Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


I just love a nice rich Merlot. They’re just so soft and smooth.

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, well, you know the story. In the 90’s it was all the rage. From businessmen to 20-something socialites, everyone loved Merlot. Grape growers planted it like mad, and the market boomed. But then along came Sideways, a Hollywood movie that vilified Merlot, and suddenly the party was over. It wasn’t cool anymore.

But Merlot will always be one of the best grape varieties, and true wine lovers remain perplexed by the market’s fads. Its quality potential is up there with the best in the world, showcased by wines like Chateau Petrus. So whilst Malbec and Shiraz are now the current popular choices, Merlot isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Grape growers love Merlot. Surprisingly, it is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, and you’ll find plenty of it in the south of France, northern and central Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and both North and South America. It’s even the most planted grape in Romania, and you’ll be able to quench your thirst with it at dozens of wineries in Bulgaria. Can’t wait.

Growers love Merlot because it ripens a week or two earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. In frost prone areas, or places that can get serious downpours in the Fall, that extra week or two can make the difference between a successful vintage and a wash-out. 1998 in Bordeaux is a good example of this. It’s was a spectacular vintage in St.Emilion and Pomerol, but the Cabernet dominated vineyards of the Medoc were not so lucky. It started pouring with rain before the grapes were fully ripe.

Another reason for its popularity amongst grape growers is because it can yield a bumper crop. I know that wine is all about the romance to those who drink it, but when you’re trying to make money out of producing it then yield becomes one of the most critical factors. Some varieties, like Pinot Noir, tend to produce lackluster wines when cropped above 4 tons per acre, but not so with Merlot. And as a grower, I want to produce as many grapes as possible, at quality levels suited to my commercial goals.

Merlot is also tolerant of a variety of different soil types, and doesn’t mind being planted in heavy clays. This is the primary reason why it thrives on the so-called Right Bank of the Bordeaux region, which is dominated by clay and limestone. But you’ll also find it producing some superb wines in the silty loam soils of Washington State, and some Okanagan wineries even have it planted on pure sand. So when it comes to soil types Merlot seems to be less picky compared to various other varietals.

So if you’re contemplating planting a vineyard then Merlot is often on the list of potential candidates. It’s popular, you can grow lots of it, it’s not so fussy about soil types, and it will even ripen early for you. Hey, it might even turn out to be great quality and sell for big bucks.

But grape growing issues aside, much of the final quality will depend on how it’s made in the winery. At the top estates in the world you’ll typically see it treated to a lengthy maceration of 2-4 weeks, with the goal of extracting plenty of flavor and tannic structure. It takes well to oak, particularly French, and can be matured for 2 years in barrel before bottling. Although it has a reputation for being soft and smooth, high quality Merlot can require at least 5 years in bottle before it comes around to showing its potential quality.

On the other hand, if you are making Merlot for the cheaper end of the market, then you’d typically go for a much shorter maceration, perhaps just one week or so, to limit the tannin extraction. And those French oak barrels can run you $1,200 a pop, and so many wineries opt for wood chips, which cost a fraction of the price but don’t give quite the same result. Obviously the marketing department is not inclined to tell you their wine is matured using their finest oak chips. Once it gets into bottle you can open these types of wine immediately, and they are usually more pleasant to drink than a Cabernet of the same age.

You’ll often find Merlot blended with other grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, but also potentially Malbec and Petit Verdot. This can be done for both premium and inexpensive wines, and is the way a winemaker can sculpt his product to the house style, or adjust it to meet market demands.

So the quality of Merlot can be all over the map. You can buy a bottle at the gas station in the U.S. for peanuts, or you can go a little crazy and load up on a new vintage of Petrus at $3,000 a bottle. But the glut of uninspiring Merlot, along with the impact of Hollywood movies that have slandered the grape, has caused it’s popularity to wane. Despite this current fashion for other varietals, when it comes to truly fine wine, there’s never been any question that Merlot is amongst the very best grapes.

After all, the finest wines can age for over 50 years. True, they don’t have quite the same longevity as Cabernet Sauvignon, but they certainly do have better ageing potential than Pinot Noir and most others. So when it comes to stocking the cellar for the long haul you’ll certainly want to consider the finer Merlots as an option.

So what should you buy? Well, the great wines of St.Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank are still the benchmark. Pomerol is the classic appellation because the wines typically have a higher percentage of Merlot in them, usually around 80%, with just a splash of Cabernet Franc and maybe Sauvignon. These are usually tiny estates, producing a few thousand cases of wine, and hence the prices can be stratospheric. Enter stage left Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante and a dozen others. One of my best ever bottles was a 25 year old Petrus. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. It left everyone almost speechless.

But the top wines of St.Emilion are spectacular too. Ausone, Angelus, Le Dome, and so many others. These tend to be slightly less opulent than Pomerol, but are always dense and concentrated all the same. If you can wait for 10 years or so you’ll see the deep ruby color turn a shade of brick red, the nose open up to reveal a spectrum of complex nuances that can include fruitcake, licorice, black cherry, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, vanilla, mushroom and wet earth. They’re to die for.

If you are intent on drinking a French Merlot but only want to spend $20 then the south of France is your best option. Since the 1990’s there have been huge plantings of this grape in the so-called Pays D’Oc. But the wines, whilst deep and full bodied, tend to have much less complexity than in Bordeaux and are more suited to a casual BBQ.

In north eastern Italy there is a surprising amount of Merlot, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to buy these. They tend to be light in every way – color, body and ripeness levels. Instead, buy the Super Tuscans that have a heap of Merlot in them. Masseto and Tua Rita are the benchmarks, 100% Merlot, and astronomically expensive. My personal favorite is Luce, which is a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, and is a very fine wine for around $100.
If the recent turmoil in the stock market has you searching for a deal on European Merlot then you probably can’t beat the prices of Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian wines. It’s surprising just how much is planted here, and the prices can be under $10 a bottle. I’ve tried several and the quality can be pretty reasonable, but most west coasters just can’t get over the negative brand image of most of these countries. I suppose they might slip down better if you’re hoping for a return to Communism.

If I was looking for a high quality Merlot from the New World then I would be heading for the California and Washington sections of the store. Duckhorn in Napa made a mark with some gorgeously rich and plummy Merlots, and now the grape is widely planted in California. These wines tend to have less earthiness than their Bordeaux counterparts, and burst with ripe berry fruit and the warmth of higher alcohol.

In Washington State Merlot is the most widely planted grape, and it typically plays a role in many of the finest wines. These are under-rated by consumers, but not under-priced. The local demand in Seattle for the best wines results in prices being in the high $70’s+ in western Canada.

South America, especially Chile, can produce some exceptional Merlot, both in terms of value for money and absolute quality. Sena is a benchmark amongst the famous labels, but I’m also impressed with the likes of a basic Errazuriz Merlot for just $15.

New Zealand is a sleeper, that has recently shown what it can do with Merlot. A few years ago the best wines from Hawke’s Bay on the north island were put up against the finest wines of Bordeaux, and guess what? The Kiwis stole the show. But I’m more inclined to drink Pinot Noir from New Zealand, just like you would be to drink Shiraz from Australia.

One of the nice things about Merlot is that some of them can be drunk without food. They don’t have the astringency of most Cabernet and so they can slip down without much “bite”. But really these go so much better with red meats, and so whether it’s a steak, roast beef, a leg of lamb or a burger you’ll enjoy them much more than flying solo.

Chateau Petrus , Pomerol 1990—–>A nice inheritance
Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol 2000—–>Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding
Chateau Grand Mayne, St Emilion, 2005—–>Steak Frites
Tua Rita, IGT Toscana, 2005—–>Pasta in a tomato sauce
Duckhorn, Napa, 2000—–>Leg of lamb
Woodward Canyon, Washington State, 2006—–>Stew
Errazuriz, Sena, Chile 2006—–>Bison

Deals in Dallas

Step off the plane and a wave of intense heat smacks you in the face. Welcome to Dallas. It’s hot, it’s flash, it’s BBQ, and it’s bad fashion. But they do have the Cowboys, they live large, and they love to drink wine. Yes Sir, the Texans have drunk themselves into the top 10 States in the US for consumption. So you gotta love ‘em.

We had a distributor there so one day in about 2001 I went to visit. One of the fascinating things about Dallas is that there are dry communities, where basically you cannot buy an alcoholic drink. So on one side of the street you can have a dry community and on the other side a wet one, where anything goes. This is something quite unique in the world. It’s also an experience for a foreigner to see a store selling firearms right next to the liquor shop. No comment.

Texas has a fair sized wine industry itself. There are quite a few vineyards and a number of major distributors. Plus there are some very fancy restaurants where big spenders slap it down on the prestige names. I was stunned when the Sommelier at a smart restaurant told me that “the Lafite 82 is showing very nicely”. At $6,500 dollars I’d better hope so. How’s that for a gutsy recommendation. Note to self: don’t ever ask again 😉

After the usual meeting with the owner of the import company it was time to go and sell some wine. Basically in the USA the number of distributors is generally shrinking. So the portfolios of the guys who remain can become very large. This means that the sales rep has hundreds of wines to sell. So unless the winery representative gets out with the sales reps then your wines are often forgotten, and sales are much more limited compared to if you go there and sell for them yourself.

For the sales rep the situation is totally understandable. They sell wines they either like, or that are company mandated, or that have deals or incentives on them. They can only propose about 3 or 4 brands in an average sales call before the Buyer calls it quits. So to get some fast action for the winery, there’s nothing like a sweet deal to get the sales reps and Buyers attention.

It goes like this. You saddle up to a retailer, taste your wares out of plastic disposable cups (a travesty), and after a pause, the Buyer spits out his proposal. Gimme one in ten and I’ll take 30 cases. The owners of my company were Bordeaux aristocrats and were abhorred by people even suggesting such a deal for their fine wine. Our wine was art. It was French. For them, the answer was always “non”.

But sometimes I had to make deals, but it was a slippery slope.

I’ve nothing against the method of discounting and incentivizing to sell wine, although sometimes there are much better alternatives. Some types of wine are a commodity, sold in very large volumes at auction where the lowest bidder wins. Large UK supermarkets will do auctions for monstrous suppliers to fulfill their own label wine requirements, like “Australian Shiraz” , which can be for some ridiculous volume like ½ million cases. Basically the wine is bought on price, and taste secondarily. If the Shiraz is actually red, it’s already 50% of the way there.

Certainly in the USA the major wineries send their sales force out equipped with deals, limited time offers, merchandise, and if you can buy a lot of wine, and I mean a lot, then the private jet just might be offered. And some big winery groups will actually lose money in order to get their wines on a major list. They chase volume sales, and the ability to say that they are on certain lists, hoping that this somehow pays off in other ways. But it can be the poison pill to operate this way. Warren Buffet #1 rule of business? Never lose money. Rule #2? See rule #1.

Now not all buying is done like this. Often wines are purchased on their quality merits, especially the better wines of course. For a top estate offering a discount is the kiss of death. It kills the brand prestige. But for lower priced wines it’s almost expected to discount. After a while you can analyze wine lists and figure out which companies own all the brands, and then you can clearly see who is juicing the Buyers. It would typically come down to a dollar amount per case, and the powerhouse wineries usually sliced up most of the serious volume wine lists between them. So next time you’re in a major chain restaurant or hotel the chances are that “the deal” played a big role in getting that wine on the list.

No darling, I’m sorry to say it wasn’t just the pretty label depicting lovers holding hands in the vineyard that got it on the list. But please, don’t burst my bubble. It was surely the label and that lovely “minerality” that persuaded the Buyer…

Selling wine Stateside

New York City

One of our major markets within the United States was New York City. We had a very successful importer there. So with our agent for the USA we went to meet with him.

Hustle and bustle, people strutting their stuff, cabs honking, skyscrapers gleaming, it’s dog eat dog in NYC. We go down a back alley into a warehouse and up an elevator to the top floor, which was their office. Although the back alley wasn’t that swank, particularly the aromatics, the office sure was smart. And smack dab in prime position was a huge desk where the man himself sat, cigar in hand, barking out orders to his staff. The intensity of the office was high-stress. Everything was urgent. Small talk was out.

Within seconds it was our turn to get blasted by Monsieur, the boss. “Oh well bonjour! Look, it’s the idiots from Bordeaux with their ridiculous new prices. Get out!” The formality and politeness of our Japanese importers was a distant memory. I looked at my agent to see if he was serious, but he just chuckled. But it was clear to me that he was dead serious, and he wanted us to leave.

Full blown warfare erupted. It went from the importer cursing about the price increases to the agent yelling about unpaid invoices, and then a few personal shots were fired. Then suddenly there was some laughter, a few resolutions, and then the agent launched into the sales. “You should take 250 cases of Chateau X, come on, you can sell it, I’m putting you down for 250 cases, we will ship next month, done, …OK?” It was beyond aggressive.

And what I learnt about selling wine in the US, or at least in some of the major east coast markets, is that you’ve got to be direct and tough, and ask for the order. In fact, sometimes you have to fight for it. The sales reps are often on commission only, and they sell to live. Every month they take home the commission on whatever they sold, and that’s it. So they hustle. They hunt. And you’ll never see sales reps as slick as some of these guys in NYC. We would go and visit major retail accounts, taste wine with the Buyer out of plastic cups, and if you didn’t make a sale for the Reps then they were not happy at all.

Yes, some of the refined sophistication of a soft sell was gone, and our company had always had a soft sell approach which I preferred. But you had to admire the directness, and it sure cut to the chase. I have always been perplexed by wine importers who do not commission or clearly bonus their staff on sales. If reps are paid regardless of their sales results then one day, sooner or later, the hustle is gone.

The 800 pound gorilla, aka UK supermarkets

If you want to see wine producers and importers get their knickers in a twist then ask them what it’s like trying to sell to the UK Supermarkets. It’s like your average guy trying to sleep with Kate Moss. Basically you’ve no hope, and so the best course of action is to slag her off.

UK Supermarkets account for a whopping 85% of all wine sold at retail. At least that was the figure back in 1998, it’s probably higher now. So effectively if you want to sell a serious amount of wine then off you go to see the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose etc. In the UK these Buyers have the keys to the kingdom. Kate, reincarnated as a wine buyer, but not nearly as hot.

I gleefully told my PDG that I had scored a rare appointment with Tesco. He scoffed, muttered “bon chance” and burst my bubble by adding it was a waste of time. I made some snarky comment about the French losing market share to the New World in the supermarkets and it set him off. His tirade, in translation, went something like this…

All that these supermarkets want is to grind you down for every last centime, demand listing fees and money for advertising and all kinds of other crap, then they clean you out of stock by purchasing thousands and thousands of cases so you have nothing left for your other clients, and then when the contract is up for renewal they take the next winery who comes along with a good deal and buy their wine instead, kicking you to the curb. Et en plus, some of these Buyers just came from the pet food department and know NOTHING about wine.

I’ve left out the swearing. He was so mad he was foaming at the mouth, obviously having been bitten by Carrefour in France too many times. But undeterred I still went to my meeting at Tesco. They were very polite and friendly, and I zeroed in on a particular petit chateau that seemed to be of slight interest. By the end of the meeting I better understood why the New World was taking over the market. I imagined the difference in conversation between me and Lindemans Bin 65 salesman, in front of the Tesco Buyer.

How much stock do you have of this wine?
Me: 2,000 cases and that’s it
Bin 65: As much as you want – it’s unlimited, we have it on tap in Australia.

What about the quality of the next vintage?
Me: We’re in Bordeaux so you never know.
Bin 65: It’s the same every year…

What about pricing next year?
Me: Can’t guarantee anything, and in Bordeaux things don’t like to go down…
Bin 65: Pricing is fixed, no problem

What about promotional support?
Bin 65: We can do “buy one bottle get one bottle free”
Me: ZERO, nada, at best I can give you a company corkscrew, but just one of them, specially for you.

Having subsequently been a Buyer for some large hotel and retail groups I can totally sympathize with the Supermarkets approach. You have the buying power, and you want to leverage it. But the one outcome that I have seen is that the small producer really doesn’t stand a chance, and yet these are the companies that often make the most exciting wines. So really the end consumer loses out. Instead, you see all the big brand names lining the shelves, and all you can think about is how much they paid in listing fees to get the sale. Feeling rejected and unappreciated, you can’t help but take a few shots at Kate.

Wine writers in the UK

The UK market is the most sophisticated in the world, in my humble opinion. There are more true connoisseurs of fine wine in the UK than anywhere else.

England has a long history of wine education. It is the headquarters for the Institute of Masters of Wine and also for the WSET. There are literally hundreds of WSET schools there and these are the breeding grounds for a nation of wine lovers.

One of the reasons for the relatively high general knowledge of wine stems from the proliferation of exceptional wine writers. Not only the likes of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson but dozens of others who are frighteningly well informed about the world of wine, and highly opinionated. This is something I like.

The UK writers tends to be very competitive with eachother and occasionally there is no love lost. Public spats break out in Decanter and on social media. There are Open letters that go back and forth, and the wording is so nasty, yet put in such a politely British way, that it makes for a soap opera.

One of the key issues amongst wine writers is their independence, and here in Napa Valley on July 4th, there is no better topic. Some of the spats amongst the UK writers have centered around their independence, or sometimes lack thereof.

One writer cracks; “Was it my poor eyesight or do I recall seeing you jumping out of a helicopter at X Champagne House after a vineyard tour. I hope the bed at their chateau was as comfortable as the Business class seat, and I must say that bright scarf looks most dashing on you, and many congratulations for being named as a judge at their Sommelier of the Year awards – well worth the 96 points you gave their top cuvee I’d say”.

Love it. Straight for the jugular. And why? Because it keeps writers on their toes, and, hopefully, it keeps them honest, especially at the top very level.

In some other markets I have not witnessed the same independence amongst the top wine writers, shall we say. I find it hard to stomach how a writer can actually be paid by a winery for; their assistance in making the final blend, speaking at a winemakers dinner on their behalf, writing a tech sheet or a back label, consulting on the portfolio at large, or perhaps working as an ambassador for an organization like Wines of Chile. Mmmmm, how do you spell conflict of interest?

One of the issues is where to draw the line. I think it is totally fine to accept samples as that is part of the job, and surely a free fancy dinner won’t get a winery a nice rating from a critic worth his salt. Free flights are OK in my book if they are paid for by a generic body like Wines of Chile, but they are not OK if paid for by one single winery, like a Champagne House. Actually receiving a cheque from a winery for some other type of service like those mentioned above is definitely out.

It can get even more complicated. In my situation one of our businesses is to produce wine. We’ve been working on it for 4+ years. I’m the GM and basically in charge of everything, and I’ll be responsible for the sales too. I’m not a professional wine writer or a critic, and I don’t have a column. I suppose there are many other MW winemakers in the world who promote their own products, but it does seem to be an uncomfortably grey area.

Anyway, the UK wine writers are certainly to thank in part for creating a nation of relatively well informed wine lovers. Many years ago I jumped into a taxi in London bound for one of our major clients. I was, as usual, fully loaded with samples. This sparked a conversation with the cabbie.

“So you work in wine hey?” he said.

“Yes, I’m the Export Director for a Bordeaux House” I replied, fluffing my feathers.

“So go on then, tell me the difference between a Barsac and a Sauternes?” he went on.

At this point I had no idea if it was a test, or whether he wanted to know the actual difference. But either way, I was stumped.

After a moment’s silence on my part he laid out the facts. “Barsac can use the appellation Sauternes but not the other way round, and Barsac tends to be slightly drier, not so rich and honeyed ya know guv, and frankly I prefer them. The ’83 Chateau Coutet is to die for”.

He’d certainly put me in my place. I doubted that cabbies in Jakarta were quite so knowledgeable.

Bulk wine to the Vikings

After being beaten up by the UK supermarkets I was dispatched to Denmark to visit our clients, the Vikings. Approaching the SAS check-in counter and seeing the line-up of blond blue-eyed beauties well, things could only get better.

Copenhagen is a lovely city in northern Europe. Everyone seems to be riding a bike on their way to enjoy a brew with their friends after work. The people are very friendly, polite and of course, brilliantly multi-lingual. And they love their wine too. There is a huge volume of South African imports, given the long history with the Cape, and of course Bordeaux has always been important in the Nordic countries. When it gets dark at 4 pm in the winter there’s not much else to do than crack into the vino.

But they do like a deal in Denmark, and so wine prices are cheap. The large retailers dominate the market, many of them importing wine in bulk, bottling it and then selling it for peanuts. So I was armed with some samples of bulk wine that we could offer and ship up in petroleum-like tankers to quench the Viking’s thirst.

My boss had given me the quick low down on what to expect, namely they are excellent at business. Historically they have been a good trading nation, fair but thrifty. We’d been shipping wine to Denmark for decades but as usual nobody from our company had been to visit our clients in years so there was some explaining to do. But I was warmly welcomed and they seemed to laugh about it, knowing that sometimes the French neglect markets while they chase the golden goose.

The business customs are some of the best in the world, much more friendly yet polite, systematic and efficient than the 20 or so other countries I dealt with. On arrival there is a mandatory period during which you discuss family, life, and recent events. Coffee is served, usually with some biscuits. After 10-15 minutes there is a pause, and the client asks if you would now like to discuss business, and you’re off to the races. Written communication is usually short and concise and very clear.

Often it is the case that clients don’t sample wines with you on the spot, either because they need other team members to taste with them to make the decision, or for some other reason, like they can’t stomach it at 9 am. So samples are often left, which is not great for the seller. So you have to follow up and try to elicit a decision.

And then one day, back in the office in Bordeaux, true to Scandinavian form, you receive a short concise fax with the key points numbered.

Dear James!

Greetings from your friends in Denmark.

1. We will order 50,000 litres of sample A, AOC Bordeaux, 1997 for immediate collection if you can reduce the price to x.

2. If you are unable to meet this price we will not place an order.

Wishing you a nice day from Copenhagen.

Viking X

Cut and dry, no messing around, that’s the Vikings. Love it. They have this fantastic habit of putting an explanation mark after your name in the greeting which sets a lovely tone, and then numbering their points, which I’ve adopted ever since.

But with the gap in time between the sampling and the potential order sometimes suppliers lose track of exactly what went into the bulk sample blend. Mmmmm, down to the winemakers office and hopefully he still has the records. An added complexity is that, with wine moving around and being sold to other clients, you have to check if you still have the volume and the types of wine that went into the sample blend. It’s usually a sample drawn from multiple tanks…

Now I wouldn’t want to say that wineries sometimes don’t ship exactly what was sampled, but it just might happen. So for the Buyer it is always important to have at least 3 sample bottles of bulk wine when the initial offer is made. One to taste for the purchase decision, one to conduct lab analysis on so you have a record of the wine’s composition, and one bottle to keep and taste against the actual wine that shows up. Because if they don’t then they are at the mercy of the supplier.

If the supplier can’t recall what was sampled or has run out of stock of that particular blend, but is still keen to fill the order, who knows what you might end up getting… If the PDG is in a good mood that day it may be something even better than what was sampled, but only if he’s had a good lunch at the chateau.

The Finnish Monopoly

The job of an Export Director takes you to all corners of the world. Many are exciting cities where you are guaranteed to have a blast. Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris, New York, well, you try and get your work done in-between the riotous good times. Unfortunately, Helsinki was not on the list of my favorite destinations.

Cold, grey, depressed, and in serious need of modernization. It didn’t seem like much progress had been made since World War 2. Perhaps it was because I always seemed to go in the depths of winter when the place resembled scenes out of a Jason Bourne movie shot in neighboring Russia.

The best part of Finland was the Finns themselves. They seemed very keen on washing down Crus Classes with a few shots of vodka and some raucous laughter in a dimly lit tavern with a blizzard blanketing the city outside.

To penetrate the market we held a tasting of some very fine wines at the smartest hotel in Helsinki, which was anything but fancy. We invited the media, as usual, and some of the key restaurant buyers. But frankly the whole event was put on to attract the one person that counted; the Buyer for the state-run Monopoly called the Alko.

Just like in Sweden and Norway, and almost all of Canada, the government runs the alcohol business in Finland. It is the opposite of a free market. And just to be clear, I’m totally against it, despite having many friends who work for various Monopolies. Friendship has nothing to do with it.

To explain why in a paragraph is like trying to explain why I believe capitalism is better than communism in a few words. Good thing there’s space to elaborate when we get to those other countries. But here’s one key reason strictly from the perspective of a winery: If the Monopoly Buyer does not purchase your product then you basically have no other options, and so you’re out of the market. And hat’s just wrong because one person should not decide your fate. There is too much power in the hands of one single Buyer for your country or region’s wines.

In other markets a winery can go and speak to alternative importers if his products are rejected by the most desirable company. You can shop around different companies, and potentially you can have multiple importers selling different lines of your portfolio. Some may focus on retail, others on restaurants, maybe you have a mail order company in there, maybe a bulk wine buyer too, or you can break a country up by region and give exclusivity in geographical areas. In the UK we had at least 20 different importers.

But in Finland, if the Alko Buyer didn’t like your wines, or you, then ciao baby. Try your luck in Sweden. Fortunately for me a young, wine knowledgeable MBA chap strode in and introduced himself with an Alko business card. Kate Moss had arrived. Everybody else instantly became a second class citizen. We discussed, tasted, and when he took a liking to one of our wines I went for the jugular and pointed to the chateau on the label, and told him that the top left window was my bedroom. How could he say no?

The bonus of the Monopoly is that once you manage to get listed the volumes can be very large, and you tend to stay listed for a long time, provided you make the sales quota. So effectively it can be a very short 1 day trip to the market. See your agent, go together and see the Alko Buyer, have dinner, a few shots of vodka and then warm up in the sauna before getting outta there first thing in the morning.

Corruption in Sweden

It’s a short flight from Helsinki to Stockholm. You’ve barely shaken off the aftermath of the fiesta with the Finns before you have to do it all over again with the Swedes. There is little glamour in Export Sales. It’s more like being on an episode of Survivor for 4-6 months a year.

But Stockholm has a certain charm. Beautiful architecture, more vibrant and modern, and the people are much “cooler” than the Finns. There are the stereotypical guys with long blond hair, just like in ABBA, and the girls look like movie stars. Add to that their beautiful melodic language, a penchant for a glass of wine or two, and maybe a shot of vodka in an ice bar and well, there are worse places to visit than Sweden.

The market is the largest of the 3 Scandinavian countries, compared to Finland and Norway. Vodka is a staple. It’s no coincidence that “Absolute” is made in the country and yes, our dear Viking friends have a bit of a reputation for binge drinking.

The wine market has some peculiarities. One of them is that the consumption of bag-in-box is off the charts. It is an unusually high percentage of sales and this is partly because Swedes love to go off to the hundreds of little islands at the weekends and bag-in-box is more convenient to travel with. They also say that bag-in-box sales are high because people are very conscious of the environment.

Like in Finland and Norway the alcohol business is controlled by the government, through the company called the Systembolaget. So it is another Monopoly. Now, one of the key statutes of these state-run Monopolies is that they claim to be fair to all suppliers, totally impartial and independent. Everyone gets a fair crack at the business. And as part of this there are strict rules and regulations governing the behavior of the Buyers, both at the head-office and also at the store level. It is strictly prohibited for them to show favoritism to certain suppliers, and they are certainly not allowed to accept inducements like a free trip to visit a particular winery or concert tickets. Monetary bribes? Unthinkable.

That’s the theory. But the reality can be very different. When I was a sales rep in Ontario my agency spent all day piecing off store managers with golf games, long lunches, branded clothing, and even teddy bears for the kids. Bottles of wine were routinely deposited into the trunk of cars, and keys returned to the store manager. I dare not say right now what happened at the head office level, but some high profile Buyers have certainly been terminated over the years.

You see it is a false expectation to believe that a Buyer won’t show favoritism to a certain supplier, and it can be a very grey area around some of the inducements. Let me try and dream up an example… A major supplier puts on a lavish 3 day “education” conference in, shall we say, California. Key media and major restaurant Buyers are invited, and so are the Buyers for the Monopoly. It’s education after all, and so this should have a benefit to the Buyers ability to select the right products for his customers. But, in my mind, where it comes off the rails is when the winery hosting the conference only focuses on theirown wines (quite naturally) pays for the airline tickets, a nice hotel, hot air balloon rides and other lavish entertainment in their attempt to “buy” the Buyer. Mmmmmm.

Back to Sweden. Wikipedia says, and I presume it is true:

The corruption scandal first gained widespread media attention in the autumn of 2003, with Systembolaget issuing its first press release regarding the preliminary investigations on 7 November 2003.[8] On 11 February 2005, 77 managers of Systembolaget stores were charged with receiving bribes from suppliers, and one of the largest trials in modern Swedish history followed. 18 managers were found guilty on December 19, and then on February 23 another 15 managers were found guilty.[9][10]

How’s that for some juicy reading darling?!

My trips to Sweden were great, and my own Bordeaux company would never do more than take a Buyer for dinner, partly because we didn’t have the budgets for anything more, and also because my boss had some strong ethical feelings about bribery and inducements. It was not a noble way of doing business, and his was a noble family. I’m glad that this was the case as it made my life much easier.

Sell the dregs to the Germans

I’d already been given responsibility for exports to the English speaking countries in Europe. But then one day at the office in Bordeaux the owner decided I could have the Germans too. It wasn’t like it was considered to be a promotion or anything. More like a punishment, just for being British. So starting at the end of the 90’s we added Germany to the list.

You always seemed to arrive at Frankfurt airport at 7 am. Painful. I feel obliged to sample the wines during the flight. It was part of my job to sell to airlines and we had a few clients in Hong Kong and Japan. But that stuff from the Pays D’Oc can sting, and makes for a rough start.

What always strikes me about Germany is just how many people are sitting in the airport bars drinking beer at this ungodly hour. I feel like going up and saying something to them. But any guy who wears bright red pants, a scarf, guzzles beer and reads financial newspapers at 7 am isn’t to be messed with.

Some mock the Germans. True, yet again they rule Europe and so they have a tendency to boss everyone else around. But who can blame them for getting sick and tired of bailing out the Greeks? Personally I love their military efficiency, that Lufthansa won’t cancel your flight, and your taxi will be a big fat Merc.

The wine market is HUGE. Massive. By far one of the most important in the world, and certainly in Europe. On the production side there is an oceanload of white. And just to be clear, German Riesling is by far and away the best Riesling in the world, at the top level. Sorry, no debate. OK OK the top wines from Alsace are outstanding too… There is a strong trend towards making Trocken, or dry styles of Riesling, which the Germans themselves prefer now. So the landscape is changing. But a fine Spatlese Mosel or Rheingau, with just 8-9% alcohol, is still one of the greatest wines in the world, especially with a decade of age on it.

But then there is all the locally made Sylvaner, Pinot Gris, Muller Thurgau, and other stuff. Plus all of the sparkling, or Sekt as it is known. And now what the Germans love is their red wines, the Pinot Noirs, especially from Baden and the Ahr. These can be spectacular and some of them shame Burgundy. So the Germans naturally drink a lot of the wines they make themselves.

But bless their hearts, they also love New World wines and they have always been serious consumers of French, Italian and Spanish wines too. They tend to be quite thrifty and so most of what we sold was in the low to mid price range. It wasn’t like Hong Kong where it was crus classes or nothing.

So to make the transition I went to see our clients with my boss, and there’s no faster way to do that than by going to Dusseldorf to the most important wine trade fair after Vinexpo in Bordeaux. It was time for Prowein in Germany. The dreaded trade fair.

My boss had been visiting our clients in Germany for decades and so he had a feel for the place. He spoke German, and gradually he had learnt our client’s taste preferences. This is one of the most important skills in selling wine, because you have to choose samples that will appeal to each particular client. As a negociant we had a range of over 100 labels so there was choices to be made for each market.

But the first time I saw the list of samples we were taking to Prowein I was shocked. It was all the wines I hated. Thin, lean, austere, astringent, light in color, and acidic. I told my boss we’d never sell a bottle.

“Mais non, non, Monsieur James, our dear friends in Germany will love these wines,” he told me.

And what I learnt was that it was a very different selection we showed when selling to the Germans compared to, for example, the Americans. Different nationalities have different taste preferences and major wineries like Gallo and Beringer actually tailor certain wines to certain markets – eg they’ll make the White Zin sweeter or drier depending.

And so we welcomed our clients on our stand and tasted them on the selected range. And when Fritz ordered 500 cases of some dreadful petit chateau my boss could barely contain his amusement. To a Frenchman in Germany, well, it was justice. Vive La Resistance!

The U.K. market and Bordeaux en primeur

After racing around Asia for a few years I was given an additional assignment by my PDG, or President Directeur General at the office in Bordeaux. My mission: the U.K., a slightly more mature and sophisticated market than the back alleys of Taipei.

With some trepidation I made appointments with about 14 of our clients, which included some of the largest national importers/distributors, regional merchants, mail order companies, prestige retailers, monstrous supermarket chains, specialist traders in crus classes, and more. We sold about 20,000 cases a year in England, mostly petits chateaux but also crus classes.

The meetings often followed the same theme. The client’s welcome was not usually quite as gracious as in Japan, shall we say. In Japan I was a wine god. In the UK I was from Bordeaux, and therefore categorically the enemy. There is an immensely strong love/hate affair between the UK trade and the Bordelais.

After being seated, and being sized up by my opponent, the barrage would begin. Why hasn’t your PDG been to see us for 4 years? I suppose you don’t care about the UK market anymore now that you’ve found markets in Asia? Your new prices are ridiculous. Why does order preparation take so long? Why did you tell us we had a 300 case allocation of half bottles and then suddenly say you were out of stock?

And all I wanted to reply was BECAUSE WE’RE FRENCH! You see there is a massive difference in the way the French brain works compared to their anglosaxon counterparts across the channel. And nowhere is this more evident than during the en primeur campaign. It just might go like this.

Monsieur Le PDG sits in his prestigious Grand Cru Classe on a Tuesday having a 2 hour lunch. There is a beautiful 4 course meal served by his staff along with a few vintages of the properties Grand Vin. He lunches with a major negociant, and they discuss the upcoming en primeur campaign. It is very formal, very polite, and very civilized.

The British, who believe they run the world trade in Bordeaux Grands Crus, are firing warning shots at the chateaux through Decanter magazine and social media. They say that if prices don’t come down significantly then they will simply refuse to buy. The Brits draw a line in the sand. The gauntlet is thrown down. Key British critics say that Chile makes just as good quality top wine, and that’s what they will buy from now on – so there. The Brits are bitter, and rightly so, that their 2009 and 2010 wines are worth less than they were at opening, and a ton of their clients are furious. They feel like they’ve been stung by the Bordelais on far too many vintages.

Back at lunch at the Bordeaux chateau there is a brief discussion about what les anglais are saying, and although the message does get across, it is typically not heeded. The negociant, eager for allocations, compliments the chateau owner on this latest vintage, adding that he will be able to sell it. “There are other markets in the world, not just our old friends in England” the negociant says with a wry smile.

For the chateau owner the Tuesday lunch is as good as ever, his wine is far better than in Chile, and the bank account is fully loaded after the 2009 and 2010 campaigns. And so at the end of lunch the chateau owner quietly decides to himself that he will release his wine at a similar price to before, maybe with a small reduction as a token, but not too much of a discount. And as for the Brits, they’ll just have to throw another tantrum.

The fact is that although selling out en primeur is the end goal for the top Bordeaux chateaux they really don’t hurt too badly if they have to stock the wine for some years themselves. It is actually astonishing how much stock they often have of back vintages which they hold on to for their library, and to liquidate if they need a little cash injection.

Fair enough, the 2013 en primeur campaign was a bust for most of the chateaux and they are sitting on large stocks. But at the end of the day they would rather do that than cheapen their brand by discounting too much. The global thirst for the best Bordeaux will slowly eat up their inventories. And sooner or later, there’ll be another vintage of the century! Alors!