I was only half-joking, for no-one champions either Ireland or wine better or more constantly than Barry.
But for now, he’s got a rather more ambitious wine project on his hands. Yesterday in London I met Barry together with Catherine Bichon, who is in charge of the fine wine business at Groupe Grands Chais de France (GCF), under the Crus et Domaines de France name. As I’m recovering from a small medical procedure, which lends me the appearance of having slugged out ten rounds with Mike Tyson in the ring and an eye darker than any of the wines in the vast GCF portfolio, I held the meeting at Chez Moodie rather than an external venue.
It was a fascinating discussion. If Barry is travel retail’s wine evangelist, then Catherine preaches equally from the same grape-filled gospel. Together, their two companies have devised a brilliant concept that will eradicate much of the uncertainty that travel retailers face in putting together a quality wine assortment. The combination of unique access to quality and rare stocks, with a keen understanding of the specific needs of travel retailers (from fine wine-focused airport stores to more mainstream-driven land border operations) makes this one of the most compelling and thoughtful initiatives I have seen in a channel.
I’ll tell you all about it in a forthcoming interview with Catherine and Barry. But let me just throw out some teasers for now. Imagine if a single supplier had access to the entire remaining stock of entire vintages of some of the world’s best wines? Imagine if that same single supplier could guarantee how and where the wines supplied into travel retail were stored. Imagine if they could take all the uncertainty away from having to buy en primeur. Imagine if they could offer range, vintage and pricing advantages that no négociant could match.
Interested? I thought so. And when you look at GCF’s credentials, you’ll realise just how serious a play this is. The company was founded by Joseph Helfrich in 1979, originally as a Cognac specialist, before diversifying into the wine trade in 1981. Since then it has grown into a billion Euro player, selling around 40 million cases of wine a year across 173 countries. It is France’s second-biggest wine company and the country’s leading exporter.
It owns estates in all key French wine regions (excluding Champagne), and has 288 sales representatives around the world, and ten overseas offices (including four in China). It owns world-famous brands such as J.P. Chenet, Calvet, Jelzin and Grand Sud. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Alsace to Jura, Rhône to Languedoc. GCF has wine (and France) covered. It straddles price-points, styles, vintages, varietals and regions. The company has always done big business in European travel retail and is highly committed to the channel. But with the formation of a new Franco-Irish connection (perhaps surprisingly, Catherine and Barry, both rugby as well as wine aficionados, were still speaking to one another after Ireland’s last-gasp victory over Les Bleus at the weekend), that commitment is being stepped up to a new level, particularly in Asia.
After our interview we sampled some of the group’s wines. We started with a marvellously rich 2015 Domaine de la Baume from Languedoc Roussillon, as deep in colour as the ‘shiner’ I was sporting but much less painful). With a combination of French and Irish cheese (Ossau-Iraty from French Basque country and Cashel Blue from County Tipperary), this was exactly what the doctor ordered (well, if he didn’t, then he should have). Next up was a 2015 Château Cantin, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, which takes its name from the Latin word, Cantio, a song. Certainly, it hits plenty of the right notes, with the softness of the dominant Merlot giving the wine a velvety character that will develop beautifully with age.
We finished with a 2015 Le Marquis de Calon Ségur, the second wine of the famed Calon Ségur (a third growth) from Saint-Estèphe. The critics have been wowed by this wine and rightly so. A touch of Cabernet Franc adds some perfume to the lovely fruitiness of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the softness of the Merlot. Second wine? Heck, how good must the first be?
After Catherine made a dash for her Gatwick connection back to Bordeaux, I chatted with Barry about wine in this channel, while we ensured that the Domaine de la Baume didn’t go to waste (Barry and I are good like that).
Both of us believe the category deserves a far more central position on the travel retail stage than it usually gets. Wine, though, is laced with complexities from a buyer’s perspective. On many wines, it’s hard to offer value compared with a cut-throat High Street and burgeoning online competition. With fine and rare wines there are often uncertainties over provenance and past storage. If the retail buyer is uncertain, what chance has the poor consumer got?
Space and ranging issues are difficult, especially for the non-specialist wine buyer, who often falls back on ubiquitous household names rather than adding excitement and differentiation.
What GCF and Duty Free Global propose is to take the pain away for the buyer. They’ll guarantee provenance, value, exclusivity and something for everyone. Not a bad place to start. Watch this space.