March 2013 Editorial - Get Rich Quick?

by David Williams

David WilliamsNobody goes into the wine trade to get rich. Such at least is the story, the founding myth the wine trade likes to tell about itself. That hoary old saying – "the only way to make a small fortune from wine is to start with a large one" – is so frequently repeated wherever wine trade people meet, it's almost a form of greeting.

The whole idea has become a terrible cliché, in others words, and it's one that doesn't always ring true. There's something incongruous, to put it politely, about hearing a winemaker's pleas of poverty and complaints about low prices when they're coming from the front seat of a top-of-the-range BMW en route to an exquisite dinner at a beautiful house in beautiful countryside, a Rolex glinting on the gesticulating arm. At times like these you wonder whether some people working with wine couldn't do with a week in one of those life-swapping reality TV shows, the kind of thing where a Tory MP has to spend a week as an unemployed miner or a CEO works on the shop floor.

But like all the best clichés (including the cliché about all the best clichés) there is nonetheless a large glass of truth in the idea that wine is not a rich person's game. For every Gina Gallo or Bernard Arnault (billionaire head of LVMH, the company behind Moët, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Cloudy Bay among others), there are hundreds of winemakers who are just a couple of bad vintages from bankruptcy – and in the UK at the moment, many importers too.

The precarious state in which so many winemakers operate was brought home to me once again by the demise of Hampshire producer, Wickham Vineyards, where the dreadful, minuscule English 2012 vintage played its part in the company's descent into administration before Christmas. According to Copa-Copega, a body representing farmers in the European Union, dozens, possibly even hundreds, of small wine producers across Europe have endured the same fate, after a combination of rain in the north and drought in the south brought what Copa-Copega representative Thierry Coste called the "weakest vintage" in France and Italy in half a century.

And it's not just the weather that has the power to bring about catastrophe. Just before Christmas, top Brunello producer Soldera's Casa Basse cellars were attacked, with 60,000 litres of wine being destroyed, it later emerged, in a spiteful act of sabotage by a disgruntled ex-employee. That followed on from a similarly sad story in the southern Rhône: rising-star producer Mas de Libian, a small family concern in Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche run by two sisters, lost half (more than 40,000 bottles) of the 2011 vintage of their Bout d'Zan and Khayam cuvées, the victim of a dodgy batch of concrete tanks that had not been properly sealed by the manufactuer.

Thankfully, neither of these producers has gone out of business, although, in the case of Mas de Libian, who had to take the tank manufacturer to the courts for compensation, it seems it may have been a close run thing. The damage in both these cases was emotional as much as material – breaking the heart as much as the bank.

But sad as these stories are, do they really matter to you, the drinker? After all, every wine producer knows that theirs is a precarious business, subject to the vagaries of the weather and fierce competition from around the world. And if life is such a struggle for them, then why don't they, Norman Tebbit-style, get on their bike and do something else?

We prefer to look at it in a different, less Darwinian way, however. Part of the reason that life is so difficult for so many of the estimated 2.5million families who make their living from wine in Europe is the immense pressure placed on the price of wine – the race to the bottom that has come with globalisation, which in many cases has left producers working with wafer-thin profit margins. We can pass the buck on this to the supermarkets, but we're complicit, too, in our bargain-hunting ways.

At the Wine Gang we're as fond of a deal as anyone else. We're also the first to point out when we feel a wine is overpriced. But we understand, too, that value has to be sustainable. And, to coin another cliché, we know that, in many if not most cases, the producer really is in it for the love more than the money.

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