Tom Portet works with great wines to get them listed on La Place in Bordeaux. He tells Areni how this venerable system works.
Tom Portet is co-founder of International First Growths, an Australian-based broker introducing wines to La Place in Bordeaux. La Place is one of the oldest and most prestigious wine distribution networks in the world, which distributes find wine to global markets. Becoming listed on the Place is often a sign that a wine has achieved fine wine status. International First Growths helps producers navigate the often complex world of Bordeaux. Co-founder Emma Thienpont is based in Bordeaux.
The below transcript has been shortened and edited for clarity. To hear the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
Tell us a bit about your company and what you do; most importantly, why you thought it was important to create that company at the time you did it.
We started around five years ago. At the time I was a Bordeaux buyer for Australia’s largest Bordeaux buyer at the time. And we knew the work going on with La Place and its international wines and thought: Why not? Why not Australia? We had a unique position that we knew so much about Australian wine. Why wouldn’t we bring our wines to La Place when the Place was just starting to get interested in international wines. At the time it was called Australian First Growth. In the five years since it’s become International First Growth, with great wines from Spain, Chile, New Zealand, Australia of course, and now Oregon. The Place is an incredible place to trade and to work.
So how many wines do you work with?
Nine wines, so quite a broad portfolio.
If I can summarise: your job is to curate wines that you think are of the level of quality and then to find them representation on La Place and find them distribution?
Yes. A starting point is: What have they got? How does it present itself in the world of fine wine? Its typicity, history and track record are important. How has it gone on the secondary markets? It’s key that the people behind the wines are as just as competent as the wines themselves.
Why La Place?
It’s a great question, particularly in the Australian/New Zealand context, because we have so many Southeast Asian trading companies that are very tactical and strategically very sound. But La Place is probably the one truly global network and one that has a long history and track record of delivering for customers. So by going to La Place you’re really opening many, many more markets and you’re accessing markets that you might not otherwise be able to do from this side of the world. I’m in Victoria, Australia, so it’s not easy to get to places that La Place does. They have wrapped themselves around the world like nobody else.
La Place is probably the one truly global networkTom Portet
Does the distribution network actually gives you the status of fine wine?
Yes, I think producers are [most excited about] the recognition that comes along with being on the Place. The danger is that you become a flash in the pan and your inaugural release gives you the articles and the interest and the reviews that you’re looking for. But this is the role of courtier. The negotiants we work with are looking for decades-long partnerships. So the recognition is fine in year one, but really everything is geared towards what we’re doing in years five to 10. It’s the quality of the distribution that you’re getting from La Place that makes it special.
When you work with an estate, you’re not putting all their wines or all their production through the Place. From any given estate, it’s usually the higher end going through the Place.
There are probably two things that drive us here. One is the laser-like focus of the negociants on a wine which doesn’t quite fit within the New World model. A new one for us is Yalumba The Octavius, which we’ll launch this year. The capability of that business is to produce hundreds of different wines, and we are talking about one of their wines, the Octavius, which is a Shiraz from very, very old vines. So that sets a template for this vine quality for what we are looking for, which is structure and length in terms of its palate weight and typicity of fruit.
So you still have the Bordeaux palate that has been collectively shaped by seeing the greatest wine of the world coming through. Tell me about how you work with the wineries?
I’d say it takes about three years, which is probably a testament to the long game that the Place requires to be successful. It’s a lot of conversations. A key part of our job is to build confidence with the producers we’re working with that we can be trusted, that the negociant system can be trusted and that their clients are worthy of their wines. So it’s a long-drawn-out process of building trust and faith in the work we do.
We’re looking for that unique product that has a fit. From that point, we’ll start a discussion with negociants. It’s entirely matchmaking.
Not all wines go through the Place. They still have some bottles they keep for local cellars.
That’s correct. Typically they have a very strong cellar door; these wines are desirable. On top of that there’s efficiency. We’re certainly not promoting selling wine into Bordeaux and then bringing it back to the mother country. It’s unethical. But generally, you want to go into a negotiation and have the confidence to say you are the exclusive international distributor of this wine.
How does distribution the retailers, the restaurants — is there a risk that winemakers will lose their current supporters because they have an extra middleman to go through?
Well, it’s worse than that, because you’re asking them to allow their competitors to buy the wine because it’s an open market.
Of course, you could probably negotiate this, but it makes it trickier. But if you walk down the street and there are five shops on the high street, do you want to be in one shop or do you want to be in all five? And of course there’s less volume in all five, but the customer walking down the street is going to see your wine. So the exposure increases and it requires the producer to then have a relationship with all five shops rather than just the one. It takes a huge amount of commitment and it’s why there really aren’t that many wines suitable for entry.
[Going through la Place] takes a huge amount of commitment and it’s why there really aren’t that many wines suitable for entry.Tom Portet
Can you think of examples of wines that have lost their follower base?
Certainly none of our wines have moved backwards and I’d hate to discuss others, but I think when you have too much of the same type of wines, that’s probably when it becomes a problem. It takes so much time to educate, because we’re talking to people in Bordeaux, most of whom who have never traveled to places like Australia or New Zealand, although we appreciate it when they do come. We have to be very, very focused in terms of ‘does this have a story that’s typical to the history of the place?’.
How do you measure success? When do you know that a new wine introduced on the Place has been successful?
Well, I hope we never rest in trying to find success. Really, success is building on one year to the next. I think what most of our brands like to see is an ongoing commitment from the previous clients and then building upon that as well. We’re looking to build the connections.
As a winery, I want to be in these countries and I want to be in these particular places. Can you come with wish lists? Or is it just, ‘Take my wine and distribute it wherever you think it should go?’
Sometimes you get that. But we build priority lists, both regional and channel based. Within that matrix we force the producers to engage with media that are affecting those channels or those regions. If you would like to be big in Switzerland, then go and speak to Peter Keller. If you want to be big in the UK, then obviously engage with Jancis Robinson. It’s not ‘here’s my wine, good luck’.
What we probably look for is that in the whole chain — from producer to negociants to retailer —everybody is earning their share. We’re trying to make sure everybody can survive on the margins that the wine can deliver for each part of the system.
We’re trying to make sure everybody can survive on the margins that the wine can deliver for each part of the system.Tom Portet
How do you benchmark for the price? Where do you start?
There’s so much information about price. Wine Searcher, Liv-ex and general search. You can get so much information from listings.
Do you compare in terms of tasting? Do you taste your client’s wines and say, ‘in terms of style and quality, it benchmarks with this chateau’?
No. The world, especially La Place, has moved on from comparing Cabernet from Australia with Cabernet from Bordeaux. We’re really at a point now of maturity where they’re now their own benchmark and we have the critics to thank for that as well. People like Jane Anson who’s just visited us — she’s very aware of what a good Australian Chardonnay is and clear about the difference between that and a great white Burgundy. We have more access to these wines than we did 30 years ago.
The world, especially La Place, has moved on from comparing Cabernet from Australia with Cabernet from Bordeaux.Tom Portet
There’s a criticism that it’s good to have international wineries coming on the Place because it gives you benchmark and diversity, but the pitfall is that the negociants lose focus; they now have a hundred more wines to develop when there’s not a lot in common between those wines. How do you see that criticism?
It’s very exciting for the sales teams and for their customers. Now somebody in Mongolia who never had access, can now access a 100, or 200 new wines from La Place. As long as the negociants can manage their ability to take in information and manage their sales teams, then it’s only adding value to the Place’s position.
If you want to be successful on the secondary market, up till now there were only three great varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So what’s the future for wines that are not made of those three major grape varieties?
I think it’s a fantastic opportunity. There’s no question that it’s coming. More and more diversity will come. But I think the definition of a great wine therefore comes into question — what is it that makes it great? Will this be appreciated? Will it get the recognition it deserves?
What are the do’s and don’ts of La Place?
Ask yourself 10 times if you really want to do this. And I think you really need to list the reasons you’re doing it and understand why you’re doing it and read about. They have to be extremely sure that that’s the direction they want to go, and have extreme awareness of the wines already there and why they’re successful. How long did it take them to be successful? If it was easy then everyone would do it. And I can assure you it’s very, very hard; making great wine is not negotiable. It takes a long time and it’s hard and you have to show up every day in all parts of the business
What you shouldn’t do?
I think you really have to have the ambition to want to go into lots of markets and be willing to support lots of markets. And I guess if you’re not willing to make that effort, if you’re not willing to meet people and engage with people and talk about your wine, then it’s extremely hard to do.
You’ve mentioned those influential tasters, but they’ve also had their role challenged. Who cares about scores? Who cares about critics? Can you address that?
Yeah, I think they’re massively important because they are incredibly well educated. They are so well exposed to all of these wines, so they know what’s special in a wine story. The right independent critic gives fantastic feedback on how the wines are going, and often in a commercial sense, they really tap into the consumer side. In Australia, we have the Australian wine show system, which is extremely valuable in terms of critique of wines about what the internal industries thinks about your wines.
Do you see scores affecting the price?
It comes back to the matchmaking — if you have a customer who is very much about choosing wines with the high scores.
Do wineries wait to receive scores?
No, we don’t really. While the critic scores are important, I don’t think you can build a long-term business on that because it’s quite hard to achieve. But it’s still very important and we appreciate the validation of critics.
You mentioned earlier that you are broker more than a courtier. Can you explain what each of those would be?
It’s difficult, because different words have different meanings in different countries. But I would say that International First Growth is like a courtier, plus we can broker the deal. We can sit in the middle to make everybody agree. We manage the shipping.
The wines arrive in Bordeaux and stay under the concession system, and the negociant will get the allocation, meaning the negociant will buy the wines once they are in Bordeaux. The big difference with you being so far away is that you can’t risk taking wines to Bordeaux with no buyers. You have to shake hands and make sure that each of those bottles are allocated when they arrive in Bordeaux.
Yes, exactly. The risk is so much bigger when you have to move wine from the other side of the world. On top of that, there’s an environmental impact of moving wine around the world.
In terms of making money, is it a percentage of the bottle sold? What’s the business model?
Yes, per bottle. We operate in six packs.
Is there any system or process that can be put in place in order to ensure that the transaction is right and fair?
It’s like any purchase, whether you’re buying a car or wine or flowers — there’s a lot of trust involved. We have very advanced and multiple line calculators to work out how it’s going to arrive and in what condition, and then the expectations of negociants. But everything we do is built on trust. Everybody in the system has input, and there’s mutual respect right through.
The system really asks you to stick to your lanes. Your job is to make great wine, and then your second job is to enjoy that with customers. And the negociants are very clear that their job then is to sell the wine and distribute the wine.
So the image that the Place is opaque is kind of dated, right?
From my experience, it’s way more advanced than most relationships I’ve had. The biggest challenge is distance.
If we look at the next 10 to 20 years, how do you see your job and your responsibility evolving?
It can only expand in terms of the diversity of what the Place is now doing.
Additional Resources on Global Trade:
- 10 Things We Learned About Trade Barriers to The Global Wine Trade – and How to Overcome Them
- What the Future Holds for the Fine Wine Secondary Market: In Conversation with James Miles and Justin Gibbs
- Do We Still Need Gatekeepers?
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