In 2023, ARENI is set to launch a series of market insights, called Country Profiles, into the fine wine drinkers of France, Japan, Singapore and Denmark. These reports will look at who these people are: how old they are, how they choose their wines, how they develop their knowledge, and where and how they drink. A mix of quantitative and qualitative data, the Country Profiles, only available to members, will offer unique insights into some of the most elusive, but important, consumers in key markets.
Felicity Carter, ARENI’s Editorial Director, sat down with Pauline Vicard, ARENI’s CEO, to discuss the latest report, into French fine wine buyers.
Where do you find the fine wine drinkers that Areni studies? And secondly, how did you go about finding French fine wine drinkers?
We always do two things. We always do a quantitative part, where we work with Wine Intelligence or Wine Services, or people that are specialists in quantitative data. And we always do a round of interviews with fine wine collectors so that we can understand the top end — the 0.1% of the fine wine in terms of prices. The way we work is really by word of mouth. We always start with a relationship that we have within the trade: fine wine merchants, sommeliers, retailers, people that sell wine, and then they very nicely recommend us to some of their own clients. And it’s the snowball effect. Then when you’ve spent an hour talking wine with people that are very passionate about wine and that find the conversation interesting, they will recommend you to the rest of their network.
So you start with two collectors and you end up with ten collectors because everyone is “oh you should talk to my friend, he is really different. He’s got a different perspective and everything”.
France was a bit more difficult. We had no problem interviewing the trade. But as you know, finding fine wine drinkers a bit more challenging. They were more discreet. And when we interviewed collectors, we didn’t have that, “Oh, and by the way, you should talk to my friend”. We didn’t have that kind of snowball effect. In the end, it took six months to gather enough data, when we normally have it in ten weeks for other markets.
We’ll talk about specific attributes of French fine wine drinkers in a moment. But when you look globally at the people that you’ve surveyed, who is the fine wine drinker? Are there some commonalities between all of them?
There are some common points in the fact that they are very international people. They travel a lot, they usually have different residences in different countries and for each of those countries in which they live, they have a different way of accessing wine.
And then we’ve managed to get four different profiles of people and of fine wine drinkers, one being the passionate, the people that really go deep, that want to understand everything, that study, that learn, that dedicate time on top of dedicating money into getting the knowledge that they want to have. Then we have the collectors. Not all fine wine buyers define themselves as a collector. It was actually one of the French fine wine buyers that I interviewed, and he was telling me that he didn’t collect wine. And I was like, okay, you don’t collect wine. How many bottles do you have in your cellar? “I’ve got 7000 bottles”. But he didn’t define himself a collector.
For him, buying a collection was something finite. So, for example, he would collect butterflies, so it would be able to have a beginning and an end in a collection. And then either he can transmit to the next generation or he could sell. The collection was something of an entity on its own and wine he didn’t collect, because it just bought a lot of it. It was just something that he liked.
I think this is something that we don’t talk enough about collecting. I remember some years ago a very prominent member of the British wine trade, who shall remain nameless, stood up and said, “women don’t collect things except perhaps for shoes”. And that always really annoyed me because he was using ‘collect’ in the sense of accumulate, because of course nobody collects shoes. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London collects shoes. They will go, “Well, we’re missing the 1978 Chloe high heels that we need to track down”; this is collecting in the sense that you are buying something according to a classification system, even if it’s one that you’ve made up yourself, versus accumulating. So, it sounds like this guy thinks of himself as somebody who accumulates rather than collects. But of course, he’s acting like a collector in any sense that the wine trade would understand it.
We’ll call him a collector because he’s got 7000 bottles, but he doesn’t define himself as a collector because the intention is not to build something out of it. And that was really interesting. But there are some collectors and there are some people that do build something with a beginning and an end and are very logical. And as you were saying, if there’s one bottle missing in the vintage, this is really annoying for them. And they will go and chase and hunt that particular bottle.
And then, of course, there are people that are just rich. They are just buying expensive wines, but in the exact same way that you or me would buy a €20 bottle of wine or my mum would buy a €6 bottle of wine. It’s just because they’ve got more resources. They end up buying more things, but they’re not particularly interested in the product. And I think that’s something that we tend to forget as well in the wine world, that some people actually don’t really care about the product. They just have more money. None of these fine wine drinkers are just one profile. They are usually a mix of everything, but they tend to have one that’s bigger. And the status seeker will be someone that particularly buys the bottle because of the status that he or she wants to receive or feel.
Let’s talk specifically about French fine wine drinkers. How are they similar and how are they different from their counterparts elsewhere?
As a French person living in the UK and exploring international markets, my personal hypothesis was that the French fine wine consumers would be very different, because to me France is still a very unique market in terms of segmentation, buying behavior, attitudes around fine wine. That’s something that I could very much feel and experience again as a French person living abroad, but I couldn’t really explain or express clearly. And after six months of research, that’s funny because French fine wine consumers do share a lot of attributes and we go into quite a lot of detail in the country profile and in the data analysis. But it’s also clear that it’s still a one-of-a-kind market when it comes to fine wine.
After six months of research, [we can say that] French fine wine consumers do share a lot of attributes [with other markets]. But it’s also clear that it’s still a one-of-a-kind market when it comes to fine wine.Pauline Vicard
One of the things that makes the French fine wine consumers different than the rest of the world is also the proximity that they have, whether in distance or in access. A lot of the fine wines in the market are French and they have direct access to that because it’s a two-hour drive to a fine wine region, whether it’s Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire, Bordeaux, the Rhône. They can just take their car and go there. This also makes them quite atypical from people that live in the US or Asia that are very, very far away from where the bottles are produced.
One of the things that was to me the most revealing about how different the French market is, is that at one point in the interview, we ask people to tell us some of the names of the fine wine that they bought within the last 12 months. In the US, the UK, Hong Kong and China, people would quote brands, when in France people quoted appellation d’origine controlée. They were talking about Châteauneuf du Pape or Margaux or, you know, Chambolle-Musigny.
The only exception that we had were Bordeaux names, because some people get confused between Château Margaux and Margaux.
Another difference that came out in the research is that French fine wine buyers don’t have the same relationship with wine merchants or consultants or private merchants the way people do elsewhere in the world, but they rely on existing personal relationships. So, let’s talk about that. Can they just drive up to the doors of Château Lafite and say, “Here’s my boot, put some things in it?” Or is this knowledge that they get from their family? Are they expected to know these things and not go and seek out information? How does it work?
If you follow the UK definition of what a fine wine merchant is, it doesn’t really exist in France. You’ve got cavistes, which are retailers specialised in wine, but they do not play the same role that fine wine merchants do in the UK, in giving access to allocations. Bordeaux is still different because it goes through La Place. But a lot of collectors have their direct allocation to Burgundy. Most of the time they don’t need retailers, they don’t need fine wine merchants to give them access to allocation.
I find this fascinating. How did they develop that? Is it like putting your name down for Eton where, because your dad went there, you get to go there as well? Or is it just your money that can buy you access? If you don’t have an intermediary to introduce you, how do you get access to the top wines?
My understanding is either it was a family thing — you used to go there because your dad would go there and you would go with him and you would end up knowing the producer and get your name on the allocation. Some of the collectors or the fine wine buyers that we interview had no prior connection to the world of wine before, because they’re not from a region or something, but they would spend a lot of time traveling to the region on their own or with friends. And in Burgundy, you can still go to an estate and have some visits, even if sometimes you can’t buy wine. And if you go enough times, then you will end up in the allocation names for the top wines because you can still go and buy the Aligoté and the Bourgogne ordinaire of those estates. You might not get the Richebourg, or those kinds of things, but you can still buy other wines from their range.
The consequence of that must be that you end up having a very deep knowledge of Burgundy if you’re driving there all the time. But you’d have a very poor knowledge of wines outside your driving radius or outside what your dad taught you about. So what sort of level of knowledge did the French wine collectors have?
I think it’s very different and diverse. There’s something that we see everywhere and that’s the passionate segment. People get more and more precise about their wine collection and their wine buying. They go very vertical. They get more and more specific and therefore develop a very specific knowledge. That’s something we sometimes underestimate. It’s not the Master of Wine who has the biggest knowledge about Burgundy at the moment. It’s the collectors.
I’ve spoken to a lot of sommeliers who’ve gone into looking after private customers in both the UK and the US. And one of the things that they really hate is when people become very precise. They see it as their mission to try and introduce you to something else. To say, ‘Well, if you like this, then why don’t you try this?’ But if you don’t have those kinds of intermediaries bugging you about it, I wonder how wide you can ever get.
They have those influences. They just don’t come from the merchant. They come mostly in the private sphere. So your friends will play the role that a merchant or a sommelier have in other markets.
I suppose if you’re a rich collector, you’ve probably got rich friends who are interested in Barolo or whatever.
And also maybe what I can add: there’s also something which is very, very French, which is that capacity to drink outside of the collection. It’s also something that French people are very proud of, to find the Petit Vin. And the language is really interesting because you have the Grand Vin, which is defined collectively by the appellation d’origine, by the history, by the tradition, by years and decades of quality and consistency. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not. Those are the Grand Vin. But then there are the Petit Vin, and those are the ones that you choose for yourself and for your palate. And those are the ones that you are really proud of having discovered. Because you’ve discovered it before anyone else. It’s not even expensive and it’s so good.
There’s also something which is very, very French, which is that capacity to drink outside of the collection. You have the Grand Vin, which is defined collectively by the appellation d’origine, by the history, by the tradition, by years and decades of quality and consistency. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not. Those are the Grand Vin. But then there are the Petit Vin, and those are the ones that you choose for yourself and for your palate.Pauline Vicard
Let’s talk about price and money. We’ve all been watching the riots over pension ages, and to many people, France seems like a socialist country. But France is also the home of the two richest people in the world and they’ve made their money from luxury. So, can you give us a small potted summary of what’s different about the French attitude to wealth and luxury?
The first thing is that they’re not the two richest persons in the world. They are the richest man and the richest woman, but the richest woman is actually 11th on the classification.
So France has at least two staggeringly rich people that we know of.
We’ve got the richest man and the richest woman. And so what’s interesting about this, is there’s something about luxury over tech. Because over the last few years it’s always been tech moguls, mostly American people, that were the top. I don’t know if it’s a good sign for the French economy because there was a boom in luxury French exports at the end of the 19th century also. But that’s also because we were lagging behind the Brits in terms of the Industrial Revolution. So maybe we are so good at luxury because we’re not really good at something else (laugh).
I did a course through Bocconi University in Milan on fashion and luxury, and one of the first questions they asked us was “What’s the difference between French fashion and luxury and Italian?” We went, “Oh, I don’t know”. And they said, “The French is about heritage and classicism. Think about something like Chanel. and Italian is about La Dolce Vita, as exemplified by Dolce and Gabbana. If you agree with this, where does it come from?
We have two of the richest people on earth, but the rest [of the wealthy people in the Forbes list] are still mostly American and mostly from tech. And there was an article that was saying, you know, money is one thing, but status is another. And so you can buy status by buying luxury. And as long as there are rich people, French people will make money selling status to them. And that’s interesting what you’re saying, because they choose French brands to achieve status and not Italian ones, for example.
I think if you walk around with Dolce and Gabbana, you can pretty much buy some status with that.
When you look at how France invested in luxury, that’s really interesting because many times in France it was a political decision. In the 18th century, France was overpowered by the porcelain and the silk of China, the lace of Flanders, the glassware of Italy. And then there was a political decision of the court of Louis XIV, to make luxury a symbol of the nation. And so Colbert, who was Louis XIV’s minister of finance, created the structure for luxury. And so he opened what they called privilege factories, for glass, for textiles.
That is hilarious. A privilege factory.
Yeah, because they had privilege: glass, textile and tapestry. And they also opened the Commerce Bureau, to export and to facilitate exports of that and a network of factory inspectors to control quality and excellence. I think also the difference between the dolce vita, which is, you know, live and let live, is a notion of excellence and control of excellence in French luxury.
I think the Italians, if you looked at something like Bottega Veneta or Murano glassmaking, would vigorously defend the idea that they’re also about highest quality. If I were guessing, I would guess the difference is the French probably had more rules and regulations.
Colbert actually built a structure for luxury. Luxury was something state driven, at the time of an absolute monarchy. Colbert set up the structure. But Louis XIV was also one of the reasons that it developed so quickly, because he was such a flamboyant character and he had so much pride and invested so much. The rest of the courts in Europe and the US wanted to reproduce that and bought French products. It was the start of everything. But then if you fast forward a couple of decades later, there’s an author that’s called Marie-Claude Sicard. She’s written many books about luxury and French luxury. The question was, is French luxury based on brand heritage or brand equity? And her explanation was that the success of French luxury plays with both.
Brand heritage is aristocracy and something that’s very grandiose and something that’s based on value and something which has immaterial values. Something noble, something that you do for God, something of beauty that raises you up, over your condition as a mere mortal. And that doesn’t really call for money, that really is for virtue and aesthetics. And then you have brand equity, which is more of a bourgeoisie notion, because equity must grow. It needs to bring results and profits, otherwise it’s useless. And that’s a cardinal sin in the eye of the business bourgeoisie. And so, you also have that second leg of French luxury: it wants to make profit and be successful.
Brand heritage is aristocracy and something that’s very grandiose and […] has immaterial values. Something noble, something that you do for God, something of beauty that raises you up, over your condition as a mere mortal. And that doesn’t really call for money, that really is for virtue and aesthetics. And then you have brand equity, which is more of a bourgeoisie notion, because equity must grow. It needs to bring results and profits, otherwise it’s useless.Pauline Vicard
How does this play out in wine?
There are still loads of people that think about brand heritage and they will never accept to be called luxury wine, for example, because fine wine is something that you do for the sake of it. It doesn’t matter if you sell it. What matters is you create something beautiful. There’s still that narrative in France very much, and that’s why we don’t recognize the concept of brand, for example, because brand is really something commercial and marketing. And it’s also quite generational.
You’ve got people 45 and younger that have traveled and have studied and are like, “yeah, of course we do luxury products. Of course we admit that we manage our estate as a brand, and of course we’ve got this type of language that now enters the wine world. And of course, the goal is to make money, so it would be hypocritical not to say it.” I think that’s that’s interesting, those two tensions.
I also think that the interesting tension in France is that you can have a deep respect for craftsmanship. And I’m not going to say “as French people”, because, you know, the French people and the French society is very diverse. And that notion of luxury is part of our identity because, as you were saying, it’s art de vivre. So, it’s embedded through the way we live regardless of your financial power, is access to things like good food, good wine.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. To enjoy the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
The full Country Profile: France is accessible for free HERE for full members and partners.