In 1987, when Georges Bertrand, owner of the Domaine de Villemajou in Corbières in southern France, died in a car accident, his son Gérard was just 22 years old and a growing star in one of France’s most popular sports, rugby. For the next seven years, while the young man climbed the ranks to captain his team and represent his country in international competitions, he continued to manage the domain and lay the foundations of a far more ambitious business.
Since its launch in 1992, Gérard Bertrand’s company has amassed 750ha of vineyards, a collection of individual estates and a turnover of more than €100m ($117m) – up from €34m at the turn of the century. Annual production is 2m bottles, the headquarters at Château L’Hospitalet is one of the most successful wine tourism destinations in France, and Bertrand is the largest producer of biodynamic and SO2-free wines.
Meininger's: How much do you think your experience as a sportsman has contributed to the way you think and work in business?
Bertrand: My experience in sport has played a decisive role in my professional life. Rugby is the school of life, a way to learn the values of fraternity and the art of living together. I always repeat to my teams: “Alone one travels faster; together one goes further.” When it comes to man-management, that understanding is of capital importance. As for business, it is the taste for conquest that I inherited from rugby that has also shaped my vision and the choices I’ve made within my company.
Meininger's: How many bottles of wine do you produce? And how many are exported?
Bertrand: We produce two million cases, of which over half are exported, establishing the presence of the Gérard Bertrand brand in 160 countries.
Meininger's: At the outset, French supermarkets were crucial for your business. Is this still true?
Bertrand: Large-scale distribution [supermarkets and hypermarkets] in France was a key element in the creation of the Gérard Bertrand brand from the very beginning – especially in the annual foires des vins [retail wine fairs]. The steady growth of this sector and our permanent presence on the shelves allowed me to acquire several domains in the different flagship appellations of the Languedoc. Our move into the traditional sector (wine shops, restaurants), and more especially the prestige we have built for our domain wines, dates from a decade ago.
Meininger's: What are your main markets?
Bertrand: The United States, France, Japan and Europe. After developing and consolidating the US market, we are now working on building our presence in the Chinese market.
Meininger's: How do you handle your distribution in the US?
Bertrand: The United States is our largest export market today and we have been working there for ten years. We have a Dallas-based subsidiary with an importer’s licence and a marketing and sales team that comprises more than 20 people, and with ambassadors who are dedicated to our fine wines. The US is a mature market with infinite possibilities, thanks to our region’s diversity, its numerous grape varieties and appellations. Young consumers are particularly keen on wines that combine original character with a dimension that’s fruity and complex and in tune with with US tastes. The phenomenal explosion that rosé wines have enjoyed is also an excellent opportunity: the Languedoc represents an important source [for this style] with grape varieties and a climate that are identical to those of Provence. And there’s plenty of know-how too.
Meininger's: Who are your competitors? Other wines from the south of France? Other French wines? Or wines from other countries?
Bertrand: There is room for all the wines of the world – from all countries. The competition will depend on the category or market, but it’s Languedoc-Roussillon – the world’s biggest wine region – that is our biggest asset, giving us red wines, rosés, whites, a range of appellations, sparkling wines, varietal wines, IGPs and not forgetting our leadership of organic winemaking in the region.
Meininger's: How important is wine tourism to your business? And do you think that its potential is sufficiently exploited in Languedoc?
Bertrand: We have been one of the pioneers of wine-tourism in the region, with our hotel restaurant at L’Hospitalet and especially the Jazz Festival we hold there that celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2018. Our events, such as the harvest weekend, the Fête de la Taille et de la Truffe [vine pruning and truffle and festival] and Jazz Fridays, allow us to welcome thousands of people every year. And, more especially, they permit us to share the wine-focused art de vivre [lifestyle] of southern France… There is still huge potential for the development of wine tourism, thanks to our historical and architectural riches, our climate and the diversity of the region. [The region has] to do more if we are to stand comparison with the success of the Napa Valley or Italy.
Meininger's: You are very familiar with the US. Direct sales and especially winery-run subscription clubs are growing very quickly there. Can you imagine the same thing happening in France?
Bertrand: The internet and online commerce are changing the way wine is distributed – and those changes are far from finished. The fact that we are able to interact directly with consumers, particularly via social networks that are becoming more and more important in influencing their behaviour, has to be taken into account. But our priority lies in strengthening our links with our longstanding customers such as Jacques’ Wein-Depot in Germany.
Meininger's: One of the things that set your business apart from others in France is your production of wines you describe as tendances, or trends. In which markets are these most strongly represented?
Bertrand: These wines are based on innovation which is part of the DNA of our company. This is as true of our Gris Blanc rosé which is a real success in Europe, as of Côte des Roses, the design of whose bottle with its rose-shaped background is a success story in the United States. It is without question the mature markets that are the most receptive, and with the biggest appetites [for these innovative wines]. Young people and millennials are looking for vins plaisir – wines that are about pleasure, sharing and conviviality.
Meininger's: What was the thinking behind ‘Diving into Hampton Water’, your joint venture with Jon Bon Jovi? And how did it happen?
Bertrand: It was a mutual American friend who put us in touch with each other and I invited Jon and Jesse his son to come and discover our vineyards, immerse themselves in our Mediterranean lifestyle and taste our wines. The alchemy of friendship did the rest. We have the same vision: to produce a quality rosé wine, not a short-term publicity
stunt. I’m passionate about music and, to be honest, the idea of making a wine with a rock star is a beautiful human adventure. Jon and Jesse are rosé lovers and especially during the summers they spend with their family in the Hamptons. They were the ones who came up with that atypical name, and it works wonderfully.
Meininger's: How big is the Thomas Jefferson brand?
Bertrand: With high white and rosé sparkling wine from Limoux, Thomas Jefferson is a cuvée that serves as a tribute to this great man who was both very much a Francophile and a lover of French and Limoux wines. It’s a great success in the US market but also in some European countries.
Meininger's: And what about your focus on organic and biodynamic wines?
Bertrand: Our biggest success in Europe lies – apart from our domains – in the creation of a market segment for the organic, sulphite-free, vegan, bee-friendly and biodynamic ranges such as Other, Naturae and Solar 6. Today over 30% of our wines are either organically grown or biodynamic and our target is 50% for 2020 and 80% for 2025. Producing organic and biodynamic wines is a commitment that is not a matter of taking advantage of a commercial opportunity. For us it’s a profession of faith and civic engagement in order to preserve biodiversity, to produce wines with more freshness, and to reinforce their typicity and gout du terroir.
Meininger's: Naturae is the first widely distributed organic SO2 wine. How many bottles are you producing now and what are the challenges of this category?
Bertrand: We launched Naturae in 2011 after three years of experimentation. Now we have a range of seven Naturae wines and sales of 250,000 cases in 15 countries, principally in France, Europe and Canada. These wines are sold in all distribution networks and not only in supermarkets. And we put great care into the way the wines are prepared so as to guarantee their long-term stability.
Meininger's: What are your main methods of promoting the Gérard Bertrand brand?
Bertrand: A great deal of it is carried out at events, either at Château L’Hospitalet where we allow visitors to discover our domains, or at trade shows around the world, to which we invite our customers. Over the last two years, training has become a major focus, with nearly 300 master classes having been held across the world, permitting us to develop our distributors’ sales forces’ knowledge of our wines. For our B-to-C marketing, apart from some well-targeted advertising campaigns and a major focus on relationships with the press, we are increasingly developing our social media strategy.
Meininger's: People have been talking about the potential of Languedoc-Roussillon for a very long time. Why did it take so long to gain recognition? You have said, “Here we are afraid of success, and have little culture of excellence.” Is that still true?
Bertrand: History can take a long time to unfold. Forty years ago, my father, Georges Bertrand, was already fighting for quality in the region. Mentality, history, weight of tradition… there were so many brakes. But finally, with the changes in lifestyle, the growing desire of consumers for higher quality wines, the work of sommeliers – and not forgetting the progress of viticulture and winemaking – all of these factors finally unleashed the Languedoc revolution and the revelation to the world of our great terroirs.
Meininger's: In the United States – and perhaps in other parts of the New World – the launch of a super premium wine from a single vineyard like the Clos d’Ora seems to be easier than in Europe. Does the region need more wines with ambitions similar to those of the Clos d’Ora? And would you like to see outside investors in the region offering more ambitious wines?
Bertrand: All the Grands Crus from Languedoc – and there are several now – are ambassadors of the region. It’s not just the United States that appreciates our top wines; it’s true of Japan as well as Europe, and soon China, thanks to the education it has been given by the Grands Crus classés of Bordeaux. Foreign investors are always welcome. They will be successful if they take the time to understand the triptych of soil, climate and grape variety and to comprehend the history and unique lifestyle of this region.
Meininger's: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a family-owned winery?
Bertrand: Being and remaining a family business is part of our values. In wine specifically, where tradition and the role of human expertise are so strong, I see nothing but benefits. Of course it’s essential to know how to manage the transition from one generation to the next, in a modern world where transience, speed and the ephemeral are the new laws!
Meininger's: What importance do you put on marketing and branding?
Bertrand: A strong brand is about the game-winning support that comes from recognition and savoir faire. And the confidence in the mind of the consumer in the quality of the wines they buy. I gained my understanding of this 25 years ago by visiting Robert Mondavi in the Napa Valley and meeting Christian Moueix in Bordeaux and drinking the wines of Antinori or Vega Sicilia. The brand or signature of the winemaker guarantees the origin, typicity, quality and taste.
Meininger's: Despite the success of a growing number of small estates, Languedoc remains an area that is associated with AOP wines sold in bulk at low prices – often lower than IGP wines from the same regions. Will that change? Or does that really matter?
Bertrand: I seriously think that has changed. The region has surfed this wave of renewal more than ever, with young winemakers who settle in the area, higher quality cooperatives, and more and more massive conversions to organic viticulture. For some time now there has been a real awareness among interprofessional organisations of the need to make a long-term commitment to quality. It is time now to build global awareness of this savoir faire. This will require our region to have bigger communication budgets to promote the quality and diversity of our Mediterranean production and lifestyle.
Meininger's: You have tripled your turnover in 18 years and you talk about growing further. Is it easy to buy good land now? You must be facing greater competition.
Bertrand: Occitanie [the huge, 72,000km2 southern French region formed in 2016 by merging Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées] is the largest wine region in the world. So there are still lots of nuggets to discover and room for everyone. The most important thing is to have a vision and a business strategy that is adapted to its ambitions and its projects. Mine is to reveal truly great terroirs and places that are as exceptional as the Clos d’Ora.
Meininger's: What percentage of your business is as a négociant and how much is from your own land?
Bertrand: For the Gérard Bertrand wines, we buy in 70%. The domain wines are from our own vineyards. Premiumisation and creation of value are our priority areas of development.
Meininger's: When you bought Château L’Hospitalet, you paid €9m when your total turnover was only €8m. Are you a gambler?
Bertrand: I was young. Even though I had some sleepless nights, there were no regrets and I felt truly inspired. I prefer to talk about intuition rather than gambling. This was the turning point of my professional adventure.
Meininger's: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
Bertrand: Our vision is to be acknowledged as the world’s top French premium wine brand. I hope to have achieved this goal in the next decade.
Interview by Robert Joseph
This interview first appeared in Issue 5, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International. For more great content, why not subscribe?