Trading Place: gaining global distribution through Bordeaux

Special relationships

Tuscan Merlot, Masseto, chose to be traded through La Place in 2008

Although Masseto does work with a company that provides broker services for foreign customers, most foreign wine estates put together their own lists of négociants to be approached and their rationales as to why they would be a deserving partner. “We quickly built up special relationships with 22 négociants,” Pearson says of Opus One’s entry on La Place, “and we now have an office in the centre of Bordeaux to support négociant sales.”

Once such an arrangement is reached, he says, there is little reason to expand the network of négociants. Apart from the US and parts of the Caribbean, Opus One sells all its wines through La Place, Pearson says.
Jackson Family Wines – the company put together by the late Jess Jackson with his wife, Barbara Banke, who still heads the enterprise – owns and operates several wineries around the world, producing both everyday and premium wines. “The Jackson Family team recognised the tangible and intangible benefits of working with a small group of top négociants for Vérité and Cardinale,” its top estates in California, says Charlotte Selles, vice president of marketing – international. The vetting process that goes on between the négociants and the estate “is more of a mutually agreed-upon one,” Selles says, “where the estate’s acclaim, its vision and the négociant’s strengths align. Or not.”
The latter is an important point. Many estates come to La Place prematurely or even when they should not come at all, either not having yet built a solid reputation or whose reputation is somewhat less than stellar. As Sichel points out, La Place is not the place to come for a winegrower hoping to build a brand. “To take on a new product,” he says, “[négociants] have to be reasonably confident that they will sell the wine and generate a reasonable product. The more attractive the offer, the keener the négociant will be.”
Where there is a match, the business transactions are relatively simple. The estates generally sell their wine to La Place one vintage at a time after it is in the bottle and ready to distribute, unlike the en primeur futures system. That is a point about which the traditional châteaux feel strongly. Non-Bordeaux wine, Cruse says, “will never be sold in ‘futures’ and officially quoted on the Bordeaux marketplace. The futures system is so special, and I am sure that Bordeaux, generally speaking, especially the classified growths, will not accept wines from outside Bordeaux being part of that system – it is unique for Bordeaux’s top estates.”
In truth, most non-Bordeaux wineries that sell on La Place are happy not to be part of the hurly-burly of the futures system, whose original purpose was to provide the merchant with wine at a guaranteed reduced price and the winegrowers with an early commitment as well as some upfront cash, something most foreign supplicants to La Place do not really need.
“The key advantage [to selling on La Place] is to build the right distribution in the right place,” Selles says. “Our partners, because of their access to the finest Bordeaux wines, have long built access to the most discriminating outlets.” The demand is also met more universally with a dozen or so négociants receiving their allocations and getting the wines spread across markets efficiently. Of course, both Jackson Family Wines and Constellation’s Robert Mondavi have built up their own longstanding distribution networks to sell their other wines internationally, independent of their most iconic brands.

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