Enterprise: Fulfilling the stores' grape expectations: A British pair uncorks a wine market tailored for the big chains

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The Independent Online
MAKING the sort of product your customers want doesn't sound like a revolutionary notion. But in the world of wine - and especially in France - it certainly is.

Traditionally the French - and other winemakers - have assumed that the type, colour and style of wine they produced was dependent on the geographical conditions, what the French call the terroir - an untranslatable mixture of soil, sub-soil, exposure and climate.

Hence the shocks that continue to reverberate over the activities of Esme Johnstone and Hugh Ryman, a couple of Britons whose joint company, Rystone, is devising an increasing number of 'designer wines' tailored to the specifications - in price as well as quality - of Britain's supermarket chains. They are now serious players: within a year of its foundation, Rystone is making and selling (not necessarily the same thing in the wine business) more than a million cases of wine to chains such as J Sainsbury.

The two makers share a considerable self-confidence - as a trainee accountant, Mr Johnstone once even disputed some of Robert Maxwell's profit figures. In the 1970s he made enough money in Hong Kong to take over and spend much of the 1980s developing Majestic Wine Warehouses, the first truly successful cheap 'n' cheerful retail wine chain in the country.

The disastrous purchase of Liquor Barn, one of the largest chains of liquor stores in California, resulted in the sale of Majestic and an unhappy split with his former partner. But Mr Johnstone bounced back, buying a 150-acre estate in Bordeaux, Chateau de Sours. And even the Majestic story ended happily. After passing through a number of owners - including a teetotaller - it ended up in hands friendly enough to offer a stake to Mr Johnstone, as well as a reliable outlet for the wines from Chateau de Sours, which include one of Bordeaux's trendiest roses.

Hugh Ryman was, if not bred or born into wine, introduced to it at an early age. Just over 20 years ago his father Nick sold the family stationery business and bought Chateau de la Jaubertie, a beautiful estate in Bergerac. This was doubly bold: no other individual Briton had embarked on such a step for a generation or more; and the region itself was best known for producing cheap and nasty sweet white wines. But he persisted, selling his - greatly improved - red and dry white wines to outlets like Majestic.

Hugh had always wanted to be a farmer, but ended up studying oenology at Bordeaux University. The defining influence was a year in Australia, where winemakers are used to transforming a wide variety of sometimes unsatisfactory grapes into consistently good wines - a sophistication unheard of in France, where the whole wine-making process is based on the assumption that the grapes will be in first-class condition.

After a couple of years back at La Jaubertie he set up as an ambulant winemaker in 1988, while still in his mid-twenties. His first commission - for this is a slightly incestuous story - came from Rodney Kearns, then Majestic's buyer, to make 'varietal' wines from specific, fashionable grape varieties like sauvignon and chardonnay, in regions of France not normally associated with them.

The business flourished and Mr Ryman became one of the first to employ 'flying winemakers' - young Australian technocrats who jet in to French cellars to teach the natives how to improve their wines. Within a few years he and his team of oenologists were making wines as far afield as Hungary and Moldavia.

By the time he and Mr Johnstone got together last year to combine their talents as winemaker and marketer, he even had his own winery in Languedoc. This is a natural source for the 'new' French wines, for the region's former glory had long departed and so the land was cheap and the winemakers prepared to change their habits and produce wines to order, if only to make a decent living at a time when most of the vineyards which formerly flourished making rough reds for French cafes were being torn up.

Their ideas were clear and, by wine standards, revolutionary: 'We're not merchants,' Mr Johnstone says. 'We're not just flying winemakers making wine to order. Unlike the rest of France we're completely consumer-oriented; we analyse what the market wants that particular year, and our clients know what kind of wines we can make - good, crisp, clear wines to fit a specific price bracket.' Their plans were sufficiently business-like to encourage Hambro's French offshoot to take a minority shareholding.

Although they have spread their wings, most recently to Spain, 'our basic business is in France,' Mr Johnstone says, 'because it's the greatest wine- producing country in the world. It's just that the French don't know how to sell the stuff.'

Because they still have only a small percentage of the market, the only limitation to their business appears to be the sheer energy and detailed attention required to make reliable wines at very competitive prices.

Somehow they find the time, and now they have also found the money to buy the farm. Neither Mr Johnstone nor Mr Ryman is an especially sentimental figure. But they are particularly proud of the fact that they have just bought Chateau Jaubertie, where it all began, from Nick Ryman.

(Photograph omitted)

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