The Grande Dame of the Valais or Things aren’t always what they seem
May 28, 2014
Even though I can’t participate in the 2014 DWCC because of a scheduling conflict, I’d like to make a small contribution to help ramp up the excitement leading up to the event, so here’s a story about one of my trips to Switzerland twenty years ago, when I learned a valuable lesson about the wine business.
It was the mid-1990s, a time of uncertainty in the European wine trade because of several scandals involving illegal additives to wine. Because of the potential risks involved in selling bulk wine, Rioja made the decision to bottle 100% of its production inside the ‘denominación de origen’ and Porto made, or was about to make, the same decision, in this case, backed up by a government decree. Switzerland had been the leading purchaser of bulk Rioja because customs duties and taxes were lower for bulk than bottled wine and it was my job as managing director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association to promote bottled Rioja. So we agreed on a plan to put Rioja’s bottled at source brands front and center to the Swiss wine trade and consumers.
Education was an important part of the plan so the first year we invited the wine lecturers of the major Swiss hotel and restaurant schools to visit us. The following year we began to offer seminars to the students in those schools. The idea was for me to give introductory lectures after which the local lecturers would add ‘Rioja’ to the curricula in the schools.
The lecturers decided to reciprocate for our having taught them about Rioja by inviting me to visit some Swiss wineries. One of these trips was to the Valais region, southeast of Lake Leman. We arrived at a pretty Swiss chalet in the mountains near Fully and went inside the garage under the house. We were greeted by a woman who showed us her winery (located inside the garage) that consisted of some polyester fermentation and storage tanks, a manual filling device and some cases stacked in a corner.
I thought, “Why did they bring me here?” I was used to big wineries with huge stainless steel vats and row after row of barriques. Our hostess opened a several bottles of wine and gave us a plate of bread and cheese, at which time we went to the garden and sat at a picnic table for a wine and cheese-fuelled snack.
The wines and cheese were good but I couldn’t help wondering “Why did they bring me here?”
Shortly afterward, a big black BMW with Zurich number plates pulled up to the garage. Four guys in suits got out of the car and our hostess went to meet them. “Bankers”, I thought. One of the lecturers took my arm and beckoned for me to follow him to the garage. “Watch this”, he said.
While we looked on, our hostess poured a small glass of wine for each suit. They thoughtfully sniffed, swirled and sipped. The men asked to buy some cases of wine, whereupon our hostess remarked, “Now I know you. Fill out this form and next year I’ll sell you a case.”
I was speechless. My lecturer friend pointed out that our hostess was Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, one of the most famous winemakers in Switzerland whose wines were in such short supply and great demand that they were sold on allocation.
The story doesn’t end here. Marie-Thérèse later showed us her vineyards on the steep slope of a nearby mountain. To harvest the grapes, the winery had installed cables attached to metal boxes to bring them down the slope to the winery.
Several years later during a wine marketing lecture to a group in the Canary Islands I told the story to a winemaker whose vineyards were on the side of a steep hill. I put him in touch with Marie-Thérèse. Later I heard that he had installed a similar rig in his mountainside vineyard.
It was my first glimpse at marketing low volume, high demand garage wines and I’ve never forgotten it. I tell the story to all my wine marketing students as a lesson about how to create demand in a crowded marketplace.
Even though I won’t be able to attend the 2014 DWCC, I hope the attendees have the opportunity to take a field trip to Fully in the Valais to meet Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. You won’t regret it.
www.chappaz.ch (the site is currently being revamped)