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Friday 2 March 2012

On Laithwaites (again)

At the end of the fascinating if mixed tasting of some new Laithwaites wines from India, Greece, Turkey and Georgia the other week, there was a chance to try some of the company's other wines from Eastern Europe as well as a few off-piste wines that Tony and wine maker Jean-Marc Saboua brought in from the Vinopolis shop.

Introducing myself to Jean-Marc, it turned out that he knew my from the blog as I'd been rather less than positive about a wine that turned out to be from his buying portfolio.

He was polite enough to acknowledge that he largely agreed with my observations and excused himself by saying that he had inherited the relationship with the producer and not tried the wine in a few years.

However, with Gallic pride to be restored, he suggested that we try a few other Petits Bordeaux from his portfolio to see what I thought - the first, called Le Coin (somewhat reminiscent of le petit coin, for me) was a good basic sub-£10 Bordeaux and thoroughly pleasant.

The next, whose name I forget but which had a functional orange label and cost a few pounds more was definitely a step-up in terms of quality and sophistication.

As both a Frenchman and a winemaker, Jean-Marc clearly has a palate and knows how to spot a good wine. But as he hinted at himself, the issue is lack of attention to detail or insufficient rigourousness in weeding out weaker wines or weaker vintages. And it's an issue that I suspect is more institutional to Laithwaites than personal to Jean-Marc.

Combine this with Laithwaites' stereotypically, almost comically overeffusive tasting notes for every single bottle and one quickly loses faith in the quality and reliability of their wines - for a wine merchant needs to be judged as much by their weakest wines as by their best.

It is one thing to show off a few good bottles of your better wines, but what we tried on the evening represents under 2% of the entire Laithwaites range so can hardly be considered statistically representative.

Ad man David Ogilvy used to insist on buying and using his clients' products - of course, it helped that he had the Rolls Royce account in those days - but to this day, Ogilvy, which now has the rather more blue-collar Ford account, has a Ford-only company car policy.

So it was disappointing to hear one of the Laithwaites PR people say she had not yet tasted the entire range of the company's wines. For sure, you can promote a company without a really detailed knowledge of all its products, but I would suggest that it makes you more authoritative if you do have that level of knowledge.

I have been lucky to attend a number of staff tastings with Cambridge Wine Merchants and I know just how much time and effort goes into staff training on the company's products whilst internet retailer Naked Wines holds a tasting of around 30 wines from prospective and potential suppliers every Friday evening after work.

Surely then, it's not too much to expect an induction course at Laithwaites to involve tasting all their wines over the course of, say, a few months.

Speed tasting 30-50 wines in an hour with a group of your peers will teach some very good skills in presentation, communication and persuasion as well as deepening and broadening your knowledge of wine generally and the company's range specifically.

It also subjects the wines to broad, general scrutiny.

Of course there is a cost element to doing this, but the greater goal is weeding out the weaker wines from the portfolio.

I am also especially impressed by Vinopic who, having stocked the 2008 Vesevo Beneventano Aglianico, were not sufficiently impressed by the 2009 to buy it for sale and are waiting to see if the 2010 will be considered good enough.

The old chestnut "retail is detail" surely applies here - Laithwaites, in growing to a company of 1,000 staff, seems to have taken its eye off the detail and now focuses more on shifting units than selecting only decent wines.

The invitation of a few bloggers to come and try the new range and Jean-Marc's acknowledgement that one of the wines in his portfolio was a bit weak is potentially a significant cultural change for the company, but it is at best only the start.

Weed out all the weaker bottles, refuse to take the poorer vintages, focus the buyers on getting good quality wines not just "a medal-winning petit Bordeaux that we can sell for £7.99", subject the wines to general scrutiny by staff, bloggers, wine writers and so on.

Then stand back and watch the quality levels improve over time.

We have three great independent wine merchants in Cambridge (what I call the Cambridge Phenomenon) and I'm confident that I could stand in the middle of Noel Young Wines, Bacchanalia or Cambridge Wine Merchants, reach out at random with my eyes closed and whatever I took would be a good bottle of wine.

I'm somewhat less convinced that I could stick a pin at random into the Laithwaites catalogue and achieve the same - and the Laithwaites tasting notes will do nothing to help me either.

As CellarFella Simon Burnton put it, "when you sell only by the case over the internet, trust is everything".


Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/
Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Noel Young Wines - http://wwwnywines.co.uk/
Vinopic - http://www.vinopic.com/

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