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Grands Chais riding the French wine storm

By Chris Mercer , 31-May-2005

As chunks of the French wine industry descend into chaos, one family firm is standing tall, proudly talking of a strong sales rise based on clever marketing tactics that producers worldwide could learn from.

A rat-sized hole and some hasty graffiti is all that remains of the recently attempted bomb attack on southern France's La Baume winery, owned by family firm Les Grands Chais de France.

The intruders wrote the initials of Languedoc's militant vintner group, CRAV, and 'first warning' on a nearby wall. But one source connected to CRAV told www.BeverageDaily.com that the La Baume attack was carried out by renegades, had not been planned.

He said that Bruno Kessler, chief winemaker for Les Grands Chais, was a good man doing some good work.

And so he seems to be. Grands Chais has taken only 25 years from its humble roots in Alsace to reach the top of France's wine industry tree with brands such as JP Chenet and La Baume.

The firm is now responsible for one fifth of all French wine exports and claims sales are increasing, despite France as a whole losing market share abroad.

The trick, according to Kessler, has been a rigorous focus on market research and investment in big brands while maintaining the group's umbrella structure - emphasising local production through local growers.

Kessler said that all Grands Chais wines were tailored to specific country markets to account for specific national taste preferences. For example, UK consumers preferred well-rounded, fruity wines while many Dutch consumers enjoyed a more spicy edge.

Grands Chais has also made labelling a speciality, using traditional designs alongside jazzy, modern ones rarely seen throughout France's conservative wine sector.

The firm recently unveiled a new world-style label for its 2004 La Baume range, giving prominence to the grape variety (chardonnay) above an image of the vineyard itself. Kessler said La Baume's UK sales were up 20 per cent since the launch.

There was also a range with cartoon images of different farmyard animals, and fish, to help younger consumers match certain wines to certain foods.

Kessler said Grands Chais emphasised marketing alongside promoting local growers and producers through hands-off contracts.

He said the strategy had made Grands Chais around the same size as Australia's Southcorp wine firm. But, this approach could also be used by smaller wineries worldwide to insulate their businesses and pool resources; something that may especially help to alleviate the current pressure on French producers.

On a smaller scale, some vintners have already made steps.

Christophe Coste, a 30-year-old winemaker from France's Cotes du Rhône region, said he helped to set up a deal among neighbouring vintners to market some of their wines under one brand.

It is a strategy Denis Verdier, president of the union for French wine co-operatives, agreed with.

He said France had no choice but to find new ways of marketing wine in order to seduce new consumers and get them interested in the complexity and diversity the country's industry could offer.

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