A gentleman of great taste: Alun Griffiths MW21st October, 2013 by Euan McKirdy - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3
If Alun Griffiths MW was ever contemplating retirement and a quiet life, he faced a quick change of heart when VATS came calling on his expertise for an unexpected Chinese adventure.
NO-ONE – least of all himself – expected Alun Griffiths MW to leave Berry Bros & Rudd. A veteran of a decade and a half, he was nearing retirement age and, so he and everyone else thought, winding down.
But then came an unexpected call, bringing with it an unexpected offer, and once again this calm, considered Englishman found himself embarking on “one last fling in my career, doing something that I love doing”.
To be headhunted by a Chinese distributor best known for baijiu – the fiery spirit that has for so long dominated the banquet table and the gift box – with a brief to turn his new employers, VATS, into a respected wine merchant was something that attracted the 58 year old, although, as he is happy to point out, it took him a while to settle into the idea. “My first reaction was cautious, I must
say, given what I knew about the Chinese market, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, why not?”
Griffiths points out that VATS – and its young, dynamic chairman, the man who built the company up from scratch, sold the role to him as an opportunity to enjoy a position that embodied what he considered – and still considers – to be his two key skills in this industry.
He says that they approached him to tap into his ability to “choose the product, and to communicate it in a way that encourages people to buy or, in the case of our staff, to become knowledgeable so they can educate others.
Griffiths declares: “Coming here was more about choosing the wine, and telling people about it; taking a fledgling market and trying to make an impression on it. They made me an attractive offer, of course, but it was the challenge factor that attracted me to it.”
At present, he says, VATS is the number- one distributor of luxury spirits in China, which given the market, pertains largely to its dominance in baijiu. The company also produces the spirit in 11 distilleries.
“They have some superlative brands of baijiu that they make and a contract with one or two of the big producers”, explains Griffiths. ”Their rallying cry, or motto, is ‘number one distributor of authentic liquors’ – and authentic means something in China, compared to some other markets – so it is logical that if they seek to do the same with wines, it’s going to be high quality wines.”
And so it was to England and Griffiths’ expertise that they turned. It showed a great deal of pragmatism – if not outright humility – on the part of VATS to seek Griffiths out. The company realised that, to develop this nascent – but hugely promising – market segment, they needed a knowledgeable, overseas voice , not only internally but also to provide a demonstrable level of expertise to an often-sceptical public.
Griffiths explains: “What [VATS] recognised was, when trying to develop a wine business which had some credibility, they didn’t have nearly sufficient expertise in wine. Yes, they’ve been buying wine, they have a tasting panel, but it doesn’t give them any edge over the competition – all the buying committees in all the companies are Chinese.”
While the upper end of the market in China is doing exceedingly well – despite the not-inconsiderable “blip” of massive overbuying of 2010 Bordeaux – it is the much wider, more aspirant emerging middle class where the real money lies. While this young, dynamic market segment comes of age with wine, few China-based distributors have the background or expertise to convincingly sell to this huge customer base.
Having a specialist with Griffiths’ background, experience, length of service and an intimate knowledge of the supply side – his MW qualification, his 35 years in the British wine trade, his connections to one of the oldest and most revered names in wine – helped give VATS a marketing edge over their rivals and accelerate the process.
“They trust me and say, “Right, if Alun says this wine is good, then it’s good’, and they don’t then need to go and convince the Chinese consumer. They’ve had a couple of wine buyers whom they thought would make this next step but they thought it would accelerate the process to bring in a European.”
Griffiths’ role now has changed and he says that he is much more freed up these days to get back to “the things that matter.” He has recently returned from a tour of minor Chinese cities – Tier 5, he says – which is relatively uncharted territory.