Friday, 29 May 2015

The Valley of the Rhône is a rockin' and a rollin'

This article, with different images, appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Image result for jumpin jack flash jagger singing
Jumpin' Jack Flash... but does Jagger
drink Condrieu?
“I was BORN in crossfire hurriCANE,” Yves Gangloff of Condrieu howled into the microphone as his band kicked off one of the after-parties of the peripatetic wine fair that is Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône. Music is a key part of this extraordinary few days, an odyssey of tastings, discussions, dinners, seminars, masterclasses and “vigneron-rocker” evenings, all in the 250km vinous playground that is the Rhône valley.

Every wine region in entertainment mode has its peculiar character. In the Medoc they go for elaborate marquees and black tie dinners, in Burgundy, confrerie singing and heart-stopping gastronomic marathons for 600 guests. In the Rhône, there’s music, whether rock, rockabilly, or a local brass ensemble parping away in the background. Meininger’s even caught a particularly good jazz combo in a dive bar in Avignon. Gangloff’s band, The Grapeful Dead, consists of Paul Ansellem of Côte-Rôtie’s Dme Georges Vernay, Pierre-Jean Villa of the eponymous northern Rhône domaine, and Gangloff himself on vocals. They played in Ampuis, to a merry crowd quaffing the finest northern Rhônes from magnum.

The Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône started in 2001, inspired by the Grands Jours de Bourgogne tasting that covers that interesting stretch of land from Chablis to Macon. Now in its  eighth edition, it takes in the 70,000ha of Rhône valley vineyards and some 5,500 wine companies, from producers to negociants. This year there 620 exhibitors, and nine separate trade fairs, with 2,175 visitors from 31 countries.

The Palais des Papes: dramatic but draughty
The organisational power behind the four days of the event is Inter Rhône, which must – in this particular journalist’s view – be one of the most proactive and efficient trade organisations in France. Apart from the knowledgeable and helpful staff, in every centre, from Ampuis to Avignon, there was a cache of useful literature. One particular booklet, the Encyclopedia of Rhône Valley Wines, gives a comprehensive overview of the entire AOC and its 171 communes. It is needed: there is nothing more complicated than the hierarchy of a French AOC and its sub-appellations. With an influx of emerging wine-buying regions like mainland China, absolute clarity is vitally important, especially as the Chinese are looking beyond the top, icon crus to more affordable wines. A newly-fledged junior sommelier from Guangzhou may need all the help he or she can get when trying to explain the difference between Vallée du Rhône, Village and Cru.

That said, however, Découvertes is still essentially a parochial event. Seventy-two per cent of visitors are French, with a smattering of Americans (4 per cent) and Asians (about 1 per cent). There are no signs that this demographic is changing, despite the fact that the Rhône’s Chinese market is growing. Overall exports for Rhône Valley wines fell by some five per cent in 2014, but in China there was notable growth for appellations such as Costières de Nîmes and Gigondas. “Rhône is very important for us,” Xi Chen of Bordeaux-based wine merchant Maison Bordelaise told Meininger’s, adding that he had come to Découvertes with a groups of Chinese sommeliers “for enjoyment, not work.”

In his introduction to the Découvertes, Michel Chapoutier, the president of Inter Rhône, says one of its major purposes is to “profoundly experience the Rhône Valley.” It achieves this in two ways. First, and most obvious, is the fact that there is no better way of understanding a wine region than to stand in its vineyards. Delegates, therefore, were taken to the top of Hermitage hill, and given a 360° explanation of the wine region shimmering in bright spring sunshine around them.

Shimmering in the sun...on Hermitage hill
Second, and most important, the tastings themselves. From town sports centres to the magnificent (and draughty) Palais des Papes in Avignon, every available public space was taken over for tastings. One important aspect of these events was their democratic organisation: every producer, whether Jaboulet, Chapoutier or the smallest vigneron-récoltant, was allotted the same space in which to show their wines. “It’s my socialist disposition,” Chapoutier told Meininger’s. “We’re not here to say who is the biggest, but to show the range and quality of all producers.”  This distinguishes the Découvertes from the massive trade fairs that have come to dominate the wine landscape – this year, in the space of a few weeks, producers have to decide between Prowein, VinItaly and Vinexpo – which are profoundly undemocratic in the sense that the biggest companies can afford the most elaborate stands, while the smallest may get overlooked.

“This is much easier than Vinexpo,” vigneron Lionel Faury of St Joseph said, “because it’s specialised. Vinexpo is the market for big volumes and big business, but here you can talk about terroir – it’s for people who are interested in the Rhône.” At a cost of €500 a day for a stand, it’s not that much cheaper than an international fair, but the rewards are potentially greater.
Hermitage terraces...Jaboulet?

From north to south, producers volunteered the same opinions: Découvertes is valuable because it's localised and specialised, and it’s an excellent way of doing business. “My goal was to find a Danish importer,” said Stephane  Montez of Dme du Monteillet in Condrieu, “and the first guy to come by this morning was from Denmark. I have a Swedish importer, so now I just need Finland and Norway.”

Another advantage of the localised format was the opportunity to concentrate on a vintage. The Rhône – in general – escaped the terrible growing conditions the rest of France endured in 2013. Thousands of hectares of Grenache were lost to coullure in the south, but in the north a combination of a cold and wet spring and summer and fine September and October produced wines that are lighter and fresher than usual. But for many consumers and buyers, 2013 in France is a vintage to be treated with caution, so producers welcomed the chance to allow the vintage to show itself. “The most important is 2013,” Joël Durand of Domaine Eric & Joël Durand told Meininger’s. “It’s a very particular vintage, there was bad weather, we harvested two weeks late – it was different. It’s useful to get people to taste it, especially in St Joseph which is suffering from the reputation of the rest of France.”

Découvertes is not all business, though: the many halls and tasting rooms buzzed with conversation and gossip. Many producers told Meininger’s they were there simply to meet existing customers and generally catch up on news. One salient reason for this is the extremely low 2013 harvest. “Our only problem is that we have no wine to sell,” Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage said. “We’re just here to meet a few customers that we know, but not develop new business.”

The 2000-plus journalists, wine merchants and other wine professionals that attend the tastings have the same attitude. Helen Savage, a UK wine writer and educator and Rhône expert, told Meininger’s she has come several times because “it is so valuable for keeping up to date with what’s going on”. Wine merchants were much in evidence: Georges Barbier of the eponymous London merchant has been coming since the beginning and finds the present set up a great improvement, he said. “All the tastings used to be in cellars and there were long queues.” The Barbier family’s prime reason to be there was to “find something new”, his daughter Victoria said, “and we’ve discovered Dme Monteillet already. It’s a great event. We’re here for three days and we’ve found two new wines. It’s got my seal of approval.”

Alongside the tastings was a comprehensive programme of masterclasses and seminars. If the tastings were an unqualified success, the academic side of Découvertes was less so. It’s a criticism frequently directed at such events – it sometimes seems as if masterclasses and seminars are tacked on in order to give the event gravitas and to attract celebrity commentators. While certain events were well organised and stimulating, others had the feeling of being hastily-prepared. This may have been a result of the sheer comprehensivity of the programme – the tiny underground cabaret club Rouge Gorge in Avignon, for example, had been divided in two in order to host 16 different masterclasses over two days, one every hour from 9am to 6pm. It was too much, and several delegates told Meininger’s they found them chaotic.

Other masterclasses were well-prepared and fascinating, particularly the introduction by oenologist Fabien Ozanne on the terroirs of the Côte Rôtie in Ampuis (where there was less pressure, and fewer delegates, than further south). A panel discussion, with Andrew Jefford, Bernard Burtschy and the prolific consultant Philippe Cambie on Trends in Wine, produced some thought-provoking arguments, such as on the origins of the rosé boom, the dangers of following fashions in wine, and the natural wine movement. On the latter, Jefford provoked laughter with his analogy between the use of sulphites and underarm deodorant: “If everyone stopped using deodorant then we would all smell of sweat,” he said. “But that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.”
Moins sexy... Inter-Rhone ads not as sure-footed

The Découvertes is, in the end, an exercise in publicity, something Inter Rhône has always been good at. Leaving aside the fatuous ad campaigns (“Plus sexy de CameRhône Diaz” was a low point), the Valley’s trade association is sure-footed. Its campaigns in China have been imaginative, offering prizes for the best way of expressing the colour red through different artistic media, whether painting, fashion or theatre. Their latest wheeze is to get people to make short films and publish them. In all this it consciously tries to attract a younger audience.

Chapoutier sees attracting the young  as essential, and he has announced plans for Rhône Valley winemakers and their American Rhone Ranger counterparts to sponsor the children of smaller wine producers on visits to American and Australian wine schools.

Perhaps not the effect one wants from a foie gras
"We have to make winemaking attractive to a new generation," he said. The children who saw their parents suffering through the global financial crisis need to be shown “how winemaking can be a successful business.”  The Découvertes is an example: anyone visiting could not help but be impressed by the upbeat atmosphere of every hall. Whether teenagers will be as impressed by Yves Gangloff’s version of Jumpin’ Jack  Flash is another story.

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 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 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.

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 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.