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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!

The psychology of tasting in Taiwan

In 1994 the Taiwanese had suddenly fallen in love with red wine and there was an explosion of new importers. There was a buck to be made and suddenly everyone was in on the game.

For us this made life both easier and more difficult. It was easier because you could meet dozens of potentially interested importers who might represent you, and more difficult because most of them had no experience in wine. Inevitably some of the meetings were a total comedy.

On my first mission, as the French call it, I went to see a company who had just made the decision to import wines and I was about the first supplier they had ever met. Lovely people, very kind, warm and welcoming. Hospitality was always so gracious. But the meeting quickly went sideways when we got to the tasting.

In Bordeaux I had seen the owner do a tasting with one of our UK importers and he simply opened the wines and let him taste, not saying a word until after he was done. I thought this was very impartial and allowed the taster to make a true judgment of the wine quality. So I adopted the same technique.

My new Taiwanese friends looked at the mysterious red liquid as I poured them all samples. I formally stated the name of the chateau, and did not say anything else. They picked up their glasses, did a cheers, and then tasted my young red Bordeaux. The facial contortions that followed were something to behold as the tannin ripped through their gums and the acid pierced their lips. Tears were welling up in the ladies eyes, and then after the owner somehow managed to swallow he blurted out “SO BAD. I feel like something die in my mouth”.

This was not the feedback I was used to and I didn’t know whether to laugh, be insulted or reply that I’d never let you represent us so ciao. But I realized that it was all new to them, and it was my job to try and explain and educate so that this company could understand wine, just as people had explained to me.

So for the next wine I took a different tact, one that any savvy wine salesmen would take. I refrained from pouring a sample until I had given them an explanation of the chateau, the region, the grapes, the scores, the flavours and thrown in a nice story “You are going to LOVE this wine. It’s one of my favorites. I live in the top left bedroom of the chateau on the label and its my home”. I think I put some extra emphasis on the fact it was my home…

Sure enough, although there was even more tannin, they loved it. And how could you not? There have been several studies on the psychology of tasting which typically imply that if you tell someone that they are tasting something then they will believe you. And there is definitely some truth to this with many wine drinkers, but not all. The studies usually tell the tasters that the table wine is a Grand Cru and vica versa and it fools most people.

But in my experience I am convinced that the vast majority of wine drinkers can actually tell quite a lot about a wine, and that the human being has an innate ability to tell if something is pleasurable or not. If there is a bad smell then we can tell. We’re basically built that way.

That said, if you are told a nice story about the wine that you are about to taste, including some type of intriguing inside scoop, along with some big scores, some delicious sounding flavours, and you are shown a pretty picture of the estate then the taster already has a pre-disposition to being positive about the wine.

As was usually the case at these 2-3 hour meetings we tasted all the wines and had some good discussion. I had already decided that this company was not the right choice for us because we needed an experienced importer. As it drew to a close the owner looked at me and said, “We like the red wine from the place where you live, but can you ask them to make it sweet.”

New frontiers, Jakarta

All of our European and North American importers were established companies that were usually very traditional family owned businesses. And without exception they were all run very professionally by serious wine people. We had some of the very best importers in the world, famous companies, also representing names like Guigal, Jadot, major Champagne houses and so on. As such we were accustomed to a style of business that was very formal.

So when a garbled fax came through one morning with a large order from someone in Jakarta that we had never met, well a trip to Indonesia was tagged on to the usual 6 country Asian bullet-speed tour. It was to be the first and last trip there.

I was met at the airport by our new client. As is often the case he had a driver so we both sat on the back seat and started to talk. Traffic was bad and we crawled along. Before long we got into the heart of our business discussion and the importer started with a whole string of increasingly ugly requests.

Asking for a discount was one thing, demanding longer payment terms was another, but my eyes bulged when he told me we were both going to a meeting where he would bribe a major Buyer for a major major major Corporation to list our wines. And simultaneously as he came out with all this, at a red light, a teenager slapped the centerfold of a pornographic magazine against the car window, trying to make a sale. It was very graphic. I didn’t know where to look and the importer kept talking like nothing was happening.

This was not like an average day in London seeing Farr Vintners. We’d already been paid for the order he’d placed and so I politely said we couldn’t meet any of his requests and I wouldn’t participate in bribing anyone and that if he wanted to have lunch then great, if not, I think we’re done. It was very uncomfortable.

The issue with emerging markets is that you can waste a lot of time and money trying to build them. Sure, there are always some good importers but there are a lot of cowboys too. There are often other issues like counterfeit wines en masse, containers being left on the docks in 35 C heat for weeks causing the wine to literally cook, and all kinds of funny business dealings.

True, in London you talk about the weather a lot, the formalities are so very British, and you have to listen to them howl about the price increases during the en primeur campaign (can’t blame ’em). But there is alot to be said for the traditional markets. Wineries that neglect them in search of the Asian golden goose should think twice. China, the focus for many Bordeaux chateaux, has already had a bumpy road, and it’s likely to have more turbulence ahead.

The Hong Kong wine market & the Commanderie de Bordeaux

I lived in Hong Kong for 16 years. For another 10 years after that I went there to sell Bordeaux wine. I love the place. It will always feel like home.

Today, it’s the hub of the Asian wine market. It’s home to a large number of incredibly sophisticated consumers. And these wine lovers can have massive spending power. Yes, Hong Kong has become the capital of the fine wine auction market and the sales results are off the charts. Did I just read that someone spent almost US$480,000 on 12 bottles of DRC? There’s a saying “only in Hong Kong”.

Consumer wealth takes on a whole new meaning in HK because people live to work, they live to make money, and then they spend it lavishly. Expensive cars are the norm on the streets, mega-yachts adorn the marinas, and the ladies that lunch look like they’ve been decorated for Christmas. Sparkle sparkle… and surely a good girl deserves a $16,000 Hermes handbag under the tree, right honey?

I was very fortunate to make an agreement with a fantastic HK importer back in 1994, that still lasts today. But to woo this company we had to put on one of our fancy events, showcasing 40 year verticals of our own chateaux. But when you don’t have a good contact network in the local trade, and you’ve no idea who the movers and shakers are, then you need to find someone to help you. So I contacted the Grand Maître of The Commanderie de Bordeaux, HK Chapter.

The Commanderies have been set-up by the CIVB in Bordeaux (the HQ that oversees everything) with the mission of promoting the regions wines. There are many Commanderies around the world, in a lot of major cities. The people that run these satellite “chapters”, like the one in HK, do it for free, because they love Bordeaux wines. The Grand Maitre is usually a successful businessman who knows the Bordeaux chateaux very well and visits them every year for his personal interest. Its basically his hobby and pleasure.

If you contact the Grand Maitre they will often take the time to explain the market, give you tips and contacts details of the key players, make some calls on your behalf, and possibly help organize an event to assist you to market your wines. And so we did. The Commanderie gave us a guest list of media, importers and influencers and we put on a stunning tasting.

But there was one issue with getting people to come out to our event in this bustling metropolis, which was diplomatically broached during the event planning lunch. The Grand Maitre leaned towards me and said, wincing, “some people simply won’t drink anything unless it is a 1st growth. Lafite is their house wine. Any chance you could bring some of that too?”

And so we did, and people came, and we got our importer, and then a few more importers in the years following that. And it was largely thanks to the Commanderie, which is an excellent organization and a superb model that other wine regions should consider following more seriously.

In the last 20 years, since the import tax on wine was dramatically reduced in landmark legislation, the number of importers has exploded. The range of wines on offer is huge. The wine lists at the top restaurants are as thick as bibles and there is a thirst for the very finest vintages. There are more WSET schools on this small island than in most large countries, and combined with China is does the largest volume of WSET exams in the world after the UK.

There are 2 resident MW’s. My pen pal and superstar Debra Meiburg, who is the most amazing woman that I’ve never met (except for 10 seconds at our MW graduation the same year). And then Jeannie Cho Lee, whose productivity is startling. Singapore Airlines, Decanter, books, etc… you guys make me feel lazy. Take a holiday guys!

So Hong Kong is one of the capitals of the wine world. And it’s all set to continue to get stronger and stronger as time goes on. And that’s why we started a wine industry recruitment site there, just in case you want a job

Hong Kong & customer service

1988 – After boarding school in England was done and I got home to Hong Kong my parents decided that I had better get a job, fast. Having been suspended from boarding school for imbibing they felt that maybe the wine industry would have a certain appeal. And so they contacted their favorite merchant and offered my services for a pittance, telling the lady in charge I would make tea if it came down to it.

A few days later I reported to the 60th floor of a HK skyscraper to start my first job in the wine trade, age 18. My boss was an Australian lady, very tall, thin, early 30’s, fun and attractive. She usually had a menthol ultra slim fag hanging out of her mouth covered in lipstick and was giggling about the fun she had at the weekend.

I can hear my father saying, “son, it’s always good to start at the bottom and work your way up”. And there was no doubt that I was starting at the bottom. One of my jobs was to be a delivery boy. And I can assure you that in the tropical heat it was not an easy task to deliver wine to the 54th floor of some fancy bank, using the service elevators with the local workmen. Back alleys in HK was not the place to be. Other thrilling jobs included data-entry, creating invoices, and picking and packing orders was the bomb.

This import company specialized in boutique Australian wine, unfortunately a little ahead of its time for that category in 1988.

However one thing that I did learn was the importance of customer service. My boss would often tell me that it was vitally important that we treat every client like gold, because the issue with the wine business is that they could easily go to another merchant and buy, or simply walk down the street and grab a bottle at the supermarket. So I watched her interact with customers and learnt that in wine, due to the enormous competition, you really do have to go above and beyond with your customer service.

This included hand-written notes of thanks, follow-up calls to ask if they liked the wine (and wanted more), special invites to tastings, invitations to lunch or drinks, invites to her house for dinner with her husband, and basically red carpet treatment. And its true that customer service is critical in the wine trade. It is a business that is heavily based on relationships because frankly, a lot of wines taste just as good as each other.

After 6 months I left my first job, on great terms, before going travelling in South America. My boss had a party for me, and then surprisingly threw in some of her own trademark customer service, as a very special farewell. I was sure I’d get a glowing reference letter.

Korea & the importance of brand names

South Korea is another emerging market in Asia developing a thirst for wine. Red wine, of course. Part of its growing popularity is due to the health benefits that a glass of rouge can give to the imbiber.

As such, in the late 90’s a number of producing regions were coming out with studies proving that their particular grape, or terroir, had special healing powers. I remember Chile going full throttle on this. The studies focused on the amount of resveratrol, which is basically an anti-oxidant, and said that if you had a glass or two every day you would look younger and live longer. Mmmmm….. For my own portfolio of Bordeaux I was convinced that 2 Tylenol could work miracles.

There’s all kinds of smart hotels in Seoul with dozens of restaurants in each, and this is where a large amount of the consumption takes place. It’s quite different from North America, where you would rarely think of going to a hotel for a smart dinner. There are of course retail shops and many of them have the appearance of an art gallery, where wine is displayed as a luxury good. At least these were the types of places that I would go to visit with my importers.

It’s obvious that packaging is vital to the success of any wine. It’s a product that you can’t try until after you buy, and so one of the few things you have to go on is how appealing the label is. But part of the labeling is also the actual brand name, and in Asia, and elsewhere, this has massive importance.

My firm owned 2 lovely chateaux in Lalande-de-Pomerol, the adjoining appellation to Pomerol, and one fortunate enough to share part of the same name as its illustrious neighbor. When clients talked to us about our 2 delicious Pomerols occasionally we may have forgotten to correct them.

One was called Chateau Sergant and the other was named Chateau des Annereaux. Both were priced the same, they were almost neighbours and so they tasted similar in style. But sales of Chateau Sergant outstripped Chateau des Annereaux 4 to 1. Why? Because the name was easier to pronounce – simple as that.

Some brand names can be so difficult to pronounce that consumers shy away from ordering them because they simply have no idea how to say it, and they don’t want to be embarrassed, especially at their formal business dinner or romantic soiree. And when I look at certain German labels, or Italian for that matter I can sympathize. It’s intimidating. That’s why I just point at the wine on the list my dear.

So we would have endless pronunciation lessons with our clients as they were determined to get it right. Sometimes these would take place after a few glasses of wine and for several minutes we’d go over it, so painfully that it usually ended in hysterics. One more time, “Chat oh Des Anne er row”. And again…. No, no, more emphasis on the “row”. And in the end my friend and client aptly named Mr. Kim would throw his hands up in the air and say, “forget it, we will just buy the Sargent – like the man in the army”.

I know that often tricky names belong to a place and they simply cannot be easily changed. Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande must have gone through the same exercises with their clients, and eventually found a shortcut in Pichon Lalande. But when a producer does have a choice and they still come up with a tongue twister, well, people may just decide not to open their mouths at all. And that seems like a great shame, and a missed opportunity for the producer.

Allez La France

There are a number of things that turn the French on. Food, unquestionably in poll position; sex, they are French after all ; wine, and rugby. OK they like Hermes too but that’s for a very special niche market. Rugby is a religion in France. It is every boys dream to play for les bleus, and score the winning try in the dieing seconds of the World Cup, beating the British. Oh, the sweet taste of giving it to the Brits. It’s a national pastime.

So the only thing that could interrupt the work in the cellar during harvest was to play rugby. And that took care of most of Sunday. But what I didn’t realize was the unusual way that a French team prepares for a match, and during that process I also had the revelation that your average Frenchman doesn’t have a clue about wine. It is a myth that everyone in France is somehow related to Michel Rolland. No, whilst a nationality of great taste and sophistication in many ways, most people just knock back the red like its water, and make a few comments that you can’t go wrong with – ah, c’est bon ca. This was certainly the favorite expression of the players at the pre-game lunch.

Here’s the way it shakes down in small village French club rugby played by adult men between 20-55, all on the same team. You show up at
the clubhouse at 12 noon for the aperitif of pastis, then there’s a 4 course lunch with carafes of red everywhere, and then after a quick coffee it’s time to amble down to the pitch, get changed, and play a match with kick-off at 3.30 pm. So you tailgate for 3 ½ hours as a player.

If they had breathalyzed the entire team they would have impounded every car. And yet as the game unfolded I finally understood how the most dynamic and beautiful rugby team anywhere in the world gets its magic flair from, its ability to pull a rabbit out of hat, to bring a nation of supporters to its feet chanting allez la France. Well, there’s the individual nature of the people, a knack, a brilliance, but it’s also partly because of the wine pre-game. And if you follow rugby it will now make perfect sense why they are the most penalized team in the world.

Sadly, domestic consumption of wine is going down, dramatically. In fact over the last 30 years it has plummeted. Why? It’s not cool to drink what your parents used to slosh back, there are drinking and driving laws now, and there are strict government anti-alcohol stances especially with regards to advertising. And frankly the previous numbers of the 1970’s were spiked by clearly excessive consumption. Case in point. I would be the only person drinking coffee at 8 am in the local café. Everyone else, driving tractors and working in the fields, was drinking wine or beer. And some people would drink 2 liters of low alcohol red per day, every day. Wow.

It’s really been the perfect storm for many French producers. A local market that is trending down, export markets full of strange people from places like Chile and Australia with kangaroos on the label, that somehow sell like hotcakes. And generally they now have competitors outsmarting them in marketing and offering better value. It has either forced French producers to improve, or leave. This struggle in the French wine sector is a matter of national pride. Because whilst every Frenchman might not know about Brett and odd sounding tests like 4EG, they sure know that France produces the best wines in the world. And on that point, they are not wrong.