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Published:  23 July, 2008

Alex Hunt associate director David Searle managing director, Mayfair Cellars, London, SW6, Interview: Josie Butchart

Has the business changed much since Jacquesson bought a controlling share? David: Before Jacquesson took over in 2000, Mayfair Cellars simply bought parcels of wine that represented good value for money and sold them to private customers. Now Mayfair Cellars is an agency-driven business, and that's very different from selling to private clients over the telephone. We've gone from four or five on-trade accounts in 2001, to more than 80 today.

How did you build up on-trade sales? Alex: We have a restaurant specialist, Emmanuel Saunier. We all look after a few accounts but he's the main guy. He is French and very hard working; it takes a lot of effort to develop on-trade accounts.

Does it give him an edge being French? Alex: Without a doubt, because we are targeting top-end restaurants. The idea is to start at the top, the two- and three- [Michelin] star level, and work down. The majority of those sommeliers are French, although there are some notable exceptions. David: There is a strong French sommelier community in London, and it is very useful to have someone on that side of the fence.

What is the key to getting Jacquesson on restaurant lists? David: First of all, the taste: it really is superb. Also the fact that it is not ubiquitous. It's a very small production, which appeals to a lot of people. If you are a very well-known Champagne house, with a big marketing budget, you tend to get into all sorts of outlets. We offer a point of difference. Alex: The non-vintage production is only 20,000 cases, so even if we wanted to sell to multiple retailers we couldn't. When we approach top-end restaurants or specialist retailers they are pleased to see something that will not be subject to heavy discounting.

Do Champagne houses concentrate too much on promotion and marketing? Alex: That depends on your perspective. As far as some houses are concerned, they need to concentrate very heavily on promotional packaging and image because, without a great deal of differentiation in terms of quality, it becomes an emotional purchase. It becomes something like beer - and no one can tell different brands of lager apart. It's about building up a brand's mystique. Making stuff of impeccable quality is just one option open to Champagne houses to differentiate one brand from another. Quality costs money and marketing costs money.

You represent German producer Balthasar Ress. Is it an uphill struggle selling German wine in the UK? Alex: There is resistance, but it's weakening. The wine trade has been saying the Riesling revival is around the corner for about 20 years, so I am loathe to say that again, but we are having a certain amount of success. This year, in terms of bottles sold, Balthasar Ress is number two after Jacquesson for us. A lot of people are scared to try it, but we have a small band of dedicated fans who buy it again and again because they realise it is great value. You can spend 10 on a Rheingau Riesling from a good producer and get something that is the equivalent of village-level Burgundy at 20. You need to find a way to get across the message that Riesling is the greatest white-wine grape in the world. It helps that Australian Riesling is on the market and doing well.

Do your other agencies have a similar philosophy to Jacquesson? Alex: Our Burgundy agency, Alex Gambal, is a very good fit for Jacquesson. Alex is an American who went over to Burgundy about seven years ago to start a 4,500-case-a-year negociant business. Amazingly brave. He didn't just stay close to home, somewhere like the Napa Valley where people speak his language - he decided Beaune was where he wanted to be. He doesn't speak particularly brilliant French, yet he managed to make friends with the community in Burgundy, so he is able to buy a few barrels from really good growers and bottle them under his own name. He knows exactly what the consumer is looking for and that's what he goes out and buys. Burgundy is a potential minefield, but you know that his wines will be a lovely typical style of Burgundy. It will be interesting to see if we can tempt some of the independent wine merchants with this, because you often see very carefully chosen lists with wines from groovy regions, such as Priorat, Margaret River or Sonoma County, and then a bog-standard Champagne that you could get anywhere and Burgundy from a massive negociant. That's a little bit sad. We can offer them something different.

Do you think negociant wines from Burgundy are generally bad value? Alex: It really varies. I did a tasting of 1999 Meursault last year and gave my highest and lowest marks - over a wide range - to wines from the same negociant. I wouldn't say that all negociant Burgundy is dull: I don't think it is. In fact, probably the greatest bottle of wine I've ever tasted was a 1978 Musigny Grand Cru from Joseph Drouhin. But at the same time, there are disappointments.