Martine Saunier - importer extraordinaire
17 Oct 2009 by Nick Lander/FT

As the waiter was clearing our excellent first course of house-cured salt cod with oyster tartare at the ever-popular Piperade restaurant in San Francisco, Gerald Hirigoyen, its Basque chef/proprietor, walked across from the bar to talk to my guest, Martine Saunier.

'Look, Martine', he said, 'there's a bottle of your wine going to the next table where those three young women are sitting. And there's another one on the table just behind you.'

This situation is neither new nor confined to San Francisco. Over the past 30 years, Saunier, now President of Martine's Wines, Inc, based just across the bay in San Rafael, has been responsible for introducing thousands of American restaurant-goers to some of the best French wines, although today her portfolio includes wines from outside her homeland.

But as I listened to the story of the evolution of her business I began to realise that over the years Saunier has acted as more than just a wine merchant and that her role in the emerging American restaurant business has surprisingly close parallels with the job that first brought her to California in 1963.

Then she was part of the PR team working with Japan Air Lines on the launch of their first flight from Paris to San Francisco over the North Pole. Ever since then, Saunier has been building transatlantic alliances between chefs, restaurateurs and customers in the US and the French wine producers she so obviously selects and nurtures with such care.

Her first transatlantic alliance was, however, purely personal. On her initial trip Saunier met and fell in love with a California radiologist and returned in 1964 to marry him and settle in Mill Valley. But from the start, the absence of her beloved Burgundy wines was a concern.

'I was born in Paris', Saunier explained, 'but we spent every summer with my aunt in Burgundy and in those days the children were allowed to help as much as they liked in the vineyards. I adored everything about the wine-making process.'

Disappointed by the Pinot Noirs then being made in California, Saunier went to Napa to consult the late André Tchelistcheff, the doyen of winemakers at the time. 'He told me that if I really wanted to enjoy these wines I had to go back to France and bring them over myself. That was the impetus to start my new career', she added.

This was initially in association with a couple of different wine companies but when neither association worked out and when her marriage came to an end, Saunier decided to go it alone, using her house as collateral for the bank loan. She hired a VW in Amsterdam and began her tour of the French vineyards from Alsace south.

And it was while having lunch in a small café in Provence that she was directed by the waitress to the now renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape property, Château Rayas. She waited patiently while the proprietor finished his siesta and then at 4 pm was taken into the cellars and given a taste of the 1959 and 1961 vintages. 'To this day', Saunier said with an enormous smile, 'I cannot forget the taste of these wines.'

It is easy to see why Saunier charmed so many French winemakers. Attractive, elegant and with great interest in both food and wine, she combines a joie de vivre with a steely determination and a seemingly innate sense of what is correct, whether in a dish, a bottle of wine or how to conduct business. During the course of dinner our table kept resounding with the noise of her clenched fists coming down firmly on the tablecloth as she strove to reinforce the points she was making. Formidable indeed.

And in selling her wines, Saunier showed exemplary female intuition by choosing to concentrate on the restaurant business. This not only differentiated her from her competitors at the time, particularly those selling California wines, but also she believes it allowed the restaurants to become the medium for her to become better known. 'I never advertise. The only thing I have done is to design the strip label which goes on the back of all my wines, which is an M with a W on the top and the necessary details. But diners in the restaurants see the label and then want to know where they can get the wines. And I think that many now know that I would never put a wine on the market that I wouldn't drink myself', Saunier explained.

The combination of this back label and the growing number of exclusive and subsequently highly priced wines that her company has come to represent in the US has led, however, to several meetings with an organisation Saunier never expected to have to meet as a wine importer, the FBI. Over the last decade or so there have been several incidents of wines purporting to be from one of her growers, particularly the late, great Burgundian Henri Jayer, and carrying her strip label, that have been revealed as frauds and Saunier has played her part in trying to ensure that her customers are completely protected. But, she added, it is very strange feeling to be investigated by the FBI.

Saunier now has offices in Chicago, Dallas and New York and so is in a privileged position to comment on how American drinking habits are responding to the economic downturn.

'Obviously, the sales of my more expensive wines are down, with the notable exception of Rayas, but white wine sales are still strong because the bars in the restaurants, where people now meet for a glass of wine before their tables are ready, are still busy. And what many tables of two now order is a half bottle of champagne at the table and then a half bottle of red wine with their meal. I have never had so many cases of half bottles in stock as we have at the moment she said with the smile of the consummate saleswoman.

And this new demand has brought her into contact with two new and currently far less well known French wine growers, Louis Coquillette from Champagne Saint-Chamant in Épernay and Rémy Gresser, a biodynamic grower in Alsace, of which she is currently very proud. In Saunier's scrupulous hands, neither is unlikely to remain unnoticed for long.

Martine's Wines Inc, www.mswines.com/saunier.asp

Piperade, www.piperade.com