Dynamo Penny Richards has reported for the BBC, negotiated with the Taliban, and worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now she's shaking things up at the Institute of Masters of Wine. She spoke to Robert Joseph.
An innovative way to help the next wine generation
Friday, 2. June 2017 - 11:00
It's not easy being a wine producer. Quite apart from growing vines and making wine, distribution is hard to crack, and markets demand international knowledge. Life for vignerons is so difficult in France, that producers actively discourage their children from following in their footsteps. This is a situation that Michel Chapoutier, the larger-than-life producer from the Northern Rhône, and president of regional body Inter Rhône, wants to reverse.
Under Chapoutier, Inter Rhône has made it a priority to send children from wine families overseas, by finding associations such as the Rhône Rangers in California, whose members are willing to billet French teenagers in return for work in the winery or during the harvest.
One problem to be overcome, says Chapoutier, is that the French school system teaches foreign languages poorly. “Through Inter Rhône, we send winemakers’ children to English-language countries or wine regions where people speak English,” he says. “This is so we will have a new generation that is fluent in English, and with an open mind, because they have been in a place like Australia or California.”
The scheme has been running since 2015, but so far has only sent a handful of students. One stumbling block is that while Californian families are happy to open their doors to French students, Australian organisations demand payment. But, so far, the results have been very positive, not least because it gives the students a newfound pride in their roots. “The surface area of vineyards [in France] has been going down for years, and there is a vocational crisis among young people,” says Chapoutier, explaining it’s hard to motivate them when they see what the ‘wine depression’ has done to their parents. “Our market share has been halved in the past 30 years.”
But in California, winemaking is seen as aspirational and when the students say their parents are French vignerons, they get a positive response. This instils pride in the teenagers and motivates them to think about wine as a plausible career.
The second initiative is a private one, managed by Chapoutier’s company, M. Chapoutier, which has estates in the Rhône Valley, Roussillon, and Australia. “What we do is a step further,” he says.
Chapoutier identifies promising people who want to make wine, and helps them create their own brand. “We have two types of young winemaker. One who has his parents’ vineyard and dreams of making his own wine,” he says. In this case, Chapoutier helps with vinifying, bottling, label design – and, most importantly, distribution.
For potential wine stars who have neither inherited a winery nor won the lottery, Chapoutier will help them create a brand, and then distribute it.
Nelly France and her husband Arnaud are already benefiting. The pair met while working at Clos Henri Vineyards in New Zealand, where Nelly helped launched the winery, and Arnaud was assistant winemaker. Now they’re back in France, and Nelly is M. Chapoutier’s commercial director. They’ve bought a house on a Saint-Joseph hillside, complete with barn that will eventually become a winery. As for vines, they rented a 0.5 ha vineyard last year in Cornas from friends and planted Syrah and Marsanne. “We’re in the industry because we love it,” says Nelly France.
Nelly says they have been able to get support from the bank because of her position at M. Chapoutier – and because her wines will be sold by his sales team.
There will be two brands, Nelly France – the cash-flow brand, created by Chapoutier negociants to be sold in wine shops and restaurants – and their own brand, Arnaud and Nelly, which will also eventually be distributed by M. Chapoutier. The first Nelly France wines should be available this summer. “The team in our office will take care of all the administration, accounting, label ideas, and complications,” says Chapoutier. This is a commercial transaction, with Chapoutier invoicing for the cost of the production and bottling. “We will be competitive in the price that we invoice,” he says. “This way, they can make a start.”
Chapoutier says that identifying the stars of tomorrow and helping them bring their wines to market is good business. “If I distribute, I invoice for a 15% commission, but it costs us nothing,” he says. “We have people all over the world. At this point, we will earn as much or even more than if we were to sell our own labels.”