The French who make and sell wine have tended to be cautious people. In Bordeaux and Burgundy they have been favored by nature nature and, being French, they accept that as their due.
Some other things have been harder to accept in this decade. Among them: Speculation, inflation, scandal, loss of export volume, criticism of quantity. The inevitable result has been change. In the vineyards new laws have been instituted to more tightly regulate production (and by extension, quality). But sales offices are hit by racial change, too.
The young people who operate the Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Lalou Bize-Leroy and Aubert de Villiane, have been touring this country as part of an effort to sell the famous wines of the Domaine and Maison Leroy wines as well. It is not uncommon these days for French wine people to tour America. But usually they tour under the auspices of their American importer.
In this case, there is no importer. The Domaine is attempting to market its wines directly to wholesale or retail outlets across the United States.
The reasons for this move are complex. For many years the Domaine's wines - La Tache, Grands-Echezeaux, Echezeaux, Richebourg and Montrachet - were imported by the respected firm of Frederick Wildman. That arrangement collasped several years ago. According to sources within the trade, the decision was Wildman's. The firm was required, sources say, to order and to sell to wholesalers and retailers an entire line of Domaine wines as well as Leroy wines. Romanee-Conti, world famous and in limited production, sells at any price. Some of the other wines, high-priced and facing competition, did not.
Now, after several years, there is renewed demand for the Romanee-Conti wines here. But De Villaine sees one barrier to selling more of the Leroy wines. "Americans are hung up on 'estate bottling,'" he said during a visit here. "For years some of our finest wines have come from shippers who blend wines from small growers. The customer trusts the name of the shipper, so he buys the wine. But Americans wanted "estate' wines, so they got them. Now the price of production precludes making and in this country the competition from California precludes selling them competitively."
De Villaine feels the changing situation will eliminate some mediocre wines. The plan he and Mme. Bize-Leroy have devised eliminates at least one stop in the pipeline of middle men that boosts the price of wine as it moves from vineyard to the American table. But it remains to be seen whether that saving will be passed on to the consumer and it is unlikely that this marks the beginning of a trend. No other firm in Burgundy has a stable of wines with the reputation of the Domaine's and no other name is as instantly recognized within the trade as Romanee-Conti.
Nonetheless, in Bordeaux, too, an experiment that involves eliminating a middleman has been conceived. The author is Alfred Tesseron, a man in his early 30s who has negotiated an arrangement between his family firm and the presitigous New York importing firm of Scheffelin & Co.
The Tesserons own two-Medoc chateaux, Lafon-Rochet and Pontet-Canet. The former is in St. Estephe and produces somewhat more than 10,000 cases of wine a year. The latter is the largest estate in the region, famed as the "railroad wine" because for many years it has been served in dining cars of the French national railroad. A next-door neighbor of Mouton-Rothschild, it was purchased from the Cruse family in 1975 after the conclusion of the Winegate affair. The annual production of Pontet-Canet is about 30,000 cases. Some wine from the estates is bottled as Chateau Vielle Chapelle and Chateau Pischat.
Alfred Tesseron had been selling wine in this country for several years when he became export director for the firm last fall. One of his first moves was to propose a novel scheme to Scheffelin.
"We have made an agreement directly with Scheffelin," he explained, "We have set a price of our 1976 wines and will import tham at that price as long as the supply lasts. Thereby we guarantee stability and eliminate speculation." What it can mean to the consumer is an assurance that prices on the Tesseron wines won't be pushed up as the vintage ages and supplies dwindle.
As Tesseron outlined it, the framework was established by rating five vintages using 1970-71 prices as a base. When Tesseron and Scheffelin agree on the rating of a vintage relative to the base, as they already have with 1976, the price is set accordingly. Tesseron promises to deliver at that price until the alloted amount of the wines is gone.
"It eliminates those who have a tendency to speculate," he said. Control is lost once the wine passes into the hands of a retailer or restaurant [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Tesseron acknowledged, but he said that those who take advantage face [WORD ILLEGIBLE] threat of being cut off in the future [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
The motivation was two fold. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in America, Tesseron became concerned. "California wines are good," he said, "and Americans are becoming educated. When [WORD ILLEGIBLE] knowledgeable, they are not going to be trapped twice by overpriced wine. There will be room only for the best in each price range. The brand wines are going to die."
he also feels that Bordeaux trade [WORD ILLEGIBLE] mired in outmoded methods despite recent attempt at reform by following the lead of Champagne and Alsace and setting a floor and ceiling on the price of grapes each year.
The Bordeaux shippers, too, talk of establishing stability, but Tesseron argues there has been no real change in how the pie is sliced up. He is confident his arrangment with Scheffelin will prove attractive to retailers and to restaurateurs as well.
"Everybody complaints at how much the restaurant man marks up wines, he said. "We can't lower our price to them, but they might respond if they know the price of a vintage to them will not change. Anyway, it's an idea."