GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: Simon is so Farr-sighted
PUBLISHED: 16:29 23 April 2008 | UPDATED: 14:59 07 September 2010
Odd, isn t it, that someone whose business is to sell wine should recommend consumers to buy less of it. But there s a great deal of sense in that suggestion from Simon Farr, who over the past 25 years has seen millions of bottles move through a rather sp
Odd, isn't it, that someone whose business is to sell wine should recommend consumers to buy less of it. But there's a great deal of sense in that suggestion from Simon Farr, who over the past 25 years has seen millions of bottles move through a rather special wine business in Primrose Hill to dining tables, restaurants and bars UK-wide.
A lot of his argument has to do with the current state of the UK wine trade, with price hikes on their way from a barrage of sources and a host of ecological issues taking on greater significance.
Research by one of his colleagues indicates that on the retail side possibly one bottle in three is "given away" - not in the sense that you offer it to your supper-party host, but as a result of the trade being awash with bogoffs and deep discounting.
Persuade consumers to spend the same amount of money on two-thirds the quantity of wine, says Farr, and everyone benefits: the quality of wine consumed is higher so drinkers enjoy it more, the producers get a fairer return, the earth is happier as the carbon footprint of wine production (bottles, transport, etc) is cut back. If only...
But it's thinking like that, and a business culture not quite like that of the bulk of the trade, which makes Bibendum special.
Farr and his partner Chris Collins opened a wine warehouse in a garage turned DIY store in Regent's Park Road in 1982, hardly a propitious time for a new business venture but the moment when - in Farr's description - wine was being "democractised". They succeeded by being different, and 26 years on Bibendum - still different from the rest, but itself different from those early days - is lauded on many fronts, not least as one of the best companies to work for in the UK.
From the beginning, Farr and Collins broke the trade's expected rules, with their multi-channel approach. The first stock was largely fine wine from Collins' own cellar and the first customers mainly bordeaux buffs, but the intention was always to buy directly from as wide a range of producers as possible, and sell into all areas of the wine market.
They took risks then, but most proved rewarding, so Bibendum can afford to remain innovative, through greater involvement with producers and offices in Europe, North and South America and South Africa, for example.
And Bibendum people still think wine is fun, as everyone (and there were hundreds) who went to the 2008 annual tasting discovered. For the occasion, the former ethnographic galleries of the British Museum, now part of the Royal Academy, were transformed into The House That Bibendum Built.
From the welcome from feather-duster flicking maids to the bath full of bubbles in the "bathroom" (showroom of fizz), brush-and-palette-bestrewn Art Studio (home to retail bottles) and the popular double bed in the "bedroom" (seductive selections from Latin Europe) it was an event like no other.
Deliberately, says Farr, company vice-chairman and head of wine strategy, it was "more theatre than tasting, about communicating some of the excitement and inherent value of diversity". It succeeded, in classic Bibendum style.
o Bibendum hasn't forgotten its retail roots, even if selling direct is a comparatively small part of the business today. There are plenty of customers still for fine wine, and a broad selection of the company's wares are available (12 bottles minimum) on www.bibendum-wine.co.uk.
Let me select you a case, as a taster of what's there (the new world wines are great, too). Whites: stylish, scented Etim blanco 2006 (Spain) £7.40; two wonderfully complex, enjoyable 2006 Loire Valley expressions of chenin blanc from Chateau Pierre Bise, Anjou Le Haut de la Garde, £9.70, and Savennieres Clos de la Coulaine, £11.10; exceptional, elegant, fascinating Domaine Lafage Cotes du Roussillon Centenaire 2007, £8.15. A posh pink English fizz, to beat the champenois at their own game, Balfour Brut 2005, £30.40, and a delicious light and fruity sparkler from one of Italy's best prosecco makers, Bisol Jeio (£9.40).
Reds: ripe fruit and spices in Farina Tinto de Toro 2006, £7.05; smart cabernet character in Jean Leon Pago cabernet sauvignon reserva 2001, £14.75; Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2006, serious, structured beaujolais, £15.20; silky and alluring En Truffiere Santenay premier cru Maladiere 2005 from Vincent Girardin, £17.15; and a classic treat, Les Charmeuses Volnay vielles vignes 2004, £24.75.