Staying Interested - Cliff on Wine, Part 2
We're celebrating Roberson Wine's 25th anniversary this week with a series of blog posts. In this post (the second of two parts), our very own Max Margaritoff interviews our very own Cliff Roberson about the last 25 years in wine. Max: How would you describe Roberson Wine? Cliff: Obviously we want to be a lot of things as a company. We want to be professional, we want to be exciting, we want to be all kinds of things, just like the paintings and posters up on our walls. But essentially the goal is always the same, whether it is selling wine at £5 a bottle or selling wine at £500 a bottle. The idea is always that we try to bring good value and excellent service. That is to say we are competitive and very professional within our industry. Max: A lot of articles and interviews about Roberson Wine describe us as different, innovative, daring... Cliff: Somebody asked the other day 'how do you remain or try to remain innovative'. It’s a question that hooked me, and my answer on thinking about it was 'I am interested in being interesting.' So on that basis I am constantly trying to think about things that are interesting to me, and to other people. This might not always be the case, but this is where my motivation and ideas come from. Many business articles say innovation is an essential part of business. I agree, but it can be hard to get the buy in. So I am slightly suspicious of that statement because people think they like innovation and they do in theory, but in practice, fundamentally most people are quite risk averse. They would rather let someone else innovate and then jump on the bandwagon once it looks like the idea will take off. I have done a lot of things over the years that have been quite innovative: our latest adventure is London Cru, London’s first winery. It takes a long time and a lot of investment to see whether something appeals to the public at large. But nevertheless we won’t stop doing it, because that is what we love and it’s what keeps us interested and interesting. Max: As well as starting your own winery in the middle of London, you were a pioneer in sourcing wines from Latin America, have worked in numerous countries and travelled the world, have had several successful wine companies, worked with restaurants, supermarkets and in vineyards. Where do you get your inspiration from? Cliff: I just like doing things that are different and new. I really don’t like doing the same old stuff over again and again and again. That doesn’t really stimulate me. That, to me, is the ultimate attraction: to keep it interesting for myself, because otherwise you just keep repeating the things you did before. Sure, it could be good and satisfying to somebody, but it isn’t particularly interesting to me. Max: Is that perhaps what you like most about Roberson Wine? That you have a platform or a channel where you can do lots of things differently and try out things that interest you? Cliff: Well I like new things and variety of things in almost everything, not just wine. I like that the most about art, about music, about fashion, the books I read. I like to come across things that I am not familiar with. Max: Two more questions and then we are done. We've almost made it! Cliff: Good! [laughs] Max: How are you going to celebrate the 25 year anniversary? Cliff: I will have a nice glass of Bordeaux. Max: Any preference? Cliff: Something old. Max: There is an office rumour that Chateau Latour might be a contender... Cliff: Well I like a few things [laughs]. I don’t know. I would probably have some red Bordeaux from 1961 vintage because that was one of the first vintages I sold when I went to Bordeaux in 1964, and it was a great year too. There are some fantastic examples, and I think it will be around that type of vintage. What it will be I don’t know yet. Max: What would be that headline that you would most like to read about yourself or Roberson Wine? Cliff: 'He's a good wine merchant.' I like to be good at what I do, and this is what I do. I have been doing it for over 60 years.
25 Years of Change - Cliff on Wine, Part 1
We're celebrating Roberson Wine's 25th anniversary this week with a series of blog posts. In this post (the first of two parts), our very own Max Margaritoff interviews our very own Cliff Roberson about the last 25 years in wine. Max: Hi Cliff, first of all, congratulations on 25 Years for Roberson Wine! Can we by any chance expect another rap from you in the form of an anniversary edition? Cliff: No, next question [laughs]. Unless I get inspiration, I don’t think there will be another one, but who knows... Max: How did Roberson Wine come in to being? Cliff: Because I am a wine merchant and I have been doing this all my life. It was a natural progression, almost like an evolutionary process. There was no other outcome than me doing my own thing under my own name. Max: Why London? Cliff: Well I worked and lived in New York for four years, and got to a point where it came down to the question of whether I wanted to be British or American. And I decided I didn’t want to be American. I got married in NYC and it’s a place I could easily have continued to live and probably done very well in. But I decided that was not who I am. So I came back to the more complicated lifestyles of Europe and England. Max: Preparing for our anniversary we went through some old pictures and price lists at the office. Seeing Bordeaux prices so much lower 25 years ago, what are some of the biggest changes you have witnessed over the past 25 years in the wine industry? Cliff: As you said, fine wine prices are probably one of the biggest developments. Fine wine in the past 20 years became something of a commodity to invest in. I think they called it SWAG. Silver, Wine, Art, Gold. It completely changed the relationship wine had with the market, and let’s be honest, with today’s state of things it will continue being an investment and a commodity. That’s not to say that the romance is totally dead: drinking a superb bottle of fine wine with friends is one of life’s great pleasures. In the wine market I have witnessed the introduction of ‘appellation d'origine contrôlée’. Wine is now controlled and governed. That was a big game changer. Before that, there were wines such as Spanish Burgundy or Spanish Chablis sold and consumed [laughs]. Which is now completely forbidden, and quite rightly so. Now you get a much more authentic product. Another big shift has been the move towards the New World. Sure, it was around 25 years ago, but by no means in the same way as it is now. Chile, New Zealand and so on, the countries that are providing a lot of the background in volume sales. Australia has also been at the forefront of wine innovation, particularly recently, in their marketing to turn young people on to wine. And linked to that is the ability to make inexpensive wine very drinkable. So cheap wine used to taste very cheap. Today less expensive wine can taste very decent and provide a lot of drinking pleasure. There is now a huge choice of wine in supermarkets and we have seen a huge increase in wine consumption across all classes as a result of it. Max: Is it fair to say that people now are less intimidated by wine in a way too now? That it isn’t necessarily an exclusive luxury product anymore? Cliff: Yes. And another big change has been in the identification of grape varieties on labels. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay have become a brand in their own right. Knowing the grape variety will tell the average consumer much more about the taste of the wine than the region it came from. Take Chardonnay, it was in fashion, then out, and now it is right back in favour as consumers realise what great complexity and variety it can have. People are now learning about what they are drinking, what is inside the bottle. Before it was much more oblique. Max: Staying on the topic of changes, what is scarier: Bordeaux prices today or the hype around online and the internet? Cliff: I don’t think either of them are scary [laughs]. That’s how the market is, and it is the job of a good merchant to respond to the conditions that prevail. We have done, and always will adjust ourselves according to circumstances. We have been through a lot of things, changes and difficulties in the last 25 years and these won’t stop now. Things like Brexit, for example. It really has nothing to do with us, but nevertheless will create a situation that is beyond our control. But we have to work as well as we can within that situation and if we are nimble and innovative we can flourish. Max: And on a more personal note, do you remember the first wine you sold? Your first big order? Cliff: Well, I remember the first wine I drank. Max: Which was..? Cliff: Which was absolutely horrible [laughs]. It was a red Bordeaux, and they called it something like Claret. It was six shillings a bottle and tasted like ink. And I thought it was awful. I was 16 and in my mind I thought wine would taste like port. I thought it would be sweet and voluptuous, so this was a big disappointment. It obviously didn’t taste anything like it. I lived in Bordeaux and had so many experiences that my taste changed over the years. And I remember my first big order too. It was quite exciting for me back then. It was 100,000 cases of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, which was meant for a Christmas promotion. We are talking about a shipment in excess of one million bottles. And how we arrived at the deal was very funny and satisfying [laughs]. That was great. Max: Are you allowed to share how you arrived at that deal or is that highly classified? Cliff: When I did the calculations it came to $17.45 (per case), but they thought that I was telling the time [laughs]. It was ridiculous, so I burst out laughing. I had just tried to make the biggest deal I ever tried to make, and there they were misconstruing the value as the time. But the deal was done and it was good fun. It was fantastic. And that was just at the beginning of the Chilean wine industry, when Chilean wine began to be discovered, and I was very much involved in it. A really fun time. Max: This year we won the Online Retailer of the Year Award, beating some big names. Where do you see Roberson in 25 years’ time? Cliff: Well I know where I would like it to be. I would like it to be a well-respected, professional, interesting, profitable company that people like to buy from and that people like to work for. Or work with. I like people to be happy in what they do and I am not one of those bosses that purely employ people to pay them as little as possible and exploit. Money is not, and that sounds like a cliché, but it is not that important to me. The game is much more interesting. Part 2 of this interview will be published on Friday 25th November.
25 years in wine
We're celebrating Roberson Wine's 25th anniversary this week with a series of blog posts. In this post, Matteo looks back on 25 years in wine. 1991. John Major was PM, the Soviet Union was breaking up, the internet was born, pagers were all the rage, Phil Collins and Erasure were in the charts (ah, the good old days) – and, yes, Roberson Wine opened its doors. While Gordon Ramsay was learning classic French cuisine with the likes of Guy Savoy and Robuchon, I was finishing my army service to return to a job at the restaurant I’d left 12 months earlier. Globalization hadn’t quite kicked in either and our wines were from Collio and Carso producers no more than 30km from the restaurant. We already had a range of lively wines on tap though – it’s remarkable that 25 years later I’m selling wine on tap again; life really has come full circle. The UK restaurant trade was very different than it is today; it was a time when a three course dinner at a top Mayfair restaurant would set you back £80 including wine and service. Mind you, not many people in England would have been able to pay that kind of money; not because they didn’t want to, but because there were only seven Michelin restaurants in the whole of England. To my view the most inspiring figure in the restaurant trade was my first UK employer, Sir Terence Conran. For sure we had legends working their magic in the kitchen: chefs like Raymond Blanc, the Roux brothers, Marco Pierre White, Koffmann, to name but a few, but they were focusing on very high end, very formal dining. No one else opened the door to fine dining to the masses; Sir Terence was arguably the instigator of the huge movement we take for granted today – high-end casual dining. Without his vision the restaurant trade in the UK would be a very different place today. In those days wine lists in restaurants were very different too. My list was 60% French to 20% Italian, with the rest of the world fighting for the remaining 20%. There was no Greek, no eastern European, no Austrian wines. Picpoul de Pinet was falling out of favour against wines like Pinot Grigio and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which were about to flood the market. Cava and Prosecco were almost unheard of. I remember those days very fondly as back then wine lovers with a low budgets were still able to afford (on a sharing basis) wines made by world’s best producers. Looking at wine lists then and today one thing is clear; inflation does not work in the same way with everything. With the help of one of the best chef sommeliers in the country I managed to dig out an old wine list and here is how prices compare to today’s: You could do many things with a time machine but visiting restaurants to ransack the wine cellar is probably not in your top ten priorities. But remember, if you ever do manage to crack time travel, let me know. Lunch will be on me.
Following Julien Sunier’s stopover in London, Max caught up with him for the blog to talk about his beautiful Beaujolais. Max: What do you look for in a good wine? Julien: Every wine has its own character. I love drinking wines like Ploussard, so for my own wines I also prefer to go for a lighter, more feminine style. What I love is freshness and balance. I really can’t think of anything better than a wine that shows its fruit unmasked. If you try the Morgon or Fleurie you will see a pure expression of Gamay and the granitic soils it’s grown in. Max: All of your wines are organic, which is something I really love. How much time do you spend in the vineyards as a winegrower and how much as a winemaker in the winery? Do you prefer one over the other? Julien: I really enjoy every single aspect of being a winemaker! I love being in the vineyards taking care of the grapes, as much as being in the winery making the final wine. However considering you only really spend one month in the year in the winery making wine, I must admit that being out in the vineyards caring for the vines and the land is what I really love the most. I would consider myself foremost a vine grower, then a winemaker. Max: I know that we recently got your 2015s in. What can people expect of the 2015 vintage? Julien: 2015 was a great year. We had about eight months of sunshine. The dry and sunny weather meant no diseases and very healthy, ripe grapes. Our harvest was almost a month earlier than in 2014, so the wines will still have a great balance and finesse, but are slightly more masculine than the 2014s. Max: One thing that comes through when tasting your wines are the different characters of Morgon and Fleurie. If you could describe their personalities, what would they be? Julien: Difficult question, because even within Morgon and Fleurie we have different plots of land that all have a slightly different character. It really comes down to the terroir. Fleurie is quite rocky, and the wines have that extra bit of minerality I find. There is also a distinctively floral aroma in the Fleurie, mainly violets. The Morgon plots on the other hand have deeper soils. One plot is quite unique in that it has a spring underneath. The wines here are more savoury and slightly bigger than with Fleurie. Max: There is a really positive movement in Beaujolais at the moment, with lots of great quality wines coming out of the region. We have had more and more people interested in the wines and you have received a lot of praise from renowned wine critics. What do you think about the developments in Beaujolais? Where do you see the region in the next few years? Julien: It is amazing to think that I am still considered as a pioneer in Beaujolais looking for quality instead of quantity. But the developments make me optimistic and proud in what we do. It sets an example for others as well. We have great terroir, Gamay is a wonderful grape, and people are curious. There is nothing more satisfying to see an empty bottle on a table in a restaurant in London, New York City or in France. I also think Beaujolais has a great future ahead. The conceptions about Gamay are changing and there is no reason why the best and most exciting restaurants shouldn’t stock the wines, and why Beaujolais can’t be part of a cellar collection. I hope that more people will start making organic wines - so far merely 3% of people are farming organically in Beaujolais and I’m one of them. I don’t judge other farming principles, but when I started growing vines I wanted to do it in the cleanest and most environmentally-friendly way. Max: Do you have any favourite dish to pair with your wine? Julien: I think the wines are extremely versatile with food. What I really love though is its sappiness and easy going style without ever being boring. You don’t need food. You can open a wine and simply have a glass without having to worry what to eat it with!
Mon Plaisir and Roberson - 25 Years
We're celebrating Roberson Wine's 25th anniversary this week with a series of blog posts. In this post, Laurence looks back on 25 years of selling wine to London's oldest French restaurant. Mon Plaisir, the oldest French restaurant in London, has been a loyal customer of Roberson Wine for 25 Years, and I've been working with them from the beginning. It is family-run, and it sometimes feels as though I have become a sort of relative, sharing the emotions of the family as the restaurant has developed. Soon after I started supplying the owner, Alain Lhermitte, I found out what it was that he looked for in a supplier. As well as excellent wine, it helped that we both had an interest in cars. Our distribution was done by our own vans from a warehouse in Slough, and it was common practice at busy times of the year for me to deliver their wines myself. It went down especially well with Alain and his staff when I used to turn up in my then company car, a 1950s Citroen Traction Avant. It certainly attracted a lot of attention when parked outside the restaurant. Mon Plaisir started as one outlet but as time passed it grew to five, including a central kitchen which supplied other restaurants. As the business expanded and other family members grew up, it was only natural that they took on the responsibility of running the various outlets. As further time has passed and various things have changed, Mon Plaisir has reverted back to the one and only original restaurant in WC2. This is now run by Alain’s son Philippe and daughter Valerie, giving Alain himself the chance to step back from the day to day running. Looking back over the last 25 years of this relationship, what strikes me is how technology has evolved in the working of the restaurant and how we communicate. From how orders are received by ourselves - originally by land line phone, by fax, mobile phone and now by email - to how the waiting staff pass the customer orders to the kitchen - everything used to be hand-written, now it is all electronic with stock levels instantly adjusted and bills automatically produced. What hasn’t changed is the high standard of service Mon Plaisir gives their customers, initiated by Alain and carried on by Philippe and Valerie. As for wine - from the start we supplied the Mon Plaisir house wines and a range of others from various regions. Although the actual wines and the presentation has changed, with some now under screwcap, I am pleased to say that we still supply the house wines and a host of others to complement the list. Wine has been a catalyst in a long relationship between Roberson Wine and Mon Plaisir. I am sure it will continue for at least another 25 years.
Interview with Sophie from Franc Cardinal
Following her visit to London last week, Marion spoke to Sophie from Château Franc Cardinal for the blog. Marion: Hi Sophie, it was lovely to have you here in London. Given it was the first time you’ve visited our offices in London, what were your first impressions? Sophie: It was very refreshing! The team is young, dynamic and professional. You step in and you immediately feel that the chemistry works there. What’s more the level of wine knowledge is really high and it is very comforting to know that your wine has been chosen as part of the portfolio. Marion: How do you think the English market is different to France or other places you export to worldwide? Sophie: I don’t know if it’s that different, but the atmosphere is quite unique: There is an incredible energy in London which you feel immediately and that’s what I like about it. I am positive England can be a key place for us. Plus it’s a good opportunity to get a good dose of English humour from time to time! Marion: What drew you to work in wine in the first place? Sophie: I started out in Cognac, which isn’t too different from wine. Like most French people, my family drunk wine with every meal, so I grew to love it from an early age. I liked wine so much that I started going to wine classes to find out more - our teacher must have been pretty good as the whole class decided to go into something wine-related. My husband Philip and I later purchased our own vineyard, but we had some time beforehand to figure out what we did and didn’t like. Marion: Why did you choose to set up your winery in Francs Côtes de Bordeaux? Sophie: We looked around a lot of different places, but Francs Côtes de Bordeaux was perfect for us. It’s excellently located, just a short distance from both St. Emilion and Pomerol. Not only is the terroir here fantastic here as you’d expect, but the surrounding countryside is magical as well. We fell in love with the cherry-tinted aromas and the smoothness of the tannins in the wines produced here. They were just amazing! Marion: What are your priorities for the coming year? Sophie: Spending time in the vineyard making Franc Cardinal! We’ve been farming organically for 6 years now and we are very happy with the results. We’ve had a great response to the wines which goes to show that Bordeaux is not just about big names and big prices. I think our wine shows that we can offer something fantastic for a very fair price. We just have to get that message out there and let people see what great wines our little vineyard can produce.
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