment the buyers and winemakers show. ‘They know exactly what they want and they take hours and hours to achieve it. Sometimes we are in the tasting room all day. And it’s never a question of them arriving and leaving on the same day – they always want to see the vineyards, to know the region, to go deep into the process.’

Coulon also stressed that buyers and winemakers take the same pains whether the wine they are blending is a high-end New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or an entry-level wine. ‘There’s no way of selecting a cheap wine quickly – they are just as exigeant.’

The degree of involvement of the retailer’s winemaker can vary, however. If quantities are very small, or if the wine in question is little-known, the retailer might defer entirely to the producer. When M&S wanted to try out the Japanese Koshu grape, Daniels said, ‘it would have been arrogant of us to think we would be able to blend better Koshu.'

Own-label has burgeoned in the UK for many reasons – the growing power of the supermarkets, the success of premium ranges, and the nature of the average consumer’s relationship with European wine regions, which will lead them to trust an own-brand wine much sooner than one from an unknown Chateau, Domaine or Schloss.

In the US the scene is very different: statistics are hazy but some commentators reckon own-brand accounts for only 5% of the wine market. The main reason for this, according to John Bradbury, brand manager for Codorníu-owned Aveníu Brands, is the three-tier system, under which production, distribution and retail of wines must be handled by different companies. This means a supermarket can’t create its own wine as it can in the UK, but has to employ a third party. “It’s a structure thing, not a consumer thing,” Bradbury says. But, he adds, supermarkets are cottoning on to the value of own-label. Costco has its well-established Kirkland brand, which covers everything from underwear to cookies to wine. “Its reputation for good prices and good quality is evolving,” Bradbury says, and other retailers are likely to follow suit. The branding company Winery Exchange produces the boutique H&G brand for Whole Foods Market and supplies a dozen retailers with own-branded wines. “The private label business is small in the United States,” Winery Exchange’s Sandrine Perry told Meininger’s, “but it will get bigger.”

Back in the UK, most big retailers consider their own-label offering is stable. The Wine Society CEO Robin McMillan says they are “happy where they are” with their range and are unlikely to increase it, and Nash says Tesco will stay close to its 300 branded wines.

The publicity given own-label wines by this year’s awards ceremonies means more and more producers will be keen to work with UK supermarkets, which will have wider choice and more bargaining power to produce exactly what their research tells them the consumer wants. Once again, the supermarkets hold all the cards.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Tickets, still out of time and still as popular

Just how preposterous is Tickets? It’s been open three years now and it still takes some serious string-pulling to get a table. From the bell-boy uniforms (the door-girl wears a ringmaster’s topper), to the three-language menus, our waitress’s opaque patter, and the carefully-created air of controlled mayhem, the place has the feel of a chaotic pantomime in a provincial theatre.

Delicious cool draft on the palate: Tickets edible cocktail
The décor is a jaunty post-retro hotchpotch of big top and music-hall: brickwork, a 1960s bare-bulb cinema marquee above the bar, 19th-century playbill menu graphics – all cheekily ironic. There’s even a hint of send-up in the wait staff’s greeting,‘Hi, I’m Beatriz and I’m here to look after you this evening’.

So there you sit, trying to make sense of it all, getting nowhere with the menu and its daft divisions – so what is the difference between tapa and finger-food, and how big is this dish, and what the hell is an airbag baguette anyway? And there’s a guy in the middle of the room dressed like a flunkey doing something with dry ice (and dry ice is as dated as Gordon Ramsay’s swearing). After five minutes of Alice-in-Wonderland back and forth with Beatriz– she’s explaining spherification and thinks we’re being wilfully dim – she says, ‘why don’t we start with the olives?’ and we snap our menus shut and settle back to enjoy the Cava.

Jaunty post-retro hotchpotch: Tickets
Tickets, the brainchild of the Adrià brothers – Ferran (of El Bulli Foundation and whose late restaurant was just up the coast in Rosas), and Albert, who have said the time for high-concept fine dining is past – opened in 2011 and is still the hottest molecular bar in Barcelona. It’s supplanted the achingly avant-garde Tapas 24, now seen as very año pasado. ‘A tourist trap,’ one of my local colleagues sniffed. Tickets has a four-month waiting list. It's also got a list of sponsors as long as your arm, from Estrella Damm and Riedel to Coca-ColaSharpLavazza and half a dozen media companies.

From the moment you arrive and see the dismembered penny-farthing in the window, you know you’re in for a performance. Indeed, the menu tells us the whole affair is an ‘Adrià Entertainment’ presented by the ‘Tickets Theatre Company’. It all seems rather over-produced, and we’re just beginning to be dismayed by the paucity of the wine list (short and unimaginative), when something wonderful happens. The food arrives.
Just what the hell is an air baguette?

First, the spherified olives. Spherification is the first trick you learn at molecular cookery school. Invented by Ferran Adria 10 years ago, it’s an alchemical process by which a solid is liquified then re-formed into a sphere when suspended in a calcium bath.

When done to an olive it produces a thing looking very much like an olive but whose greenness is somehow greener, as if we’re suddenly in Technicolor, whose texture (they explode on your tongue) is like cooled, molten salted honey, and with a flavour of such delicate salinity and umami meatiness that it’s like eating the first olive ever.

Then we’re entranced by the ‘Edible cocktail’ a slice of Granny Smith marinaded in beetroot juice and fennel, an appley crunch releasing a delicious cool draft on the palate. Then cod crackers, crisp saltiness and a slow-developing, intense flavour of fish.

The oysters have a lovely smokiness and concentrated taste of the sea, and the ‘pearl’ – spherified wakame seaweed – detonates deliciously. Then there are the air baguettes, little wands of hollowed-out loaf wrapped in pata negra ham, and mini-air-baguettes filled with foamed manchego, and anchovies on toast with tomato and fake scales of edible silver. Then cumin-marinaded 6-hour pork which is so melting it has to be scooped up in your fingers.

A mild disappointment was lobster with pimento sauce, fine and picante but lacking in the surprise factor that had everyone flocking to Rosas in the first place. This is the law of diminishing returns: you approach every dish expecting fireworks. There’s no place for the merely delicious.
Pipette: passé

The puddings are fun, delicious, slightly dated (any dish with a self-basting plastic pipette...), but still the flavours have us guessing – was that verbena with the coconut ice cream?

Tickets is a mini-Bulli, a kids’ version of the molecular Mecca, cheaper, faster, slightly easier to get a table, with a wine list that is frankly unchallenging. What I loved about it was the exuberance and the lack of cynicism. Everything’s done with a knowing wink, but it’s an inclusive joke (pace the sponsors). I get the feeling it could only work in Barcelona – that knowing London scene would regard it with ennui and a raised eyebrow. The crowd’s interesting, definitely not the ultra-aware hipster bunch it would attract in Shoreditch or Clapton, rather more office workers and hen-parties. The room erupts into Happy Birthday at one stage. Very uncool, and rather sweet. As one of my party said, ‘you can only do this sort of thing if your second name’s Adrià’.

The bill for four with two bottles of wine, and four glasses of liquoreux, came to just shy of €300.