When we began our wine club more than 10 years ago, we worried that nobody would order any of our wines. We certainly didn’t improve our chances any by featuring a rosé in the dead of winter!
As related in my last Gentleman’s Portion post, everything was in place to start our wine importing business. We had decided to begin with a wine club. Why a wine club? Because we had always loved sharing interesting wines, particularly those we had savoured in southern France, with family and friends. And, as we often said while enjoying a simple rosé or a complex Châteauneuf du Pape, “Isn’t it a shame that we can’t get this wine back home.” This was the way to do it!
So it was that on March 11, 2006, we officially launched Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club via our Selections e-newsletter to our 100 or so recently conscripted members. The winery we chose to kick things off was Château Saint Jacques d’Albas, owned by Graham and Béatrice Nutter. We introduced Graham and his rosé in a previous post and I’ll tell you a bit more about him in a minute. The wine that we selected to feature was his 2005 rosé – not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, or glass of wine, if you prefer! Why a rosé you might well ask? We had enjoyed untold gallons of the thirst-quenching stuff on the patios and in the bistros of Provence and were always very disappointed to find the LCBO shelves bereft of this marvellous elixir when we returned home. It seemed that our fellow Ontario imbibers had been put off rosé because of their dislike of the sweet, feeble California Zinfandel blushes. We felt it was our duty to change those perceptions, and felt that Graham’s rosé was the way to do it. But, would anyone buy it?
Château Saint Jacques d’Albas is part of the Minervois appellation which lies within the huge Languedoc-Roussillon wine region in south-western France. It is situated some 15 kilometres to the north-east of Carcassonne (the historic and somewhat funky 13th century walled city in the French department of Aude) and not too far from the Montagne Noire and the Canal du Midi.
Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine-growing area in the world, justly characterized by a reputation for vin ordinaire, but within which one can find oases of wines of high quality and excellent value-for-money. The Minervois is one source in particular for superb red wines and was so heralded by the Wine Spectator magazine in August of 2014. Attention to soil quality, low yields, hand-harvesting and temperature-controlled fermentation help produce complex, robust and very food-friendly wines.
Graham and Béatrice Nutter became owners of Château Saint Jacques d’Albas in early 2001. The beautiful 60 hectare estate included rolling hills of forests and garrigue (the fragrant herb-laden underbrush of southern France) teeming with wildlife along with an old mill and chapel in ruins, a couple of rather rundown dwellings and 65 acres of ancient vines. They also fortuitously inherited Martine and Marc Bonnavenc, who had managed all aspects of the property for the previous owner. To give you an idea of Graham and Béatrice’s generous natures, they lived in one of the property’s secondary buildings, leaving Martine and Marc in the main house.
Graham had attended Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge and there was taken under the wing of one of his father’s old friends who, at the time, was Deputy Bursar at Trinity College, Cambridge. He would frequently invite Graham to dinner to ensure he had at least one decent meal a month. The feast would always include a lavish choice of top cru Bordeaux or Burgundy drawn from Trinity’s vast cellars. His kindly mentor would question him intensely about each wine as Graham contentedly improved his vinous knowledge and appreciation.
No too long after graduation, Graham joined the international investment banking ranks where he worked for several firms developing their upscale advisory businesses throughout the world. He was toiling grandly for Scudder, Stevens and Clark when, in 2002 Deutsche Bank acquired the firm and Graham’s services. Deutsche Bank already had their equivalent of Mr. Nutter, so they offered him a handsome leaving package which he gladly accepted. This unexpected bounty helped assuage the not inconsiderable expenses that he was racking up at his recently acquired winery. Over the years Graham could often be heard to intone, as he arose early on his sun drenched property and bowed towards the north-east: “Thank you Deutsche Bank, thank you Deutsche Bank.”
Over the ensuing years the Nutters made extensive improvements and additions to all aspects of the estate. Until they had assumed ownership and responsibility, the grapes grown there had been sold off each year to the local co-op. So the first thing they did was build a ultramodern wine producing facility that also contained a Fort Knox-like cellar to properly store Graham’s considerable collection of fine potables. Closely following that came major work on the vineyards (work that continues to this day) that included replanting, pruning and natural fertilization. They restored the dilapidated stone mill and turned it into a splendid gîte (rental property), built an indoor theatre hall and an outdoor mini- amphitheatre (they frequently host musical and theatrical performances for the entire region), installed an industrial kitchen, constructed new living quarters, refurbished all the old roads, stone fences and bridges and finally (Graham hopes) completely renovated the estate’s 13th century chapel.
We became great friends with Graham over the years. We visited and stayed at Château Saint Jacques d’Albas on several occasions and Graham often sojourned with us on this side of the pond. I can assure you that many a fine bottle met its fate along the way. One of our fondest memories is the week or so we spent together touring the Burgundy area, ably aided and abetted by the noted Burgundian wine expert Jean-Claude Pion. There we visited several premier and grand cru estates (including Domaine Marc Colin in Gamay, Domaine Arlaud in Morey-Saint-Denis and Maison Louis Latour in Beaune) dined like kings (including an unforgettable lunch at Le Charlemagne in Pernand-Vergelesses and laid waste to as much of the region’s wine stores as we could.
Allow me to describe the lunch at Le Charlemagne and gloat just a little in the process. The proceedings commenced with some dainty amuse-gueule (nibbles) washed down by a most festive Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée Champagne (a most auspicious start). Next appeared a dish of scampi-laden risotto with chèvre and a hint of truffles paired with a tasty little 2000 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Clavoillon (sheer nirvana). The main was roast pigeon with an array of vegetables that were greeted by a scrumptious 1999 Pommard 1er Cru Les Jarollières from Domaine de la Pousse d‘Or (oh, the joy). Last, but certainly not least, was a marvelous assortment of cheeses, supported by a stupendous 1999 Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru from Domaine des Lambrays (I had died and gone to heaven).
But, I digress; back to our inaugural wine club offering. Along with the 2005 rosé ($12.95), were three reds: the crowd-pleasing (one of our largest sellers over the years) 2003 Le Domaine ($14.95); the winery’s mainstay 2003 Le Château ($21.95), and their premium 2003 La Chapelle ($32.95). Here’s what I wrote about the latter: “This is definitely the king of Château Saint Jacques d’Albas. Made from 98 per cent old vines Syrah (aged in oak casks for 12 to 18 months) and two per cent Grenache, it is reminiscent of a fine Côte Rôtie or a smashing Aussie Shiraz (hardly surprising given that the winery’s chief wine-making consultant hailed from Australia). An inky dark red colour, black currants dominate the nose with hints of red berries, new leather, pepper and vanilla. It is a real mouthful of pleasure, well-balanced, long and satisfying. It will pair brilliantly with roast leg of lamb, venison or rabbit stew. My tasting notes show an underscored ‘Superb!’ This is lovely stuff and I highly recommend it. Only 3,500 bottles made.”
So, how did our first foray into the wonderful world of wine turn out? In a word, encouragingly. Sixteen brave souls placed orders for 204 bottles of the rosé (it worked), 72 bottles of the Le Domaine and 24 bottles of Le Château, but not a single bottle of the stunning La Chapelle. One might conclude that our members were parsimonious, but that’s not the whole story. You see, the LCBO insists that orders such as ours can only be for full cases and cannot be broken down for two or more customers. Further, their shipping contract specifies that six-bottle cases cost the same as 12-bottle cases resulting in double the per-bottle shipping costs for six-bottle cases. Thus we offered only 12-bottle cases. Who in their right mind would buy 12 bottles of a $32.95 wine sight unseen (or taste buds untasted)? None of our discerning members. Clearly we were going to have to make some adjustments in respect to future purchase quantities … but, we happily decided that there was going to be a future for Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club.
When we return next month, I am going to regale you with the tale of our first successful listing with the LCBO’s Vintages department. Did I say successful?