Although photographer Jon Wyand has been a wonderful source of Burgundian images, the one thing we have lacked at JancisRobinson.com is regular despatches from that popular region. I'm delighted therefore to introduce Matthew Hayes, who is not only based at the northern end of the Côte d'Or and an experienced wine merchant who has just passed the WSET Diploma, but also writes like a dream. And is not afraid to voice an opinion. You are strongly advised to read on.
Ten days ago, I summoned up the courage to send a message to Jancis wondering whether there might be an opening for some copy from the heart of Burgundy. Her reply was more than I had dared hope for, and here is the backstory.
I am British and have lived in Dijon for 20 years, after a long, zig-zagging 30-year path through wine. At university I worked my Christmas holidays as a cellar rat at Berry Bros & Rudd in London’s St James. I studied History and Art History and after a summer internship at Christie’s hoped for a career in the fine-art world. This failed to materialise and I moved to France and Champagne. During several stints as a stagiaire at Moët et Chandon and Champagne Mercier, I met my future wife and moved to Paris.
I had the good fortune of having enjoyed a comfortable, provincial upbringing with all the misplaced sense of entitlement that an over-privileged private education can bring. My father, if not a wine buff per se, was definitely an amateur and kept a full cellar. As a young man, I already felt wine was quite glamorous, and his bottles of 1953 and 1955 Lafite Rothschild (bought for the princely sum of 25 shillings each, along with a 1953 La Tâche) were definitely as exciting (and forbidden) as Eden’s infamous apple.
Now I won’t disrespect BB&R and Moët, but in the early 1990s they were very definitely Establishment. Moving to Paris and working at Willi’s Wine Bar and later Juveniles in Paris was a revelation to me, and much later a revolution. I discovered Beaujolais, other than Nouveau, St-Joseph, Cornas, Bandol and beyond. Few had heard of Irouléguy or Priorat back in 1992. A constant stream of (now) famous names rolled through these Paris establishments on a daily basis: Kermit Lynch, Michael Hill Smith, Auguste Clape, Telmo Rodriguez and on, and on. They mean more to me today than they did at the time, but my point is this: Mark Williamson and Tim Johnston, owners of Willi’s and Juveniles respectively, broke my vinous boundaries. Wine is not about status, nor even about historic legacy (although that can be important, even integral). They showed me that wine is about quality and, mostly, it’s about the fruit.
Parenthood brought new pressure, not least for revenue, and an opportunity at a négoçiant in Dijon introduced me to a whole new sphere in wine: as a ‘wine broker’. It wasn’t a very good job, it lasted six months before the company collapsed, but Jean XXX did teach me one thing: everything not to do if you want your wine business to succeed.
There followed a three-year weekly commute from Dijon to London to work at Fine + Rare Wines. Working there for Mark Bedini and Bud Cuchet was a great experience, and I remain in awe of what Mark has achieved there today, melding commerce, communication and community. By happy coincidence, my time there coincided with the explosion of Italian wine, specifically the 1997 vintage, on the international broking scene.
Ever since I first stepped off a train one balmy Lucca evening in 1987 I have loved Italy and almost everything Italian: its style, its design and much of the finest art the world has ever seen. Cepparello, Tignanello and Sassicaia suddenly became bywords for cosmopolitan collectors and a key to easy money. I really knew very little about the wines, but that did not matter in wine broking. What mattered was what Robert Parker said and how much of the wine you could get.
In early 2002 I joined an ambitious house in Meursault, Caveau de la Tour. They had a wealth of Italian agencies and great entrées in Burgundy and the Rhône. I can’t say I share their goals, but they remain a very smart and successful company. However, despite the lavish travelling, occasional and generous helpings of tartufi bianchi (white truffles), by 2006 I was becoming increasingly jaded. I annoyed my wife by telling her I might as well be selling washing machines. I was selling vast sums of wine. And that was just it: what was essential were the sums, not the wine.
A vital turning point came in February 2008. My daily cycling regime came to a sudden, brutal halt when a speeding French driver hit me and my bike head on. The result was instant, irreversible paraplegia …18 months off work and an awful lot to think about.
I started a blog, mostly on wine, called leglessinburgundy. The opening page is a manifesto, and a sense of humour is always essential.
I had come to realise that what I most enjoyed in wine was selling and communicating directly to punters, not necessarily just taking their money. Meanwhile the market had run amok, totally abandoning the realm of common sense.
Since 2005, the fine-wine market has been transformed. Today it is all about spreadsheets and what the (otherwise estimable) Liv-Ex once labelled ‘price discovery’, aka ‘by just how much can you rip your client off?’
The only time I have ever met Jancis was at a dinner chez Jean-Luc Thunevin in St-Émilion during the 2000 en primeur campaign. I was deeply honoured to be sat between her and Andrew Jefford. The 2000 Bordeaux vintage was a turning point during which, to widespread industry outrage, the first growths came out at €185 per bottle. That looks pretty cheap today.
By the time I returned to work in 2011, my fellow wine brokers were offering Christophe Roumier’s Musigny for €4,500, ex tax, per bottle. It costs about €380 including VAT today from the cellar door. Leroy’s 2015 Musigny sold comfortably at €25,000 per bottle (and later at up to 35,000) in the US and Asia. I am told, ex-domaine, it costs about €1,800. I know the vendor in question paid €3,500.
My only reaction was one of total and utter moral outrage. A profit of €21,500 on a single bottle of fermented grape juice is more than 15 times the French minimum monthly wage. Taking obscene amounts of money from people who neither know the value of wine nor, apparently, the value of money, looks very similar to fraud. Just because said people are detached from any reality does not make it any less like theft.
It is not just a question of price, and it's certainly not a question of jealousy. Grand cru bordeaux and burgundy have always been expensive. However, in the past, for many a wine lover, grands crus remained an occasional if unreasonable indulgence. Not so today. The world’s finest wines seem today to exist only as an investment vehicle or an occasional indulgence for the über-wealthy.
Should all that hard work in the vineyard just sit in a cellar accruing potential value (price discovery!), or should it be drunk?
I would never pay €200,000 for a watch, but from a certain angle and as a unique, single expression of skilled engineering, its attraction is understandable. And Modigliani only ever painted 11 nudes in his short career, so one is certainly a rarity. But a bottle of wine? Ch Lafite produces well over 150,000 bottles of grand vin each year.
In 2017, a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti sold for $558,000 (plus commission) at Christie’s in New York. Now I get the fact that in late 1945 the vines were replanted and the wine holds a certain historic interest, but I had to take Neal Martin to task on Vinous.com about his defence of this absurd price. He wrote, inter alia:
‘Yes, the 1945 Romanée-Conti is just a bottle of fermented grape juice. It is also perhaps the most historically significant bottle of the 20th century. You can look it both ways.’
Enough of the pomposity already. The Yalta Treaty had historical significance, so too the assassination of Kennedy and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but a bottle of wine?
And anyway, which is it, Neal? I will certainly stake my position. And I don’t know, a 1928 Yquem, 1945 Mouton, a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet, which is really the most historically significant bottle of the 20th century? Well none probably, but most easily argued, perhaps the 1973 Stag’s Leap. Certainly none is worth half a million quid.
Since 2015 I decided to take a new route into wine, one of knowledge. Sure, compared with most people, I already knew a lot about wine, but not nearly as much as I thought I knew.
I passed the WSET Level 3 and as I type I await the final result of my ultimate Diploma Level 4 exam. A disastrous blind tasting of a dismal Pol Roger Vintage 2012 may prove fatal to my ambitions, but whatever transpires it has been an absolutely carnal and enriching feast. I try not to wax lyrical because wine-waxers-lyrical are generally such bores. But I try to share my passion.
Through my own wine business in France importing and distributing wines – Albion Vins Fins – through conversations with those actually making wine and tending the vines, and perhaps even via Purple Pages, I will endeavour to communicate about a product I love, without pretension, without patronising, without pontificating.
Because, after all, it’s all about the fruit, dummy. (Thanks, Bill.)
I hope to send regular bulletins to JancisRobinson.com from la terre and le terroir of Burgundy. A little weather (and climate), not too many disasters, I hope, and, if I can glean it, the latest polemic on the Côte d’Or.
PS If anyone is interested in my blog, you can access it here. I suggest going back to 2016 and 2017 for the better stuff; depuis, I have been un peu négligent.