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The Winemaker Dinner

One of the traditional ways to market and sell your wine was, and always will be, to organize a Winemaker Dinner. Essentially you try to attract a number of key customers to come and break bread with you. They taste and enjoy your wines, and you strengthen your relationship because you just fed them delectable food and poured copious quantities of expensive wines. It often ends with everyone getting inebriated and, at the end of the night, expressing their love for one-another. My company employed this tactic ALOT.

But this term “Winemaker Dinner” can be a tad misleading. Because more often than not there is no winemaker within 8,000 miles of the fancy private room at the 5 star hotel. No, YOU are playing “Winemaker” for the evening, because the real one doesn’t speak English and frankly his personality might put buyers off.

In our case we would bring vintages of all our own chateaux dating back to 1952. There would be a 20 year vertical of most estates available for tasting pre-dinner, along with a handful of the 1st growths that we brought along for prestige, and to get the most stubborn buyers to come out. And then, at dinner, we would serve 2 wines with each course, and aim for 5 courses. The wines were spectacular. Yes, we did it up real grande baby. No expense spared. My boss knew how to do it right, and when he and his gorgeous wife came on a trip it was like royalty had arrived.

The results were staggering. We created a brand image that was second to none. Buyers were impressed. One morning back in the office in Bordeaux we woke up to an 18,000 case order from our main Japanese importer, for immediate collection. So the moral of the Winemaker Dinner story is that if you are going to do it then GO BIG and make a splash, otherwise it could even work against you if Buyers are not wowed.

But no two Winemaker Dinners are ever quite alike. In London they expect someone to speak with insight and intellect, humor and quick wit, and the guests are always politely silent during the speeches. In Detroit you better make it short and sweet before the crowd starts chattering, and you can blatantly request that people fill out the order form NOW. And in Tokyo, well, you get ready for the toasts. About every 15 minutes, and with increasing frequency, someone in Japan proposes a toast. Yes darling, sometimes it’s Bottoms Up. This requires a lightening fast evaluation of the terroir expression in your glass, filled to the brim for the toast.

To call this work for some people would seem like a joke. But in fact there is a skill in the organization of a Winemaker dinner. You need to ensure the food and wine are paired well by speaking to the chef in advance and ideally sampling him on the wines and making menu suggestions. Seating arrangements must be carefully done so the biggest Buyers are made to feel important and not seated with competitors. Speeches need to be mentally prepared so they look off-the-cuff, and should be tailored to the audience and their level of knowledge, as well as the occasion. Every guest should be welcomed personally and an effort made to talk to each of them, even if it is much more tempting to stay slumped in a chair guzzling Cheval Blanc with your chatty neighbor. And inevitably you meet a dozen people so you need to scribble down what you promised them on their business card otherwise in the morning the follow-up is a disaster. Ok it wasn’t quite as elaborate as Chanel launching their Spring Collection, but a lot of work went into a successful event.

Finally, after the dinner is officially over, you must invite the stragglers to the closest bar for more wine, and more toasts. But you yourself must never totally lose the plot because you might end up having to carry your Japanese importer home. And yes, it was him with the 18,000 case order.

Le Japon

Japan is a massive market for wine. Red wine that is. It’s always been a nation of pretty serious drinkers. They love their Sake, and they make some pretty good beer too. And when it comes to imported wine its mainly French, then Italian, and a splash of others. You see France is a cultural icon in Japan, and all things French are coveted.

Sometimes I’d ask a potential distributor if they imported wine from New World countries like Australia. This would often turn into a huge joke, as they broke up laughing to be asked such a dumb question. It was 1994. “Australia has kangaroos but definitely not wine,” the client would say, motioning to hop. For most importers, which were often divisions of Japanese Trading Companies, the mantra was simple :  “French wine number 1”.

The market itself has quite a few discount shops that sell wine very cheaply, and this appeals to the average young office worker on their way home. And then there are fine wine shops where old vintages of Petrus are showcased like the crown jewels. There’s supermarkets, and thousands of restaurants, both ultra fine dining and casual. There is also a very strong Sommelier Association in Japan, some major wine magazines, and some key personalities.

The actual consumer is often slightly younger than in some markets. They see wine as very hip. In a bar the cool cats sip red wine from Riedel glasses. Plus people think it is good for your health and this fuels sales. After all, the medical proof of the health benefits is overwhelming. You wake up in the morning raring to go, bounding out of bed fresh as a daisy… So in Asia Japan is one of the more mature and sophisticated markets with hundreds of importers doing a very professional job.

The main cities we targeted for exporting were Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo has 13 million people. Many importers just focus on Tokyo. But after an exporter has found clients in certain geographical regions like Tokyo, and given exclusivity to those importers, then the salesman has to go further afield,  in search of a new client to generate more fun coupons for his boss.

And so one day, at 5 am at the downtown Tokyo airport, I found myself sitting on a 747 bound for Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, about one hour north. This was getting off the beaten track. There was at least 400 Japanese onboard, plus myself. When the JAL flight attendant came round to offer tea or coffee you could see in her eyes that she felt pity, and was desperately wondering WTF are you doing on this aircraft sir.

Armed with an address and a map in Japanese you hail a taxi in the snow and start driving to an unknown location. As you watch the meter tick away furiously into the thousands of Yen you stop outside an alleyway. There is an unmarked door to what looks like a warehouse. You’re in the middle of nowhere. You bang on the door, and when miraculously it opens you find yourself standing in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of palettes of fine wine. Stacks of Latour, 3 palettes high with Mouton, a swimming pool of Yquem, and so on. Gazillions of cases worth millions of dollars.

And within the warehouse there is a very large office, where the owner sits. He has a putting green set-up by his desk, and after a discussion about your company and your products he cracks open a bottle of Chateau Margaux, hands you a glass and a golf club and the putting game is on.

The way it usually goes is that you leave with some mutual interest in working together, and then once home you send love letters back and forth, and then you have to get your sorry ass back to the airport at 5 am and go all the way back to this Japanese island for a 2nd visit, at which time you may be close to making a deal, or maybe not. In Japan they value long term business partnerships, and they want to see if you’re a fly-by-night winery, or if, in fact, you’re a keeper.

Exporting Bordeaux wines to Asia – 1994

My training in export sales involved going to the owner’s chateau, having a 3 hour dinner with some staggering old crus classes, and not speaking a word about business. As I left his house he told me to be nice to our client and see if they wanted to order more wine. And that was it. It was not the Gallo school of sales training… it was much more aristocratic. So very Bordelais darling.

So off I went to Singapore, with a price list and a sack of samples. And as it turned out it was a bit like a holiday. The importer picks you up at say 11 am, like it, and swings by your swishy hotel, that suits your swishy wines’ brand image. Then a meeting ,which can take all of 25 minutes, and guess what, it’s lunch. Selling wine at export is a lot about relationships, which are best forged over meals with a healthy amount of wine, as you know.

Of course you talk about what wines they buy and how they are selling, you suffer through their tales of market difficulties and wretched F&B Directors (who are over-solicited so they are tough to crack), and all the while you sing the praises of your latest vintages. But you become friends, which is one of the beautiful things about exporting wines. It’s got to be the most hospitable business in the world.

I seemed to be well suited for this job. A few months later I was dispatched on our companies first ever export mission to Japan, a new market.

The way that we used to open a new market was to pay the French Chamber of Commerce a small fee and they would set-up about 5 days of non-stop meetings with potentially interested importers. You go to the Chamber’s office on day 1, get your itinerary and off you go. Except in Japan it’s like being in your own version of SURVIVOR.

Go into a metro and sometimes there are no English names for the stops. So you don’t know where you are, or where to get off. Approach someone on the platform to ask for help and the ranks clear. People are generally very shy, and very few speak English. Get in a taxi and you better have a map of the place in Japanese, which then tends to be studied at great length by a driver using a magnifying glass. Take your potential client for a nice dinner, including eating a live lobster that twitches in front of your chopsticks, and you’re in the hole for $750.

Don’t get me wrong. Japan has some very special people, places and culture, but it’s like no where else. I would end up spending 4 weeks a year in the country because it is was the major market in Asia for Bordeaux. And one of the keys to success at export was to try and learn the culture.

There was a serious amount of bowing. Like serious. You were still bowing as you back-peddled into the elevator of their office building, bid farewell by the 6 people who came to the meeting with you. Often only one of the people at the meeting is the designated speaker on their behalf. It’s not like Stateside, ya feel me…   Business cards are presented with great ceremony and offered using both hands, soft handshakes with ladies, don’t touch your nose, don’t say “no” (a tricky one I must admit…), and always show the greatest respect.

A huge mistake I made for the first few years was to not shut up. You say your spiel about your wines, taste them with the potential clients, and wrap up by asking if they are interested. Often your question is met with dead silence. So, perturbed, you say that you can throw in 3% in free samples on an order. Silence again. “What the hell guys, let’s make it 5%. How about that?” But all the while the Japanese culture thinks nothing of just digesting your comments for what seems like minutes before they have a conflab in Japanese, and someone replies, hopefully, “yes, we are interested to place order”. And then there are smiles. And with those few words you just locked into some major multinational chemical company that just happens to be one of the largest wine importers in Tokyo. They could be your client for the next 30+ years.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the language barrier. To get around this you hire an interpreter, through the Chamber of Commerce. Of course this makes life easier, and occasionally much more amusing. I would discourage anyone from offering the interpreter to join the tasting because spitting is rude, so you swallow. And sometimes people can be quite sensitive to alcohol and pass out at the meeting and require an evacuation back to the Chamber of Commerce. Day done. One of the greatest attributes of the best translators was when they totally changed what you were saying so you sounded better, and started negotiating on your behalf whilst you sipped yet more green tea.

In 1994 the Asian markets were starting to boom for French wine. Start in Japan, go over to Korea, across to Taiwan, down to Hong Kong, and a late night flight to Singapore. Five countries in 12 days was not unusual for the Bordeaux exporter. It’s enough to make you dream of never going anywhere again….

Le Bureau in Bordeaux, 1993

After two months in the cellars during harvest, doing all the heavy duty work, it was a relief when one day the owner, clad in his tailored suit and looking most aristocratic, instructed me to come to work at the office.

It’s hard work in the cellars. It’s certainly not a bunch of artsy winemakers wondering around gazing at ferments, except at some very small production wineries. No, your hands are totally messed up with deep cuts and scrapes and you are filthy and tired. Basically you are in survival mode. Up at 6.30 am to start at 7 and home around 9 pm, occasionally later.

So it was with great pleasure that I put on a suit and tie and went to the office, because everyone knows that office jobs are a doss by comparison. Send a fax, wow, peruse a competitor’s brochure and slam it, wonder around and seem intelligent, organize a “winemaker” dinner for yourself, a tough life.

I was fortunate to be the assistant to the owner, and basically did anything he needed. Pick up the kids, organize a tasting for a client, write faxes for him in English, and go to Singapore when he couldn’t be bothered.

The owner was the only person in the company who could speak English. So when it came to dealing with international clients it was either him, or nobody. And with a 350,000 case operation trading the classic Grands Crus Classes worldwide, producing wine at their own 6 chateaux, and churning out negociant wines under at least 150 different labels, well this was no small affair. So it was impossible for him to cover all the global markets and see all our clients on a twice yearly basis. So one day, at the last minute, I was dispatched to Singapore in his place. I had been working there 6 weeks and was 23. I did my last trip 11 years later.

It never ceases to amaze me how the sales and marketing operations of some European producers works in terms of human resources. In our case there were over 100 people that worked in production, and there were 2 in sales and marketing, which included the owner, so really there was only 1 guy who did sales… Alors!

In Bordeaux such salesman are viewed with tremendous suspicion by the production teams, as if they come from the dark side. Yet these 2 people are expected to cover France (one of them), and the rest of the world for the other – keep it simple. Of course this is not always the case at all companies, many of whom are well staffed. But it is in fact quite common.

These people spend 4-6 months of the year travelling to see clients, attend wine trade fairs, speak at conferences and events, and guzzle wine till the wee hours in the depths of Japan with their importer, with conversation through an interpreter. It can be a very long night. When theses salesmen get back home to the office, there are visitors to receive, labels to create, offers to make, samples to send, and trips to be planned. I’d much rather be a tour guide.

What always struck me as bizarre in France was that the commercial structure was so light compared to places like the USA or Chile where companies often have Directors of Marketing, PR, Hospitality, Clubs, and even in some cases a “Communications” guy, let’s make that Senior Vice President. Marketing in the New World is much more dynamic with people trained in this skill at top wine business schools and then running highly organized corporate sales machines. Of course the statistic is something like 90% of California wine is made by 10 companies and so you’d expect this at that size, but even a 350,000 case winery in the New World would have more than 2 people in sales and marketing…

But this lean commercial structure was my good fortune. It was decided that perhaps it would be useful to have another person in the company who could speak English. For the next 8 years I was lucky to be the Global Export Director for one of the best family owned producer/negociants on the Right Bank. The fun was about to begin.

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.