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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.