Revolution comes to Burgundy

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur is trying something different. If he succeeds, a lot of wineries stand to benefit. Felicity Carter reports.

Château de Pommard
Château de Pommard

Michael Baum is a study in contradictions. A Silicon Valley insider, he’s an outsider in famously unfriendly Burgundy. He has a scientific mind, yet he’s turned Château de Pommard over to biodynamics, that most mystical of viticultural practices.

And he’s fallen in love with a property shaped by revolution, from where he’s launching a revolution of his own. If it works, he might pull off the impossible – to open a way for producers to make money in wine.

Turmoil in Burgundy

Michael Baum and his wife Julie are the fifth family to own Château de Pommard, founded in 1726. The property, which the Carabello-Baums bought in 2014, has the 20ha Clos Marey-Monge walled vineyard, the largest monopole in the Côte d’Or, and two chateau buildings – in the face of the oncoming French Revolution, aristocrat Nicolas-Joseph Marey sold the château, only to find he couldn’t buy it back later. Instead, he built Château Marey-Monge. Former owner Maurice Giraud turned Pommard into a wine tourism destination.

“The place was touristic and not in a positive sense,” said Baum. “It was not terribly serious about wine and what we saw was a diamond in the rough.” It remains open to visitors, but with a different ethos. “We thought if we based our experiences on teaching people serious things about wine that they could use in their everyday lives, they would probably come back for more.” The first step was to create a WSET school, both on site and in Paris.

Next came a concierge service to book travel and experiences for their guests, including visits to other wineries. “We have six to eight experiences,” said Baum. “We have one for kids that involves biodynamic fruit juices, and one for adults with gourmet food and wine pairings.”

The wines are sold direct. “One of the biggest mistakes we made was making the experiences too short and inexpensive,” he said, which attracted people who weren’t serious about wine. “Once we increased the price – not a lot, from €25 to €40 or €50 – we got much better clients who were a better match for what we wanted to offer.”

The property can only host 35,000 visitors a year, so Baum took the experience on the road. “We’ve done about 300 of these – China, Japan, Hong Kong, West Coast, East Coast,” generally hosted by their WSET-trained wine advisers. Since the start of the pandemic, the Chateau has done around 1,000 online events.

Enter Vivant

Baum is a serial entrepreneur, best known for founding data analytics company Splunk, and is fluent in digital thinking, an area where wine stumbles. He’s created a platform called Vivant to broadcast online tasting and educational experiences around the world. But it won’t simply showcase Pommard. “We have learned so much it would be a shame not to help other producers do the same thing,” said Baum. The platform will be open to wineries that produce natural, organic or biodynamic wines (even if they are not certified), as long as they take the Vivant Pledge. “They’re not going to use weed killer in the vineyard, inputs in the winery.” Wineries must also agree to pay workers fairly. “It’s mission driven.” 

Wine advisers will explain the producers’ regions, methods and personalities. Baum said the advisers, who come from wine families, are there to provide a human connection. They need to be certified to the platform and they are trained to speak on camera.

“We started building our own logistic infrastructure about five years ago,” he said. “We can deliver from our warehouse here in France to 42 countries. We have invested in our own software and relationships with carriers.”  Partner wineries will store wines in his warehouse, from where they will be dispatched to people who have signed up for the experience. The wines can also be purchased from the site. Baum smiles when asked if he will sell the DTC software to the industry. “Winemakers don’t really invest in technology,” he said.

Now, they don’t need to. Artisanal producers won’t have to build their own sites, spend money on marketing, or rely on distributors. The software will automatically register depletions and schedule experiences accordingly.

It’s a revolutionary approach that will help wineries carry on with their traditions. And it’s launching soon.

Felicity Carter

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