Wine

I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSÉ GARDEN (Part I)

Our champagne in the Vintages magazine

We get to know and love Champagne Forget-Brimont Rosé Brut 1er Cru.

It was Valentine’s Day, 2009. There on page 17 of the glossy Vintages promotional magazine, front and center, was our Rosé Brut 1er Cru from Champagne Forget-Brimont. This was truly a sweetheart moment for our fledgling wine importing business and for the winery. It really should have been a red-letter day, but instead they served up a double portion of thorns.

It all began a year earlier when Vintages issued a request for submission for champagne. We contacted Eva Schubert at Champagne Forget-Brimont and recommended that we offer 300 six-bottle cases (the winery did not ship in 12-bottle cases at the time) each of their Brut 1er Cru, Extra Brut 1er Cru and Rosé Brut 1er Cru. We also highlighted the LCBO’s terms and conditions which included this little gem, ‘If the product fails to achieve 75 per cent sell through within three months of release, the winery will provide a 20 per cent rebate (based on the ex-cellar price) for all inventories that are then remaining.’ The ex-cellar price is the amount that the winery charges for the wine before it is shipped. It includes their price for the wine plus the agent’s commission.

Michel Forget and his elixirs

Eva responded that they were okay with the quantities but that Michel Forget could not abide with what we dubbed ‘The Claw-back Clause.’ I suggested that they could increase their price to mitigate a possible penalty, but they were not amenable to the idea. So, after a great deal of calculation and thought, I said that we would be willing to insure against the possibility of the claw-back, but would have to increase our commission in order to cover the potential cost should the clause be invoked. It bothered me that this would result in an inflated LCBO retail price (by about 10 per cent) but, upon reflection, it occurred to me that one way or another, this LCBO-imposed business risk had to be factored into the price.

We submitted all three of the Forget-Brimont bubblies for Vintages’ consideration and, lo and behold, the Rosé Brut was accepted for the tasting stage of the LCBO selection process. So we had the winery ship us three bottles at a combined cost of more than $300 for air freight, customs processing, duties and LCBO mark-ups.

It was about then that Eva informed us that the winery could also ship in twelve-bottle cartons. This was important because the LCBO’s contract with its French shipper specified identical shipping costs for six-bottle and 12-bottle cases. Thus the shipping cost per bottle sent in a six-bottle case was twice that of a bottle transported in its 12-bottle counterpart. This translated into an extra $1.50 per bottle to the LCBO’s retail price. We pointed this out along with the special attributes of the wine on a typed sheet of paper affixed to the sample bottle that we submitted for the tasting. We also attached a revised quotation based on 12-bottle cartons that illustrated the reduced retail price. We also noted that we wished to participate in relevant merchandising programs. This was Vintages’ prescribed method for presenting new and additional facts for their consideration. As it turned out, all of this information was overlooked or ignored.

The Rosé Brut 1er Cru was accepted … all 1,800 bottles! We cautiously celebrated knowing that there was much work still to do to ensure that the champagne sold quickly. And, we remembered all too well the disappointment of our first ‘successful’ Vintages submission (see Gentleman’s Portion: The Neophyte and the Liquor Monopoly).

Soon after receiving the acceptance notice, we wrote and hand delivered a letter to Mr. Fred Firestone (the names of the LCBO employees have been changed to protect the innocent … me), Vintages Category Manager, European Wines, Vintages indicating our desire to participate in whatever marketing programs Vintages thought appropriate to help promote the wine. There was no response. So over the next few weeks we sent him a number of follow-up emails that also went unanswered. Finally, we were referred to Victoria Beetle, Assistant Product Manager, European Wines, Vintages who was very helpful. She suggested that something called a ‘Rave Review’ shelf-talker would be one of several initiatives that would be helpful in the marketing mix. However, soon thereafter Victoria wrote to inform us that the ‘Wine Spectator’ had dropped its rating for the Rosé Brut from 91 to 89. This change meant that Vintages might not support the shelf-talker. “When will we know if it’s a go?” I inquired. We did not receive a reply.

Now then, two rating points might not seem like much, but in the world of wine the drop from 91 to 89 is like falling off a cliff. And, the Wine Spectator provided new tasting notes which Vintages printed word-for-word in their promotional brochure. “Fruity and open, but also fresh and tangy. Flavors of citrus peel, berry and spice play off one another as this glides to the chalky finish. Drink now.” Chalky finish! Man, does that sound tasty or what? Here’s how they described it a couple of years later (note that the winery blends their champagne from three successive vintages to ensure consistence in style and taste), “This offers lovely balance, a finely detailed texture and delicate acidity that focuses subtle flavors of ripe plum, wild strawberry and melon fruit. A hint of almond-tinged financier and mineral notes add complexity” Now doesn’t that sound a tad more tantalizing?

The financial crisis and great recession of 2008 pounced just as Vintages’ accepted our Rosé Brut. While things were certainly not as dire in Canada as they were in the US, we were beginning to feel the pinch by late in the year. Sales of luxury goods were on the wane and our local wine press took great glee in telling wine buyers to eschew expensive products like champagne in favour of much cheaper substitutes such as Italian proseccos and Spanish cavas. Take for example Beppi Crosariol in his article ‘Raise a glass to budget bubblies’ published in the December 3, 2008 edition of The Globe and Mail: “… sparkling wines from places other than the hallowed champagne region of France are in many cases fine substitutes for the only wines that can legally be called champagne. During economic downturns, they may even be more, how do the French say, à propos.”

All this was confirmed in the LCBO’s 2008-2009 Annual Report, “During fiscal 2008-09, this trend (to lower-priced beverage alcohol) was epitomized by a slower growth in Vintages sales and increased sales of lower-priced wines that offer great value at their price point.”

The individual LCBO store managers determined what wines they would order and in what quantities. Therefore, it was vital for us to visit as many of these managers as possible to encourage them to order great quantities of our wonderful wine. So we cooled down our two remaining bottles of the Forget-Brimont bubbly and trotted around to a number of LCBO stores in the GTA and dispensed our pink champagne to as many thirsty managers and Vintages staff as our meagre supply would allow. As they happily slurped away, they promised to fill their shelves with our marvellous elixir.

Valentines’ Day 2009 dawned. We eagerly scanned the LCBO’s list of Vintages locations to find out which ones had ordered the Rosé Brut. Imagine our dismay when we discovered that only a third of the 1,800 bottles purchased had made their way onto the Vintages shelves! So much for the promises of the happy slurpers. To be fair, the recession was taking its toll; not just on higher-priced libation, but on all but the cheapest grog. The LCBO’s order timeline was almost a year from when they requested submissions to when the products arrived at their stores. There was no way for them to reduce committed quantities once the orders in transit. It was a tsunami. The LCBO store shelves and stockrooms were at capacity. But, the booze kept coming.

We were quick to tell our wine club members about the availability of the Rosé Brut and provided them with a list of the LCBO stores where they could find it. This worked quite well and soon the limited supplies (a case or two) at a number of the smaller stores were depleted. We would call the managers up to encourage reordering, but the response was pretty much the same everywhere. “We’d love to, but new wine is arriving and we need the shelf space.” Several members complained that while some of the larger LCBO stores showed inventory remaining on the LCBO Web site, they had none on their shelves. So we visited these stores. I well remember calling on the Queens Quay emporium and politely asking a chap in the Vintages section why none of the 60 or so bottles showing on his inventory list was on the shelf (nor had been for several days)? He became somewhat gnarly, responding that he was very busy. “Okay,” I volunteered, “I’ll be happy to bring them out from your storeroom and find some space for them.” At that he huffed off and a few moments later rolled out a cart loaded with several cases of our Rosé Brut. He wouldn’t let me help him place them on the shelf.

At this point, dear reader, you are probably thinking, “What next, a plague of locusts?” Actually, it was much worse. But, I must save that tale for my next Gentleman’s Portion wine post – I Never Promised You a Rosé Garden (Part II).

Cheers! Jim

Featured image: A fine Champagne Rosé set off by pink roses

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