Wine

A PARTICULARLY PERNICIOUS PARTNERSHIP

Helen Keller once remarked, “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” That’s what our wine scribe Jim Walker thought when he decided to take on a partner.

The result of that partnership brings to mind the following lines from Robbie Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”

Hélène and me at Domaine Roger Sabon in Châteauneuf

I described the travails of picking up wine from the loading docks of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in my last contribution to Gentleman’s Portion. I wasted countless hours shivering or sweltering, depending on the season, as I waited semi-patiently for my wine. This gave me ample opportunity to get to know many other agents who were similarly their time. The employees of the big agencies weren’t very sociable, but the owners of the smaller firms were true delights. Often first-generation Canadians, they represented wineries from the old country and had wonderful stories to tell. They would also enjoy describing the many malfeasances perpetrated upon them by the LCBO and from time-to-time we would exchange bottles of our favourite wines. Through the many hours of waiting, I couldn’t help but reflect that theirs was a very hard way to earn a living and that mine a very masochistic retirement endeavour.

It was during one such occasion of protracted thumb-twiddling that a young chap approached me and struck up a conversation. Pat was his name (not really) and he had his own wine agency called Bluwater Wines (not true either). He was an engaging individual, quite charming actually.

Another of our Châteauneuf du Pape wineries

As I loaded up my vinous treasures from the south of France, Pat remarked enviously about their quality and provenance. The wineries he represented came from lesser-known wine producing places like Israel, Greece and obscure regions of Spain. He went on to explain that the bulk of his sales were to Toronto area restaurants and how he wished he had a wider range of wines from better known regions to offer. We represented some 30 wineries at the time, all from renowned appellations in France and Italy.

Pat probed for more information about our wineries. It was clear that he wanted to inject a little pedigree into his portfolio, and he wanted to do it in a hurry. “Would you be interested in letting me sell some of your wines to my customers?” he ventured. My immediate reaction was no way. The LCBO already made my wine life onerously complicated and miserable as it was. Besides, they mandated that a given winery could only be represented by a single agent, not two. But Pat persisted. He would take on responsibility for the winery (becoming the agency of record) and look after all the administration. He would place my orders with the LCBO and arrange it so that I could pick up my Toronto wine club orders and send the rest to our members’ LCBO stores outside of Toronto. And … he would give me a modest cut of the commission he made on the restaurant sale of my wines.  

Vignobles Mousset-Barrot of Châteauneuf du Pape – Amélie, Robert and Gaëlle

I was uneasy with the whole idea. In addition to the added complexity, I was doing just fine on my own. Further, I didn’t know Pat from a hole in the ground and I worried about how he was going to communicate with our basically unilingual French vintners. However, I was aware that several of our wineries were champing at the bit for more business. I also admired Pat’s youthful exuberance and entrepreneurial ways and was amenable to giving him a helping hand. “Okay, lets give it a try … a slow and cautious try,” I said to him. But with which winery to begin the partnership?

I arranged for Pat to meet Hélène and me at our place where we set up an extensive tasting of a wide selection of our wines. During the degustation we learned that he spoke very good French! Pat slurped away with great gusto and ultimately settled on the 2010 ‘Le Domaine’, a modestly priced but delicious wine from Château Saint Jacques d’Albas located in the heart of the Minervois wine region of south-western France. This winery was owned by our old friend Graham Nutter who had been with us since the very beginning of our vinous adventures. Graham was an ideal guinea pig for Pat and my collaboration. Here’s how I described this wine at the time (and sold for $18 the bottle):

This edition of Le Domaine AOC Minervois rouge from a very good vintage is made from 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 20% Mourvèdre and is as yummy as ever (maybe even more so). The yields were kept to 35 hectolitres/hectare. The wine has been traditionally fermented and the Syrah aged in oak barrels for more than six months. This is a very expressive, well-balanced wine that is drinking well now and will keep quite happily for several years. 

I got in touch with Graham and as I suspected he was quite amenable to the whole arrangement. I explained that Pat would now be his official agent in Ontario and would be dealing with the LCBO on behalf of both of us. I then got in touch with Pat, told him we were good to go as soon as we signed our partnership agreement of understanding. We set up a meeting for the signing and official handover of our first winery.

Graham Nutter and Hélène in the vineyards of Château Saint Jacques d’Albas

Pat and I met for breakfast at a restaurant near Toronto’s Saint Lawrence Market. After exchanging pleasantries and placing our orders, I pulled out our proposed contract that I called ‘A Wine Distribution Agreement’ for discussion purposes. It outlined the nature of our arrangement and specified the payments that would be made to both parties under various sales situations. Pat briefly scanned the document and set it down. I asked if he had any suggested changes or additions or wanted to negotiate the fee schedule. He had no comments. “Are you okay to sign then,” I asked? “Yeah, whatever,” was his reply. This didn’t seem like the congenial, buoyant Pat that had approached me at the LCBO docks and enjoyed our wine sampling hospitality! But he did sign the agreement.

All went well for the first little while. Our wine club order was processed quickly and there were no issues upon pickup at the LCBO docks. Pat gave Graham a sizeable order for the 2010 Le Domaine and paid me my small commission shortly after I invoiced him. Then I noticed from a report the LCBO sent me that Graham had received a very nice second order from Pat. I got in touch with Pat to congratulate him on his success. He mentioned that restaurant sales of Graham’s wines were going well and then dropped the bomb. “I’m not going to pay your commissions anymore.” “But we have an agreement”, I sputtered incredulously. “Doesn’t matter, nobody pays a commission to another agent”, was his soulless reply. And he didn’t!

I explained the situation to Graham who agreed that we should end our business dealings with Pat. We both thought that we were doing Pat a favour and helping his fledgling wine business. “A pity”, remarked Graham, “but it seems that, as the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.”

Featured image: Château Saint Jacques d’Albas in winter’s cloak

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This is Jim’s 71st blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Or check the archives under WINE.

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