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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!