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Serving up success: James Simpson MW

From insisting on dogs in the office, to bringing big sponsorship to the niche sport of real tennis, Pol Roger Ltd managing director James Simpson MW is keeping the company an irreverent but irreplaceable player in the wine trade

TO THOSE involved in the Champagne business, the Wine Trade Sports Club – particularly real tennis – The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, the Institute of Masters of Wine, the Varsity tasting competitions, or The Worshipful Company of Vintners, as well as The Royal Warrant Holders Association, Pol Roger’s James Simpson MW is a familiar face. Such is his commitment to the British wine trade, he’s part of almost every major vinous organisation, and as a result barely has an evening or weekend to himself. But that’s not only why we’ve chosen to write about him.

In fact, it’s primarily because he’s just taken on two new responsibilities: he’s replaced Laura Jewell MW as chairman of the Trustees at the WSET and taken over from Nick James as MD of Pol Roger Ltd.

Thankfully, such positions, along with his high-level wine trade connections, exclusive club memberships – not forgetting a classics degree from Cambridge – as well as that Master of Wine title, have not had any negative effect on Simpson’s personality, which, one imagines, was always irreverent, and gently, humorously self-deprecating.

Indeed, he says he achieved both his prestigious new posts because he was the easy option. While each were promotions from existing senior positions – Simpson was already one of just eight WSET trustees, while he was formerly sales and marketing director at Pol Roger Ltd – he was undoubtedly chosen for his ability, not just his availability.

Education in the complexities of the wine world is, Simpson believes, of particular importance for a successful career in the trade. As the third youngest person in the IMW’s history to achieve the Master of Wine, having gained the title aged 27 in 1992, that’s perhaps not surprising. But proving his commitment, he is sponsoring two of his team of 16 at Pol Roger Ltd through the MW course, and states that he became a trustee of the WSET because “training needs encouraging”.

But the big change in Simpson’s life is his move to the top spot at Pol Roger Ltd. He jokes when speaking to db last year, “1 January is my official start date [as MD], but I think I might start on the 2nd.” Former MD, Nick James, who hit retirement age in November, will remain on the Pol Roger board until March, having done seven years at the helm of the UK office, although he joined the business back in 1998, after a career representing Champagne houses from Taittinger to Lanson, as well as Port brands such as Graham’s.

Simpson, however, has been at Pol Roger Ltd even longer, joining in 1993 from Mentzendorff, where he began his career in the wine trade seven years earlier.


Tracing his interest in all things vinous to Cambridge, where a friend persuaded him to join the University Wine Society, he thought the wine trade “sounded fun” and wrote to the then chairman of Justerini & Brooks, Edward Demery, in 1986 to see if he would give him a role. But Demery passed Simpson’s letter to Mentzendorff chairman Anthony Leschallas, who called Simpson in for an interview, and then gave him a job.

“I didn’t have a job when I left Cambridge, but everyone else did,” he recalls. But after a short period he found himself working as a “cellar boy” at the UK agent for Bollinger for nine months, before Mentzendorff sent him “to sell booze in the West Country, which,” he says, “is home to some of the nicest people in the wine trade.”

It was during this period that Simpson first came into contact with real tennis because Bollinger had a tent at Lords cricket ground, which is home to one of the few courts in London. “I learned to score real tennis before I even played,” he recalls. However, his real passion for the game would come after he moved to Pol Roger UK, which in the early ‘90s represented Château Cos d’Estournel, an estate then managed by the French real tennis amateur Jean-Guillaume Prats. Not only is Simpson now a regular player, and a member at Hampton Court, but he has also positioned Pol Roger as sole Champagne sponsor of the game, among other niche tie-ups for the brand, including rackets tournaments, and the annual Varsity Blind Tasting competition – a partnership begun at the end of the 80s by Bill Gunn, who was Pol Roger MD until 2008.

“We want to try to own events, and you can’t own polo or motor racing, but you can own real tennis, rackets and Varsity wine tasting,” he explains.

Also, those involved in real tennis and racquets are a good market for Pol Roger, says Simpson. “There may be only 5,000 real tennis players in the UK, but they are archetypal Champagne drinkers:
youngish, successful, middle class,” he records. But, he adds, it’s important to be “hands on”. “We are not good at chucking money and stock at things and running away. We turn up and turn up, and turn up again, and get to know the people.”

Consequently, Pol Roger has just become the house pour at London’s Queen’s Club – where there are two real tennis courts – and the brand has amassed a loyal collection of Pol enthusiasts, of whom the most fervent are the former Oxbridge tasters, according to Simpson. “Arguably Pol Roger is outperforming the competition today from 25 years of working on the Oxford- Cambridge blind tasting competition, because that has given us 25 years of supporters. If you get them as students, then you get them for life,” he states.

Nevertheless, Simpson does add that Pol Roger’s Varsity tasting support, which has extended to other university tasting competitions, such as Edinburgh versus St Andrews and more recently, Bristol versus Bath, requires an immense amount of work. “It costs us a lot of time, with endless evenings doing tastings, but it’s worthwhile.”

This, and the impact of almost ceaseless “opening of bottles left and right at events”, has meant that Pol Roger has “religiously sold 25,000 dozen [in the UK], or as near as damn it, since 2000, through good, bad and indifferent years.”


But Pol Roger Ltd is far from just a satellite office for the Epernay- headquartered Champagne brand. It is a thriving agency business, which, for the first time at the end of last year, saw its profit from non-Champagne brands rise to equal the sum earned from Pol Roger.

Currently the business represents Burgundy’s Joseph Drouhin, Josmeyer from Alsace, and Tokaj’s Crown Estates, as well as two recent additions from California: Staglin and Robert Sinskey. Added to these are spirits Hine and Glenfarclas, along with, since January, Islay single malt whisky producer Kilchoman Distillery.

James Simpson MW: biog

> James Simpson MW has just taken on two new posts: chairman of the Trustees at the WSET and MD at Pol Roger UK.

> He replaces Laura Jewell MW at the WSET and Nick James at Pol Roger UK, who is retiring, but will stay on the board until March.

> Simpson began his career in the wine trade at Mentzendorff, the UK importer for Bollinger, where he started as a “cellar boy” in 1986.

> Simpson moved from Mentzendorff to Pol Roger UK in 1993.

> He gained his Master of Wine qualification in 1992 aged 27, making him the third youngest person to gain the title.

> He hopes to expand the number of top-end Californian wines represented by Pol Roger UK, because he sees an opportunity for Californian fine wine in the UK.

All of these, including Hine since it was bought by France’s Guerrand family in September 2013, are family-owned operations. “We think family-owned companies produce better wines and spirits, but we can’t prove it,” he says. The “real change” for Pol Roger UK, according to Simpson, was “getting involved in the spirits business” which began in 2006 with Glenfarclas. “We have shown that we can do the same with fine wine and Champagne as we can with fine spirits.” Proving this point, Simpson says, “When we took on Glenfarclas it was selling under 1,000 cases in the UK but this year we will do 6,000 cases, which is extraordinary, but we are lucky that Glenfarclas has a fabulous stock of fine whisky and that has coincided with a huge boom in consumer demand.”

“Cognac is more challenging than whisky,” admits Simpson, adding, “But Hine is a small company with phenomenal distribution and the quality is outstanding, and to be a French brand with a Royal Warrant is quite special.” And, like Hine, Pol Roger has a Royal Warrant, prompting Simpson to comment, “It’s nice to have two on our books”, particularly as “we do a lot of work with the Royal Warrant Holders Association” which he describes as “a good group of like-minded individuals”. For example, when Hine and Glenfarclas collaborated to offer pairs of their 1953 vintage to mark the 60th anniversary of The Queen’s Coronation in 2013, both were housed in wooden obelisks created by Royal Warrant Holder cabinetmaker Neil Stevenson.


But would Simpson like to take on more agencies for the Pol Roger Portfolio? “We would consider another couple of top-end Californians, because we think there is an opportunity for someone to take the top end of California seriously and place the wines nicely, but beyond that we are not chasing anything.” Continuing, he says, “California has had a great run of vintages and 2014 is another stonking year, and with California, unlike Italy or Burgundy, you can still get first class producers… we can be a market leader in that category quite quickly.”

Simpson also notes a new urge among top end Californians to look beyond their borders. “Three to four years ago the top Californians were happy selling to their mailing lists, friends, and relations, but now they have realised there is a world out there and London is the capital of the wine trade, and that has coincided with a slightly better exchange rate.”

Furthermore, he sees an appetite for pricey Californian wine in the UK. “The trade is looking for something to replace Bordeaux, which is not exciting at the moment, a lot of restaurants in the West End want top end Californian wine, and there are a lot of Americans working in London and they want American wine.”

Nevertheless, he stresses, “Five to six producers [from California] would be enough.”

One reason for capping the size of Pol Roger’s agency business is due to the number of employees Simpson wants to manage. “Both Bill [Gunn] and Nick [James] were good at keeping staffing costs down and my view is that if you can’t all fit round one table for a conversation, then you are stuffed, because you start to have divisions.” The business has just taken on one more employee to total 16 people, which for a £13m turnover business in the wine trade is “lean”, assures Simpson.

Simpson’s beloved Pointer called Casta

Following his promotion Simpson says he won’t bring in someone new to do his former role of sales & marketing director. “My former job can be spread over a few of the existing team, there’s no reason to bring in someone over the top of them, and if I did, they might not get real tennis or blind tasting, or they might not like dogs in the office.” Although Simpson appears to be joking, he adds on a serious note. “Most people who like dogs we like, and the few we’ve had problems with didn’t like dogs… and it’s good to have dogs in the office as it gets people to go for a walk at lunchtime; getting out is important as we all eat and drink far too much.”

But he also wants to restrict the number of brands in the portfolio. “We are in demand, and now we find ourselves being chased by people, rather than chasing people, and I fear this will get worse in the UK as the number of good agency businesses will shrink, but we don’t want 50 producers.” Continuing, he explains, “If you are trying to sell to a customer then you have half an hour maximum to talk through a list, and with eight producers you can just about do it, but with more than that, you can’t.”


Simpson also assures that the character of Pol’s UK operation won’t change now he’s at the helm. Although he is overseeing the purchase of a new London office, which will be based in Battersea and come with a tasting space, he says the “business and administration will remain in Hereford”, where Nick James was located. As for the new building in the capital, he comments, “We will have a slightly nicer office in London, but it will still have the dogs and piles of boxes.” Simpson will also take Pol Roger Ltd back to the London Wine Fair this year, marking the company’s first time at the capital’s main trade event for eight years. Aside from the return to Kensington’s Olympia, he says he’s supporting the exhibition in 2015 because “We’ve been good at shouting about brands, but slightly less good at shouting about our company as a portfolio business.”

But, essentially, “apart from a bit of agency acquisition”, Simpson says there will be “no change whatsoever” at Pol Roger Ltd. Continuing, he remarks, “We will continue to be a proper old-fashioned agency business: we sell to the trade and they will sell to the consumer. We will also continue to add value to the brands we sell – because you have got to do the marketing job for the trade because they have a selling job to do. And we will continue to make it fun – Champagne is jolly.” He then remarks, “Pol Roger could have made the decision to get someone totally new in, but thankfully for me they didn’t, and that’s a sign they want things to remain.” In any case Simpson says, “1872 was the first proper vintage of Pol Roger sold in the UK, and it has gone pretty well since then, so I can’t see any reason to change anything.”

Despite added responsibilities from the new role, Simpson won’t be reneging on his many commitments beyond the demands of his day job. “The wine business in the UK is about knowing the right people, which is why, for example, being a Vintner is great: I play Vintners’ and wine trade golf because you discover things on the course you wouldn’t elsewhere. It’s the same with the Royal Warrant Holders Association, and it’s also why I like sending members of the team on the MW course – they meet up with others in the wine trade and find out things that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

Summing up the advantage of being a familiar face among the many people in the UK wine trade, Simpson then says this: “People tend to buy from people they like and trust.” And aside from the hard work and the academic achievement, Simpson’s success is doubtless connected to both his sense of fun and dependability.

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