January’s Theme – led by the Andy and Jill – focuses on a subject we’ve often discussed but on which we have never brought to bear the searchlight of our collective palates: the pleasures and pitfalls of buying from a producer…

I have been visiting producers since May 1995 – less than 3 years after I started studying wine systematically. I was staying with a friend in Mainz, and on the Sunday we decided to drive out to the Nahe to visit Staatliche Weinbaudomäne Niederhausen Schlossböckelheim – a producer I had drunk wines from before. Being a Sunday they were busy with some sort of event and not keen to welcome us – but I tried dropping the name of Lay and Wheeler (whence my 1982 Spätlesen were sourced) and we were then eagerly invited into an inner sanctum to taste a half dozen wines…

An hour or so later we left with a dozen each of a couple of wines at around half the UK price…

Encouraged by this experience we came home via Alsace and Chinon (and Paris in between) and visited 3 or 4 growers in each area… (my next visit was the Turkheim Co-Op) … with equally gratifying results…

turkheim-cave

Since then I have made 40-50 wine-centred holidays and (not counting repeat visits) probably enjoyed tasting at 200-300 producers…. The trips have mainly involved only French wine areas but 14 or 15 have been to other European countries (although the majority have included French wine areas on the outward and/or return journey).

If the aim is to source good, or at least good-value, wine – then they haven’t all been successful (I’m also discounting attempts to taste that met with closed doors, un-locatable addresses or failures to agree an appointment…). However they have all been very interesting and informative – especially when there’s been time to look round the local geography and identify specific vineyards…

But what are the results from the point of view of enjoying better wine? If you buy from the grower (e.g. in France, although it’s much the same in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain or Portugal – and even more advantageous in Switzerland) you are cutting out UK duty, transport costs (although you are meeting them yourself in a way) and normally 2 and often more middle-men’s profits… The result is that cellar door prices are often 40% – 50% less than the exact same wine in the UK.

Now that comparison is for identical wines imported and eventually retailed in the UK through a wine specialist. However when thinking of supermarket wines the sheer buying power of the big supermarkets can reduce – though never eliminate – that margin. However that power often insists on massive volumes and sometimes a grower will give an entire Cuvée to a supermarket buyer.

So, when comparing cellar door prices of (say) French producers with that of the same type of wines from a UK supermarket it’s not often a simple price comparison of the exact same wine but a comparison of  two similar wines. The delineation can be of style: that of a smaller grower against a bigger producer, and hence artisan against mass production…

I hope Jill and Andy’s tasting will show up those considerations and encourage you to visit and buy from producers… I’m sure it will be very interesting – and many thanks are due to them for the work organising the tasting….

If you do visit producers, there is one fundamental choice to make: Do you buy the same quality level at a lower cost, or pay the same and go up a quality level (or two)?? I expect you can guess my preference but chacun à son gout… a surprisingly apt phrase, considering!

Until soon…

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