Wines off the grid

Making iconic wines and selling them at luxury prices is a challenging feat, especially in obscure regions, yet some wineries are managing it. Roger Morris maps their roads to success.

Roc de Cambes, Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux; Nicole Rolet, Chêne Bleu, Ventoux
Roc de Cambes, Côtes de Bourg, Bordeaux; Nicole Rolet, Chêne Bleu, Ventoux

Seyssuel. Mouillac. Arínzano. Bourg. Mount Airy. Crestet.

None of these geographic names is easily recognisable as from a place where great wines are being made. But they are well-represented in private wine collections that will someday find themselves in lots to be auctioned off at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

The most honoured wines, and the ones that command the highest prices, are those that come from regions that have proven themselves worthy over hundreds of vintages. Even if you don’t know the producer, seeing a bottle of wine from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or or from Hermitage, Napa Valley, Champagne, Barolo or Tuscany with a price tag of $50.00 or $250.00 is no surprise.

So how does a producer whose grapes are grown in places that have none of this built-in cachet have a chance of being recognised as a maker of great wines? How do they break through this off-the-grid, off-the-beaten-track barrier? 

A few winegrowers have beaten the odds, some starting from scratch. Among them are Nicole and Xavier Rolet, whose first vintage of Chêne Bleu was produced at their winery at Crestet, high above Avignon in the mountains of Ventoux, in 2006. Then there are Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron, who purchased farmland in Mount Airy, Maryland, a wine wilderness north of Washington, D.C., in 2003 and waited for six years for their first Black Ankle wines to be released.  Others of these outliers are daring wine ventures undertaken by winemakers already respected for their production in established regions. For example, Côte-Rotie and Condrieu winegrower Stéphane Ogier makes his L’Âme Soeur with Syrah grapes grown in nearby Seyssuel, an unclassified region not even on most wine maps.

Well-regarded Pomerol winegrower Jacques Guinaudeau of Château Lafleur decided he could create a great white wine, Les Champs Libres, on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, a region that only recognises red wines, at his property in Moulliac, a place where only simple red regional wines had been made. 

And when Saint-Émilion producer François Mitjavile of Le Tertre Rôtebouef, known as a somewhat brilliant contrarian, wanted to expand his wine production but couldn’t pay Saint-Émilion land prices, he decided instead to buy and elevate the Roc de Cambes property, on the wrong side of the vine row in nearby Côtes de Bourg. 

Finally, there is Manuel Louzada, who once headed winemaking for Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton at its Chandon properties in Argentina and at Numanthia in Spain, who was recruited by the owners of Pago de Arínzano in Spain’s Navarra region to resuscitate a property they had hoped, in vain, would make and market iconic wines from an un-pedigreed territory. 

Yet, in spite of their differences in regions and starting points, they have all succeeded in making excellent wines and getting recognition in spite of the odds. All found out that, while proper financing is a necessary starting point, it could not alone guarantee winning, and all had in common a few important success factors.

Have a great story

A good back story is crucial to catching the trade’s and the consumer’s attention to at least try their wines. For example, Louzada gets to explain the new/old concept of “pago,” where a vineyard or estate is used as a label designation rather than the traditional regional appellation – a tale of discovery. Ogier’s Seyssuel Syrah comes from a region that was well known in the 1800s but was not replanted after the devastation of phylloxera more than a century ago and only now is being resurrected – a saga of rediscovery. The Rolets are being characterised as producers of a super-Rhône, the same against-the-rules approach taken by Super Tuscans, because they use a dollop of white Viognier juice in their red Syrah, verboten in Ventoux – an appealing story of rebellion against authority.

“When you’re selling wines to restaurants, it’s important to provide sommeliers, the gate keepers, with a story to relate to their customers,” emphasises Scott Diaz, vice-president for marketing and brand development for Wilson Daniels, which imports Chêne Bleu into the US.

Leverage existing strengths

The Rolets both have strong financial backgrounds: he is a former head of the London Stock Exchange and she a former executive at Merrill Lynch. Louzada has a different advantage. “Throughout 25 years in the wine business,” he says, “I have been lucky enough to build up an incredible network of contacts with people who were willing to listen and bring novelties into their portfolios.” Although located off the wine grid, Boyce’s Black Ankle is still in the middle of the US East Coast. “It certainly helps,” he says, “to have our winery with 13 million people around us. Local pride is a huge plus for us.” 

So is an established reputation. “It was not so easy, and it took a long time,” says Nina Mitjavile, who makes wine at Roc de Cambes with her father. “But because we worked, and still work, at Tertre Rôteboeuf with passionate persons – sommeliers, restaurateurs, retailers, négoçiants – who appreciate wines, looking more at the quality than the appellations, they were open minded to discover Roc de Cambes.”

Connect with the right partners

Probably the two most important types of partners necessary for new, off-the-grid wineries are formal alliances with importers and distributors, and informal relationships with influencers such as sommeliers and the media. Rolet says she was naive in scheduling her first “informational meeting” with a large US distributor. It did not go well, but she eventually clicked with Wilson Daniels, which specialises in representing high-end, family-owned producers. Omri Ram, cellar master at both Château Lafleur and the Champs Libres vineyard located at Château Grand Village, says, “For the last two years we’ve been trying to get people educated about Champs Libres, particularly sommeliers and wine writers from the UK and the US.” Champs Libres’ primary negoçiant, Moueix, is also a solid choice. Too quickly selecting an expedient but untested distributor can waste years and do little to enhance a wine’s reputation.

Don’t be short on time or money

Every one of these six wineries had two things working for them. They obviously had deep pockets, but perhaps just as important, they had patience. “It took us six and-a-half years to release our first wines,” says Boyce of Black Ankle. “That was a year longer than we anticipated, but, fortunately, we were prepared for that possibility.” With Champs Libres, patience in developing the product was important. “The family had been making a little white wine for their own pleasure,” Ram says, “but eventually decided a parcel of clay and limestone soil at Grand Village was better suited to Sauvignon Blanc than Merlot. We made six barrels of white wine in 2013, twelve barrels in 2014 and fourteen barrels in 2014 and 2015, so we’ve been growing – but slowly.” 

Take the show on the road

It’s almost impossible to attend a major international wine conference and not see Nicole Rolet in attendance. “A few times a year, we will have small, intimate lunches around the US for Nicole to educate the gatekeepers,” says Wilson Daniels’ Diaz. “We also involved her in tastings and other events at TEXSOM, the big annual sommeliers conference in Texas.” Even though all of his production sells out every year, including the Seyssuel L’Âme Soeur, Ogier says it is necessary for him to attend distributors’ annual portfolio shows in the US and elsewhere to meet retailers and restaurateurs to be sure interest will be sustained well into the future.

Have a strong business plan

Louzada says his biggest obstacle when he took over Pago de Arínzado “was the absence of a specific, clearly defined strategy for the business throughout the last 12 years”. In his case, Louzada decided, unlike the others, that it was necessary to have entry-level wines to go with the iconic ones. “I believe the key to the business is to have a balanced portfolio, totally in line with the productive structure, with lower prices that allow us to generate the necessary volumes together with iconic wines which will generate the reputation.” 

Ogier is working with his peers in Seyssuel to raise the profile of the region, rather than going it alone as most of the others have. Right now, his wine is sold under the decidedly unglamorous lowest Rhône appellation, IGP Collines Rhodaniennes. But, he says, “The INAO [French wine governing body] will give us an appellation within the next two years, I believe. It will either be a cru like other Northern Rhône regions or a Côtes du Rhône appellation like in the south.”

Boyce says his plan is quite different from the others in one key area. “Actually, for us being off the grid is a positive thing,” he says, because the region previously had no premium winery but was home to thousands of lovers of fine wines. “Build it, and they will come,” he laughs. “Ninety-seven per cent of our wine is sold direct to consumers, 75 per cent through our wine club. It could be 100 per cent, but I want to sell some through restaurants and retailers who have been very supportive of Black Ankle.”

Whether by the shared success factors or the varying wrinkles within their business plans, all of these off-the-grid wineries have succeeded both in terms of quality recognition and in the luxury pricing necessary to pay for their details-oriented production. Gran Vino de Arínzano, the pago’s icon wine, sells for about $90.00 a bottle. Chêne Bleu’s Abelard Vin de Pays fetches above $80.00. Roc de Cambes Côtes de Burg goes for around $70.00. Champs Libres Bordeaux Blanc is $65.00. Even at $70.00 a bottle, Ogier’s L’Âme Soeur is a bargain compared with his Côte-Rotie, which sells for five times that. And Boyce’s most expensive wine, Black Ankle Estate, is $125.00 at the tasting room.

Being off the grid, Ogier admits, “is a bit more work, but there is no other solution than to find ways to get people to taste the wine”.


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