Château de Pommard: travel will be more expensive after coronavirus

Burgundian estate Château de Pommard relies on global travel and tailored meetings with wealthy clients to shift the wines in its portfolio.

But given that all of this is impossible right now, owner Michael Baum has to think on his feet ahead of the estate’s next release on 10 April.

“We’re taking everything digital,” he tells db.

Baum, formerly the CEO of tech firm Splunk, bought the Côte de Beaune business in 2014 from Maurice Giraud for an undisclosed sum, making him the first American to own such an estate in Burgundy.

But now, he’s confined to the grounds. France has been on a total lockdown since March 17, with all non-essential trips from home banned and people unable to leave their homes except for food shopping and emergencies.

The estate has a historic pedigree, first owned by a courtier of King Louis XV, but previous owner Giraud transformed it into a popular tourist destination for aspirational travellers in the early 21st century. Suffice to say, that side of the business has fallen by the wayside.

Around 30,000 people visit Baum’s winery annually. Normally, this would be the time of year when wealthy clients come to sample the 2018 vintage, but with travel to Europe essentially brought to a standstill, “It’s quiet”, Baum tells me over Zoom,  “It’s very strange to be somewhere without clients.”

The estate is in the middle of a five-year regeneration project to revamp its facilities and add value to the visitor experience, but that, too, has been put on hold.

Staying connected

There is still work taking place in the vineyard, albeit with a stripped back workforce. Baum finds respite in sharing his team at work online; tying down shoots, bringing horses through the vines, and of course tasting the new wines due to be released (“there’s been a lot of tasting”).

What started as a way for Baum to pass the time is indicative of how he might need to run the business in the future.

“I’ve been surprised to see how so many people are super interested,” he said. “People are interested in what’s happening in the vineyard, they want to know things are still going on.”

In fact, one thing fine wine producers benefit from are devoted fans. “Clients are actually calling us to ask what’s happening in France,” he said.

Baum will put that loyalty to the test this week by launching the 2018 Route des Grands Crus Cuvées in a digital campaign.  The estate has also added a more affordable “Burgundy essentials” collection to its range, priced at US$164 for those who are less willing to part with $200 on a single red they haven’t tried yet.

“We’re trying to make things more accessible,” he said.

Baum has another project in the pipeline. The former Silicon Valley resident is putting his tech experience to good use and building Vivant; a digital platform to help subscribers better understand the wines in the portfolio, and generate more sales in the long-run.

“We’re taking what we’ve introduced at Château de Pommard – wine experiences and vineyard visits – and we’re reaching more people by putting that on a digital platform.”

Inspired by a trip to Shanghai, the tool allows customers to scan a microchipped bottle of wine, get a full tasting note and tech sheet, round-the-clock access to a personal adviser, and wine experiences broadcasted live around the world.

It is something other producers are already testing out. Barossa Valley’s Seppeltsfield released a range of microchipped wines that give consumers detailed provenance information and a virtual tour of the Seppeltsfield Barossa Village. They also help to ensure traceability and tackle counterfeiting. In the Scotch whisky world, Ailsa Bay, owned by William Grant & Sons has a range of whiskies that lets customers “track their whisky from source to store; ensuring authenticity and traceability.” The technology also allows WG&S to gather data from existing and potential customers, using mobile location services to correlate where the whisky is being purchased.

Though Vivant was already in the works last year, Baum told db he has “accelerated investment in this project.”

“We’ve taken some of the people in our retail team and redeployed them on other projects,” he said, adding that he has spent at least half of his time in lockdown building the app’s workforce.

Wine in the future

Earlier this year, Baum held a tasting at London’s 67 Pall Mall, where he revealed plans to focus more on the on-trade and have 25% of his wines sold in bars and restaurants. Château de Pommard had only signed a deal with UK importer to the on-trade Jascots in January this year.

Baum tells me he had already delved deeper into the on-trade, but now he wants to “double-down on diversification” the business as a whole, anchored by the internet. Travel, he said, is “probably going to be more expensive” when restrictions are loosened, which will affect the estate’s direct-to-consumer model in the long-term, “which is why we’re doubling down on the changes online,” he said.

In a press release sent out last week, Baum declared that Covid-19 could force wineries to turn to e-commerce and be better for it in the long term.

“The wine industry has been stagnant for 100 years,” the statement said, “trapped in the same multi-tiered distribution systems which are being exposed through the outbreak of COVID-19 and frankly benefit the middlemen much more than the producer or the consumer”.

But when we asked him over Zoom if the wine sector could benefit from a fundamental move to e-commerce, he was less convinced.

“It’s one thing to open an online shop, it’s another to open one that delivers an Amazon-like experience,” he said, adding the situation is worse for wine businesses that have to navigate inconsistent licensing laws that vary, not just from nation to nation, but state to state. The problem is even bigger when you consider many of the wines these estates produce are done in rather small batches, “some of ours only have three barrels,” he said.

Customers used to ordering goods online now demand a seamless shopping experience, thanks to tech giants such as Amazon and the logistics might of supermarkets.

Baum said Pommard has steadily worked on its own logistics to meet demand online, but “I look at how hard it’s been for us to do it, and I just don’t think the industry is capable of it.”

2 Responses to “Château de Pommard: travel will be more expensive after coronavirus”

  1. Joe Jensen says:

    I love how these wealthy folks come into the wine business from some other business with more money than sense and talk about how automated the system is, the man has never sold a bottle of wine on the street to a retailer or restaurant but he is an expert on how bad they system is. Imagine your average buyer who already has several dozen wholesalers calling on them plus another several dozen winery and importer reps working the market will have time to set appointments with literally thousands of wineries who want to sell direct to him, tell me how well that will work?
    Working with wine brands and building brands is hard work, the kind that most tech people wouldn’t do for the typical pay in the industry!

  2. Malcolm John Reeves says:

    It is the same old story. In the wine business (and probably all businesses) you need to know and use your route to market.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters