It didn’t exactly happen by accident, but when Gerry and I started out in the wine business, we had absolutely no idea how to go about importing wine into this country. Unlike most people who decide to venture out on their own in any business, our experience of our chosen industry was 75% of zilch. We weren’t going down the traditional route, i.e. working in the trade for a few years, learning the ropes and then heading out on our own, hopefully taking some business with us, to give us a bit of a start.
No, what we decided to do was find something that would help us fill a void in our day jobs as auditors, which seemed to appear in the middle of every month. We both worked in the Licensed Trade and our work was concentrated around month-end. The associated mountains of paperwork kept us busy for the first 2 weeks of the month. But, after that, there was always a lull, before we started the whole process again the following month. And so, it went on…
The Bubbles in Champagne are simply incidental
As it happened, in the years leading up to the millennium, I had been lucky enough to meet several Champagne growers through my eldest brother, who ran wine tours all over Europe and California (lucky chap). The growers that I was introduced to were producing some fabulous stuff, without gimmicks or fancy marketing. It was just a revelation. Our previous experience of champagnes had left us underwhelmed, which is probably why we had never been attracted to them in any shape or form. We obviously weren’t alone in this view, because we have subsequently encountered many people who also had no time for champagne – until they tried what we had to offer! The reaction is usually one of surprise, that champagne can actually taste of something and that it isn’t all about the bubbles!
Anyway, one of the growers I met was Laurent Champs, who ran Champagne Vilmart and he was already becoming noticed. Tom Stevenson, the celebrated British wine writer, was singing his praises, citing Vilmart as ‘the greatest grower champagne I know’
His champagne was superb – but so were a number of others and, besides, there was already an established English importer acting as his agent, so if we were thinking of importing champagne ourselves, we would have to go through that particular company to get hold of it. Even so, it was that good that we decided to import it anyway, as it added credibility to our offering.
Putting on a show at a Champagne Tasting
For his part, Gerry had several upmarket restaurants amongst his clients. Our idea was that, if we could offer them champagne that was superior to the mass-produced stuff that they were offering, we would have a really good springboard to start off our new business.
We travelled to France to visit the growers I had previously met, where it quickly became apparent that Gerry, who didn’t have any French at all, had something else to offer that turned out to be invaluable to us as time went by. It was his ability to put Johnny Foreigner at ease. He would be getting on with them like a house on fire, while I would be busy composing the next question in their native language. They might not have understood a word he said, but it worked. We collected samples and brought them back to England with us. It wasn’t exactly a vintage business at this stage, but at least we were on our way!
Our first tasting back home was pitching our Christophe Mignon and Pascal Doquet (Doquet was taken up by Justerini and Brookes 10 years later) against Drakes Hotel’s Moët et Chandon, (the biggest selling champagne in the world, and a name that’s familiar to anyone and everyone). As it transpired, we had nothing to worry about – it was a resounding success and we came away with our first customer, a top boutique hotel selling a hundred bottles a month. Santé!
Now we had to work fast!
The Importance of Loyalty and Trust in the Champagne Business
There were all sorts of rules and regulations. We needed to quickly get up-to-speed on Transport, Excise Duties, Personal Licences, Premises Licences, Bonded Warehouses etc. The list went on. It would have been far easier to import cuddly toys!
It was all but impossible to find advice anywhere.
Dealing with the other side of the Channel wasn’t much easier, either. Okay, we had already pinpointed a couple of the winegrowers that we wanted to work with but, even though I had been learning French for a couple of years, I hadn’t bargained on the regional accent of the Champagne area. My Franglais didn’t quite cut la moutarde. It was something like a Parisian trying to negotiate his way round Tyneside, making sense of all those Geordie accents. Even us Brits find that a challenge! So much could be and probably was, lost in translation. And, as we were working on a shoestring, interpreters and paid expertise were out of the question. But our determination to succeed was undiminished and we certainly weren’t going to be put off by a load of red tape.
The first two champagnes that we imported were from Christophe Mignon, in Festigny, in the Valley of the Marne, and Pascal Doquet, from Vertus in the Côte des Blancs.
Christophe had been described to us as the ‘Lunar Man’, because of his strict adherence to the lunar calendar in everything he did in the vineyard and the winery.
Pascal Doquet was just starting the process of becoming certified ‘Organic’ and we thought that both of them were producing some pretty special stuff.
As far as we were aware though, neither of them had made any serious effort to market their wines in our country. So, from a very early stage, we became Christophe’s sole agent in England, purely on the promise of buying a couple of hundred bottles of his champagne per month – all agreed on a handshake.
We discovered that the Champenois saw us as people whose word was their bond – something that prevails to this day. We did our bit to cultivate this sentiment by making sure that we always paid our bills on time.
We’d made a start, but now the hunt was on to find new growers. And so, what turned out to be a 15-year quest from that point, had begun….