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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
16 Jan 2004

Does Flat Eric mean anything to you? If you have watched MTV you will be familiar with 'his little yellowness'. If you're like me you will have to ask your teenage children to explain.

There is now a connection between 'the coolest puppet on the planet' and wine. That connection is John Hegarty, described by his peers as an "iconic megacreative", chairman of one of the most admired, and surely the most memorably-named, ad agencies in the world, Bartle Bogle & Hegarty. It was as part of some of BBH's most famous campaigns, for Levi's, that Flat Eric was conceived. The more mature of you are more likely to remember beefcake Nick Kamen's striptease in the laundrette, also for the greater good of Levi's. John Hegarty can go to his grave knowing that he has profoundly influenced - well, influenced - an entire generation or two of jeans wearers, as well as producing cheekily memorable ads for Audi ("Vorsprung Durch Technik"), Reebok, Johnnie Walker, Polaroid and the like.

But now he wants to make his mark on nature, by doing something a very long way from winning a pitch and hiring copywriters (if not the accompanying long lunches): making wine - a million miles from the SoHo Grand.

With his New Zealand partner Philippa Crane this habitué of the quintessentially urban advertising world has bought a 125 acre wine farm in the Minervois appellation in the Languedoc. When I visited at the end of last August they were frantically trying to rebuild the winery in time for the drought-plagued 2003 harvest. He chose the Languedoc, he says, because he wanted to be somewhere that was on the up.

I asked him why wine and was treated to a succession of aphorisms (presumably it's difficult to get out the ways of a client meeting) of which I managed to note down the following. "I was dealing with ephemera and wanted something permanent." "Juxtaposition is very important and is the basis of creativity. Black is only black when you put it next to white." "I have a dictum that if you do interesting things, interesting things will happen to you." "This is a marathon not a sprint." "When the world zigs, zag."

I wondered whether he had tried any of these out on the burly French workmen who were scrambling over the rocky garrigue trying to convert it into a modern wine cellar. He must be paying them a fortune to have gathered so many able bodies in one place on the eve of the grape harvest in the middle of the world's largest wine region. Indeed he confesses that on each of his brief trips to Carcassonne to monitor progress he feels as though a Hoover (not a client) is applied to each of his trouser pockets as every available cent is sucked out to pay for the mounting cost of this enterprise.

When asked to explain the financial imperative of the exercise he simply shrugs and sticks out his bottom lip below his remarkable curly quiff. Lucky man. Lucky Sam Berger, the young Frenchman he has hired, via Vignobles Investissments, the realtors who sold him the property, to manage the property. Young Berger, from Pouilly-Vinzelles, was studying to be a doctor when wine lured him away to study oenology and, eventually, manage a wine estate near Nice.

So these millions of euros are being spent without any direct local knowledge, which would worry me but one of Hegarty's catchphrases is "creative ignorance" and the new owners seem unpeturbed. They are keen to make the 26 hectares of established vineyard at Domaine de Chamans (French for shamans) "as organic as possible". There's the usual Languedoc mix of Carignan, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre vines with a little old Cinsault (which can make some very pretty reds) and five hectares of white Marsanne and Roussanne - which Berger thought he might try to turn into a sweet wine.

Nothing is set in stone yet - except the old concrete fermentation vats which have been retained (others elsewhere have dynamited them in favour of stainless steel) and re- lined. What's good enough for Château Pétrus...

The property, complete with house in which Berger is currently installed, is in the most beautiful hidden valley above the village of Trausse-Minervois with stunning views. I can quite see why they lost their hearts to this domaine, only the third they viewed. The vineyards are on promising terraces scenically interspersed with wild woodland - but they are most unfortunately all widely-spaced, with rows three metres apart, planted in the 1970s and 1980s specifically for the mechanical harvesting of maximum quantities to take to the local co-op.

To increase quality Berger has been doing his best to reduce yields dramatically (helped by nature last year), and Hegarty of course wants a hand-made product. To that end the villagers had been recruited to pick the 2003 crop, and Berger was already lining up customers for bulk wine that does not come up to scratch. For the moment they think they will sell all the wine under the Minervois appellation, but the plan is to release only the best lots under the Hegarty Chamans label. (Hmm. I wonder how many man- hours will go into its design? Already the black sheep which appears in BBH's logo is being lined up for a cameo appearance.)

It will be fascinating to see how this hugely gifted salesman rises to the challenge of differentiating Hegarty Chamans from the scores of other wine domaines in the Minervois. An increasing number of producers are making seriously exciting wine in this pretty western corner of the Languedoc. Jean- Baptiste Senat, a young man based in the same village, is making waves with his turbo-charged bottlings. Sylvie and Michel Escande virtually next door to Hegarty are doing great things at Borie de Maurel, including a deliciously voluptuous Syrah in Cuvée Sylla. Both Villeramberts do an extremely competent job. And this is just in the immediate vicinity of the Hegarty property - quite apart from all the activity in La Livinière, the cru that has already been officially recognised within the Minervois appellation and has attracted investment from Jean-Michel Cazes of Pauillac's Château Lynch-Bages, no less.

It is difficult to see, other than the view and that hidden valley, what will really set this new domaine apart - but Hegarty is quite confident he will eventually be able to explain why "the black sheep zags while everyone else is zigging". Looking out over his wilting vines through the heat haze towards the Pyrenees he told me cheerfully, "it's just that I don't yet know what the zag is".