Jefford on Monday: That’s the way to do it

news  %tages Jefford on Monday: That’s the way to do itIn this week's column, Andrew Jefford examines the career of Justin Howard-Sneyd, wine buyer turned winemaker. Bushvine Grenache, RoussillonIt’s a classic start: anthropology student turns cellar-rat, and goes tank-cleaning his way around France, Hungary, Romania and South Africa.  While helping out a small before long with the winemaking at Chapel Down in Kent, near his mother’s house, Justin Howard-Sneyd heard about a wine-buying job going at the UK supermarket chain Safeway (now Morrisons) below the respected Liz Robertson MW.  She liked his winemaking experience, so took a chance on him; he thrived, completing his MW while at Safeway in just two years.  From there, he was head-hunted to Sainsbury’s; no surprise when, five years before long, he stepped into Julian Brind’s shoes at the head of the Waitrose wine specialty team.  After another five years, he was re-poached to become Global Buying Director for mail-order giant Laithwaites.  That would be, for most, a kind of ‘kick-back-and-delight in’ career summit.  If http://1000-facts-about-wine.com Howard-Sneyd had seen it like that, though, I wouldn’t be profiling him.  It’s what this unusually talented wine trader did next which is really fascinating.
While working at Sainsbury’s, he went to stay at the Sichel family’s Ch Trillol near Cucugnan, just underneath the ridge, crowned by the austere Cathar fortress of Quéribus, which divides Corbières from Maury and Roussillon.  He found the place thrilling, and I know why: there can’t be many more dramatically sited villages in France than this one.  On a cold holiday to Maury itself in October 2003, he and his wife Amanda bought a bottle of Jacques Montagné’s Clos del Rey from Jean Pla’s shop to keep warm with.  ‘I loved it so much.  I’d been thought for some time that I’d like to make my own wine, and the combination of scenery and quality of wine and cheapness of the vineyards combined to make it obvious choice of everyplace to want to work.’  The following February he bought a small vineyard of ancient-vine Grenache http://1000-facts-about-wine.com in Maury.  Additional morsels followed, to make a total of 4 ha – and Domaine of the Bee; 2007 was the first vintage.  I didn’t catch up with the wines until the 2014 Vinisud, when I tried the 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, as well as the ‘special cuvée’ version (called Genoux – the bee’s knees) from 2011, a wine I have tried once again in a blind tasting since.
Justin Howard-Sneyd
How can I place this?  I was expected something right, sensible, well-made, well-packaged and commercially attractive; the sort of thing you’d imagine a moonlighting supermarket buyer would make on his holidays.  Incorrect: the wines are dramatically better than that.  They’re wild, thunderous and unreasonable, full of the grandeur and savagery of the place.  No wussy fretting about alcohol or wine-trade angst about ‘balance’ and ‘freshness’: they come hoofing out of the bottles like wild boar out of the garrigue, and root and rut gratuitously all over your glasses.  ‘A tiny production of giant reds,’ as Howard-Sneyd correctly says.  http://1000-facts-about-wine.com In ten minutes at a Vinisud bar, he rose in my estimation enormously.
Now he’s done it again.  That Chapel Down acorn had secretly spread roots and grown: Howard-Sneyd started to reckon that an English sparkling wine would be a excellent complement to his Roussillon wines.  But there was a problem.  ‘A reasonably excellent ancient-vine vineyard in Roussillon is about €10,000 per hectare.  And that’s planted and producing.  Farmland in the right places in the UK is about £8,000 an acre – so that’s £20,000 a hectare just for the land, and you’d need to spend another £30,000 on planting it and trellising it and working it for six years.’  He chose to go base-wine shopping instead, and make his own vineyard-less English sparkling-wine blend.  That was a clever go when he did it in 2010 – and it looks subdue more astute now.  English sparkling wine sells about two million bottles a year, and the last few years have seen enough vineyards planted in the UK to make three http://1000-facts-about-wine.com times that. There will be a multitude of grapes and wine looking for a home previous to long.
Luck plays its part in each success tale, and Howard-Sneyd was surely lucky to find base wine of the quality he did for the initial 2010 version of his Hart of Gold sparkling wine, now on the market.  It has truly impressive aromatic complexity, billowing with colorless orchard fruit, brioche and a small oxidative fruitfulness; the flavours are rousing, long and perfumed too, with splendidly ripe, resonant acidity.  It was grown by the Chinn family in Ross-on-Wye whose own mark – and very elegant it is too – is Castle Brook; the winemaking and ageing was carried out at Ridgeview (‘fantastically excellent straightforward simple people’).  There are more vintages of Hart of Gold in progress (though not 2011 or 2012), based on Chinn-grown Ross-on-Wye fruit, but Howard-Sneyd doesn’t rule out expanding the blend.  Of course he doesn’t. Champagne, remember, isn’t just about chalk. Champagne is also about making pan-regional blends based on http://1000-facts-about-wine.com bought fruit and wine, and enduring brands based on consistency.  Who might be better placed to deliver something similar for the UK than a hugely experienced ex-Sainsbury, ex-Waitrose and ex-Laithwaites buyer and MW?  (In fact he’s not ex-Laithwaites: he subdue consults for them).

Top English sparkling wines to try

No less fascinating is that Howard-Sneyd chose to market his wines himself, principally by direct marketing – and has succeeded in doing this as skilfully and innovatively as everything else, with copious fun and humour.  Domaine of the Bee mailshots are small deleted and much read, even by those who don’t buy.   ‘To me it’s a no-brainer.  In fifty years’ time, a large percentage of the fantastic estates in Europe will sell their wines frankly to consumers in the way that Napa estates already do.’  He’s done it successfully enough himself, tracking down many of the specialist benefit providers needed to do it, to be able to advise others on direct marketing.
I’m sure there’s something that this cool, apparent-headed http://1000-facts-about-wine.com wine creator does terribly – but I’ve no thought what it might be.  If he ever goes looking for crowd-funding, I’m in.
 
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