Want Top Wines from Napa? Buy from Bordeaux

La Place de Bordeaux, a traditional network of négociants, has become a major player in international fine wine

Want Top Wines from Napa? Buy from Bordeaux
Many of Bordeaux's négociant offices are near La Place de Bourse, not to be confused with La Place de Bordeaux, which is not an actual place at all. (Dominique REPERANT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jul 18, 2022

The announcements came from different wine regions on different continents, but the message was the same. Last week, both Favia in Napa Valley and Allegrini in Valpolicella announced that some of their wines would now be sold and distributed around the world not by local merchants but by the French négociants of La Place de Bordeaux.

A remarkable transformation is underway on La Place. Dozens of foreign wines—which is to say, wines not produced in Bordeaux—are now being sold by négociants who work through the Bordeaux marketplace during two annual sales campaigns, one held each September and another in March. These include iconic wines like Bill Harlan's Promontory from Napa, Jackson Family's Vérité from Sonoma, Oregon's Beaux Frères, Champagne Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses, Will Berliner's Cloudburst and Jim Barry's The Armagh Shiraz from Australia, and super Tuscans like Colore from Bibi Graetz, Masseto and Solaia.

This development, which began cautiously a few years ago, has gained momentum. And it puts Bordeaux at the global crossroads of fine wines. Those involved believe it's good for winemakers, consumers and La Place. "It's a win-win-win situation. Or else it wouldn't be happening," Mathieu Chadronnier, president of CVBG, a leading négociant, tells Wine Spectator.

"To be sold by some of the most well-respected négociants opens The Armagh up to more markets around the world and gives it credibility as a great wine," said Sam Barry, commercial manager for his family's Aussie wine company. "Australian wine is still underrepresented on the global fine wine stage, so being on La Place is not only a breakthrough for The Armagh, it is a breakthrough for fine Australian wine."

Chadronnier believes it's part of a shrinking wine world. "The concentration of knowledge and experience that this enables is quite fascinating—the relationships it creates—and it contributes to making the world of fine wine 'one.' [It’s] interesting, exciting, and thought-provoking."

Where is this place?

Despite the name, La Place is not a specific spot. It's a marketplace and distribution network made up of more than 300 négociants who sell to markets in more than 170 countries. The top châteaus of Bordeaux have never sold direct. Instead, a network of courtiers, or brokers, make deals between the château owners and the négociants as futures are released. The négociants distribute the wine to buyers around the world, quickly and efficiently for the most part. While the top wineries have upped their marketing game in recent decades, they leave sales and distribution to La Place.

The marketplace is resilient and agile. That's why it's been dealing in wine for 800 years. That kind of longevity requires the ability to adapt to new circumstances like wars and tariffs and pandemics, and the drive to open new markets, such as emerging ones in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Andy Erickson and Annie Favia]
Andy Erickson and Annie Favia announced recently that their wines will be distributed on La Place. (Tai Power Seeff)

Until 24 years ago, La Place never sold a wine made outside Bordeaux. The late Philippine de Rothschild of Château Mouton-Rothschild put the 1996 vintage of her Chilean wine project, Almaviva, on La Place in 1998. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. "It was unequally accepted by different parties," says Chadronnier diplomatically.

It would be another six years before Opus One, Mouton's Napa collaboration with Robert Mondavi Winery, also hit La Place. And even longer before any wines without a Bordeaux connection began to be sold.

So why now?

Suffice to say, attitudes have changed. Bordeaux is thriving, open and cosmopolitan.

The hundreds of négociants trading on La Place have their own specialties. And because La Place has always devoted some of its energy to selling rare and sought-after wines, it has a vast and intricate distribution network that reaches shops, restaurants and buyers for collectors around the globe. There is no other place in the world where a single wine can be sold to so many countries and submarkets within those countries in a single day.

"[The Bordeaux négociants] are absolute masters at delivering even small quantities of top-quality wine in many different markets, even far-away ones, in perfect conditions," says Vianney Gravereaux, sales and marketing director for Masseto.

Take the last sales campaign in March. The Harlan family's Promontory Napa Valley 2016 "sold out on the release day to hundreds of merchants worldwide," says Jean-Quentin Prats, CEO of Joanne Rare Wines, which has been a major player in selling "foreign" wines at La Place. Prats sells more than 100 non-Bordeaux wines.

It's worth taking a moment to consider that none of this would be happening if the world of fine wine hadn't grown in the past 50 years. While Bordeaux has been a top name for centuries, wineries in other countries and emerging regions have stormed the luxury market. The target consumers for these wines are the same.

"I don't know anyone who only drinks Napa; I don't anyone who only drinks Bordeaux or Burgundy or Barolo or Tuscany," says Chadronnier. "Fine wine consumers may have regions of choice but they consume and enjoy wines from a wide variety of regions and countries. It makes sense that all these wines be distributed through the same channels."

Charles Philipponnat was the first Champagne producer contacted by La Place and he immediately saw the potential. "It's an extension of our policies, not a fundamental change," says Philipponnat, who began releasing his house's Clos des Goisses on La Place a few years ago. "It allows us to reach many specialist merchants with smaller quantities than a big importer would normally take and this means we reach more individuals who enjoy these kinds of wines."

The Clos des Goisses release in September was so successful that Philipponnat decided to release their even rarer Clos des Goisses LV during the March campaign. It sold through almost immediately, says Philipponnat.

Bibi Graetz]
Bibi Graetz found that La Place has allowed him to reach consumers in many more markets than he could alone.

For smaller wineries, La Place can be a game-changer. From his vineyard in Tuscany, Bibi Graetz had been trying to enter La Place for several years, but there was no obvious route. He felt he'd taken distribution as far as he could go, but needed a different business model to reach the next level. "I was alone with one person helping me," he told Wine Spectator. "We managed to cover really well five markets. We had a total of 24 countries—and 24 customers."

Then an introduction put him in contact with the right négociant partners. "We started selling our wines on La Place five years ago with the 2015 vintage," says Graetz. "Now we have 700 importers and more than 60 countries. It's a dream. La Place is fascinating, very sophisticated."

Graetz is a good example of how La Place acts as an accelerator for brands that already have strong recognition in the wine business and among connoisseurs.

"I've always been very much convinced of La Place de Bordeaux and its enormous capacity to build on the width of the distribution when a brand already has a certain amount of recognition," says Alexander Van Beek, general manager of Château Giscours and the super Tuscan winery Caiarossa. He and his team put the 2013 vintage of Caiarossa on La Place in 2015, working with 15 négociants.

"La Place is not a brand builder. But it really helps to increase the visibility of the brand in markets," he says. "La Place is strong at capitalizing on the huge market connections that they have in countries where individually you would not be able to sell because it would be too time-consuming and too expensive."

Will Berliner]
Will Berliner produces his Cloudburst from Margaret River in Australia, but has found global distribution through La Place.

It's not just win-win for the négociants and winemakers. There are pluses for collectors too, says Van Beek. "There are two big advantages with working with La Place. First is the open market. The margins taken in distribution will be lower than with an exclusive contract, so the end consumer gets a better deal. Second, La Place de Bordeaux will always give a valuation of a specific brand in correlation with the vintage. So, if you're a collector and you want a value for your wine, you'll have a direct vision from La Place, which is a financial market."

Bertrand Steip, president of Moët Hennessy's Estates & Wines, producer of Ao Yun, concurs: "La Place de Bordeaux can be seen as the Wall Street of fine wines." Putting their Chinese wine on La Place "sends a clear message regarding our ambition to make a great wine at Ao Yun, and ensures we can reach wine aficionados around the world."

So what does it take for a foreign wine to be accepted on La Place? Quality, story, reputation and, in many cases, rarity.

Berliner's Cloudburst is a minuscule, hands-on production from Australia's Margaret River. "Cloudburst demands my full attention and previously required me to drop my vigneron hat several times a year to venture out to bring it to the world," says Berliner. "It was somewhat taxing, and I often dreamed of the time where someone else would properly represent Cloudburst so that I could focus on the vines and wines." He began selling his wine on La Place in 2020 and says it feels natural. "In retrospect it seems logical that it would end up on La Place—from inception, my focus has been on producing fine wine," says Berliner.

And maybe it was logical for Bordeaux to extend its expertise to foreign wines.

What's less clear is what the long-term ramifications will be as Bordeaux grows and consolidates distribution of the best-known fine and rare wines.

"It's a fascinating development in Bordeaux. I think it's part of Bordeaux reinventing itself," says Chadronnier. "But it goes beyond business. It reinforces what makes fine wine unique in terms of the sense of place and time. There is no product other than wine that has this rapport with place and time. And bringing together all of these landscapes and human histories and experiences and styles and aspirations is very exciting."

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