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  • Guest contributor
Written by
  • Guest contributor
11 Aug 2015

Fine-wine merchant Joss Fowler tells a cautionary tale. See also his account of What Bordeaux did for Barolo and Brunello

The year is 2007 or 2008. We are at the very height, or rather one of the peaks, of the rollercoaster that was the 2005-2011 wine boom. My colleagues and I are selling quantities of wine that we would never have dreamed of just a few years previously. Our customers are putting serious money – occasionally the sort of money that, at the time, would have bought a small flat in south-east London - into wine. We are writing out orders for tens, occasionally hundreds, of thousands of pounds, and doing so as if it was normal.

Among the four or five senior guys in my team I am the only one not to have broken the seven-figure barrier in one deal. My record stands at a measly quarter of a million. In retrospect this seems fantastic, insane. But it's just what we did. Not through sharky practice, not through any great skill, but through being in the right place – one of the country's finest merchants, one that could access, and buy, the necessary stocks to fulfil this demand – at the right time. And I want to break the record. I want the million-pound sale. And I have the wine – 50 cases of 2005 Le Pin – and, I think, the customer. Mr ____. Today is the day.

Something I learned from an unlikely source – a ruddy-faced, true blue, country-pursuits type wine merchant - but something I remember still, is this: make the telephone call when you want to, not when you think the customer will want it. Make the call when you feel right. At eleven o'clock or so, I feel right. I make the call.

I have two proposals, two potential transactions to put on the table. I can't remember the exact prices but proposition one is two six-bottle cases of 2005 Le Pin, Pomerol, at about £17,000 for the dozen bottles in bond. One six-pack for each of the grandchildren. The price is sharp, the wine impossibly rare, the vintage supreme (don't get me started on Mr Parker's scores). A sound buy for the future.

Proposition two is a bit more fun, a bit more risky, and certainly demands both conviction and cash. I have access to a 50-case (50 dozen) parcel of the same wine. About 10%, or just under, of the entire production. A production that has been spread about the world, and a tiny production at that. Parcels like this are almost unrepeatable, and command a premium. The price, per dozen, is more than £20,000. Fifty cases takes us into seven figures.

Mr ____ is about 50 miles from where I am sitting. I know him well, and we like each other, I think. He has the cash and, on the right day, he has the conviction. I put my proposals to him. Somehow, through a telephone line, I can hear him thinking. I can hear his thought process like a watch ticking. I think I may have nailed this, and I genuinely think my deal, my proposition, is a good one. The watch ticks on for some time, then Mr ____ tells me he'll call back. This is a bit like the Viagra running out (I imagine) but I haven't lost the deal. It's still, potentially, on.

A few hours later I break and - this is maybe the key - I make the call. Mr ____ takes the two six-packs for the grandchildren. The big one? He is tempted, sees the logic, but it's not for him today. And there it ends. Not a bad day nonetheless, a pretty good sale, and the right one too. Mr ___ has done well, as have his grandchildren. I'm deflated but not flat. And tomorrow is always better than today.

***

Two, three or maybe four years later I am sitting with Mr ___ and his wife at a quite exceptional lunch. An annual lunch, my favourite of the year, one that made it onto the 'reasons not to change employer' list. We are talking about wine, obviously, and fast cars - our other mutual interest. And Mr ___ changes tack, breaks off from the thread. And tells me, roughly remembered, this: 'You know, Joss, that deal you offered me on the 2005 Le Pin. I really did fancy it. Fancied it quite a lot, actually. But it was an odd day. If you'd called me the day before, or the day after, then I'd have done it.'

I smiled. Shot a little more breeze, then excused myself for a few minutes. And that, as they say, is that.

Le Pin 2005 now sells for about the price I was offering it at, so maybe it wasn't the best deal after all, but it certainly wasn't the worst. My record stood at a quarter of a million: a parcel of 1990 Léoville Las Cases, sold to a wine fund that has, I think, disposed of it since at a small loss.

I have no idea where the Le Pin is. I rather hope that the 1990 Léoville Las Cases – a wine that typifies excellently ripe red bordeaux better than any – is being drunk by people who love it. Which is what wine is for: something that some of us overlooked for a few years, but money does have a habit of taking one's eye off the ball.