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The Interview - Roger Harris & Clare Montgomery, Owner and sales/marketing director, Roger Harris Wines

Published:  23 July, 2008

How did you get into the wine business?
A friend of mine used to ship Peugeot cars to East Africa, and the only wine that he drank was Beaujolais. I trained as an engineer at Loughborough and went to Peugeot in Sochaux, on the Swiss border, not far from Alsace. I then joined Lotus, but it was the time of the three-day week, and it was all pretty grim. We used to sit in our overcoats shivering in the winter because there was no fuel. At that stage there was very little future in the motor industry that I could see, so I decided to start my own business.

But why wine, specifically?

At that time, the wine business was growing considerably and consumption was moving from beer towards wine. I decided early on that there were quite a lot of middle-of-the-road wine merchants and what we really needed to do was to specialise in something. Beaujolais was the obvious thing. Sochaux was a very industrial town. Its main interests, other than producing Peugeots, were football and cycling, neither of which held a lot for me, so I started to look at different wine regions. I was not wildly enamoured with Alsace, and was more interested in Burgundy. Eventually I went south and found that Beaujolais had a much less stilted approach.

You have described Alsatians as austere and Burgundians as self-important. How do you feel about people from Beaujolais?

I was pretty strong with my opinions in those days Im far more malleable now! A lot of Burgundians were quite pretentious in those days thats the people, not necessarily the wines whereas the people in Beaujolais were much more approachable, friendly and welcoming. I have since developed a lot of friends in Burgundy and Alsace!

How did the business take shape?

I used to do all the deliveries myself I would shoot down to London, shell all the stuff out and rush around trying to collect cheques. When we got the Waitrose order for Beaujolais Nouveau, it was on the basis that we would deliver to every store, and there were about 100! Fortunately, I had a lorry with a sleeper cabinet, and so I would deliver five cases at a time all around the south of England. It was absolutely mad, but I felt I was flying the flag for Beaujolais. We used to have a lot of lorries waiting at the cellars at midnight. Once, a whole lot of English drivers were there and they all got drunk. At the cellars, with the French, its no big deal they offer the driver a drink but to the English its Oh! Free booze! That caused a lot of trouble, so I decided to get an HGV licence.

What was the perception of Beaujolais 30 years ago?

A lot of Beaujolais was bottled in London, and so the style was very different from the wines that I knew. I set about trying to convert people to the fact that it should be much lighter. People who knew a little bit more would buy the crus, but then the crus were generally perceived as Burgundy, so there wasnt much knowledge on the part of the consumer.

Its had a tough time of it lately, too&

Beaujolais swings in and out of fashion I think that its slightly in fashion at the moment. The trouble with Beaujolais growers is that every time Beaujolais is vaguely in fashion, they get greedy and put the prices up, and people wont pay them! We had a succession of tremendous vintages leading up to the millennium, but since then, theres been very little opportunity to get it right. 2003 was a pretty good vintage but was very small and, because the vintage is small, the growers seem to feel they have a right to raise prices to compensate for the lack of quantity.

And Nouveau sales have all but disappeared, havent they?

Nouveau was a PR thing and has completely collapsed in the UK (though not worldwide). Through Paul Sapin [a ngociant bought by Harris specialising in quarter bottles that has its own bottling line], we sell strongly in Europe and very strongly in Japan, but in the UK thats not the case. Unfortunately, the quality of wine that was sold as Nouveau in the UK was very poor, as a generalisation, and people were put off it.

Was it a wrench to relax your Beaujolais-only policy?

It was an opening of my eyes; I had been so blinkered. There are some Sauvignon Blancs from the New World that I really love, as well as Shirazes and Pinotages. The thing I absolutely hate are those oaked Chardonnays. Some of the customers didnt like the switch. We tried to protect the ones we perceived as totally Beaujolais people. The others, who understood our approach, were happy to go with our recommendations.

Any plans to grow grapes on the farm?

There are properties with vines only about 10 miles away, but Ive never been interested in having my own vineyard or buying a property in Beaujolais, because Ive always felt that Beaujolais should be produced by the people who live there.

Will Beaujolais always be your first love?

There is no other wine in the world that compares with the fragrance and easy-drinking characteristics of a good, young Beaujolais. I dont feel a philanthropic need to promote a wine region. Although I drink mainly Beaujolais at home, I dont bathe in it!

Roger Harris Wines, Loke Farm, Weston Longville, Norfolk NR9 5LG. Tel: 01603 880171

Thirty years ago, engineer Roger Harris and his wife, Mary, set up their own wine business, specialising in Beaujolais. The company now has an annual turnover of 2 million and has more than 80 Beaujolais wines available for mail order. Three years ago, on the advice of his daughter Clare, who works on the sales and marketing side, he added New World wines to the list. In 2004, his company was named Specialist Merchant of the Year in the International Wine Challenge