Travels in Wine

Our man in Champagne

Steve Finlan, CEO of The Wine Society, reports back from an invigorating trip to Champagne with Sarah Knowles MW, buyer for the region.

Steve in the vineyard at Alfred Gratien
Steve in the vineyard at Alfred Gratien.

Many of you will gasp with horror when I say that, apart from celebrations, I don’t really drink much Champagne. To remedy this, I joined Sarah Knowles on a pre-harvest trip to Champagne at the end of August. This was my first trip to the region and, for a relative novice like me, I was struck by how time in the vineyards, with the winemakers and learning about grape, style and terroir can completely change perceptions.  

Grower Champagne

Nowhere is this illustrated more than for grower Champagne, where the same winemaker grows the grapes and makes the wine, as opposed to larger houses where the grapes are often bought in. Here, the personality of the winemaker, the philosophy and values of the vineyard and its terroir are all reflected in the wine they produce. We saw this in abundance at Brochet, Paillard and Gimonnet, where the care and attention to detail produced unique styles of Champagne, whether more avant-garde or more traditional, less a house style and more a house philosophy.

Sarah with Olivier and Nicolas, MD and winemaker at Alfred Gratien.
Sarah with Olivier and Nicolas, MD and winemaker at Alfred Gratien.

Old friends at Gratien

Of course, a trip to Alfred Gratien was a must and is so illustrative of the deep relationship that we have with them built up over many years. Meeting Olivier (MD) and Nicolas (winemaker) was like meeting friends, talking not about products, but more the fruits of our joint labours over many years. We had the privilege of meeting Nicolas’s father Jean-Pierre, the former winemaker, in his own private cellar at home, discussing people and wines past and present, and stories about the many Society members who have visited Gratien over the years – as well as enjoying some truly wonderful older vintages!  

The relationship

Our buyers are able to bring winemaker and members closer together not just by ‘being there' but really getting under the skin of what makes a particular selection the right one to add to our list. For me, this illustrates the real meaning of a relationship. They go out of their way to be helpful – supporting tastings and being as enthusiastic as we are about how The Society can better serve our members.

Steve in the cellars at Castelnau
Steve in the cellars at Castelnau.

From challenge to conversation

Every trip has its challenges: in some cases people change and new relationships need to be established; Champagne brands may change direction on product or style; pricing is always a challenge and sometimes getting access to good allocations is difficult. While these are common problems that I have seen during a long career in retail, there is a big difference at The Wine Society. These are conversations, not negotiations; there are two sides but with a common purpose and I was delighted and impressed with how Sarah, with every producer, got to the right answers with the relationship enhanced and not damaged. It didn’t make a difference whether we were talking to Laurent the CEO at Pol Roger, Evelyne and Lionel at Boizel or Didier at Gimonnet, it was clear that The Society and its members are held in very high regard.

Sarah with Carine Bailleul, cellar master at Castelnau.
Sarah with Carine Bailleul, cellar master at Castelnau.

The question I asked the most also received the same answer from almost everyone. ‘What makes The Wine Society so special for you?’ ‘Because you are always here’. To me, this shows how our ‘boots on the ground’ approach sets us apart, and also shows the value of the direct relationships we have with most of our suppliers. I’m delighted to say I’ve heard this as a consistent response to the question everywhere from Bordeaux to Chianti –  and now in Champagne. Another excellent reason for me to be adding more Champagne to my baskets in the future! 

Read more about Alfred Gratien and our long relationship with this esteemed producer 
Browse all Champagne 

Steve Finlan


Steve Finlan

I have been a retailer for nearly 40 years in the physical and online space with experience across the globe. It has been a privilege to lead The Society through the first stages of becoming a modern, digital brand; but also a Society continuing to build on our values and traditions, maintaining and growing our relationships with winemakers and placing great wine and great service at the heart of everything we do for our members.

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