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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!