Sunday, 25 June 2006

My Round: Richard Ehrlich cracks two cases of oenological obsession

Published: 25 June 2006 in The Independent on Sunday

Who would choose to go into the wine business? By and large, it remains people who love wine. I've talked recently to two people working in very different areas of the wine industry, and both fit that description to a T. One is a Dutch wine enthusiast named David Bolomey, whose website ( I first learnt about from the excellent wine blog at David hasn't yet made a penny from his arduous labours. But they have certainly paid off for us wine drinkers - or for those who like to buy the wines of Bordeaux en primeur.

The 2005 vintage has attracted loads of enthusiastic comment from all the people who cover this area. How do you find out what they're saying, without buying every single publication where they're published? By going to David's website. He has assembled a list of the major estates with rankings from most leading commentators. Using a system developed in his work for a Dutch financial consultancy, he has spent countless unpaid evenings gathering data for his database. "I did it because I love buying en primeur," he says, "but used to spend a long time looking for information. So I thought, 'Why not make an overview and search for myself?'"

David is unsure of how he'll make money from his work, adding: "I don't want to make consumers pay for information that should be free." In the meantime, what he's done is not just free but incredibly useful. You can organise the tables by several criteria - recommendations from eight leading commentators, size of estate, AOC, cru ranking, composition of the blend. And the site is updated daily. There's no information about where to buy, but it's still a nifty little labour of love. I hope it eventually makes him money.

Someone who is making money from wine is James Bercovici, a young merchant who abandoned his inchoate legal career to set up The Big Red Wine Company. James owes the change of plans to a dodgy VW camper van. He and his future wife motored around the southern Rhône in the summer of 1995, and the van kept breaking down in vineyard-dense areas. While waiting for the AA to fix it, they tasted. They talked to vignerons. Eventually James realised that it was wine that really interested him. He started BRWC (under a different name) in 2000 with just five growers, all of whom he had met on his travels. Now he has 25 growers in his hand-picked stable, and while the southern Rhône is still his principal interest, he also has a few growers in Alsace, Bordeaux and Italy.

Big Red Wine is still a tiny operation, selling around 2,500 cases of wine a year. Sales have roughly doubled in the last two or three years, and naturally that pleases James and his wife and their three young children. But he insists that he is "not interested in becoming the next big thing" - he prefers "steady organic growth" which allows him to continue to know his producers, their wines, and his customers. "I want to be the kind of wine merchant I would like to buy from. And I want to buy only wines that I wouldn't mind being stuck with, if they don't sell." He also wants to spend time with his children, who sometimes tour the vineyards with him. Vignerons who supply lollipops are greatly appreciated.

Three of the BRWC wines are highlighted [below]. All are of high quality and profound individuality, which is just as they should be from a merchant of this type. To order them, you will have to make a call or send an email: James rejects online ordering because he likes to find out what customers like and guide them to the right wines. This isn't necessarily the way to get mega-rich. But, then again, I don't think that's what James is looking for.

JP & JF Becker, Alsace Grand Cru "Froehn" 2000 Riesling Classic petrol character developing with age; ripe honeysuckle, stone-fruit flavours (out of stock).

Domaine des Anges Cotes du Ventoux 2005 Blanc "L'Archange" A remarkable white from this mostly red appellation. Complex flavours integrated by careful oak treatment.

Domaine Brusset, Cotes du Rhone Villages Cairanne 2003 "Vendange Chabrille" A tremendously powerful Grenache/Syrah blend, but subtle too. One of the best Cairanne I have ever drunk. (Now the 2004 vintage)

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