Friday, January 25, 2002
A group of Americans headed by Napa Valley vintner Ann Colgin and her husband, Joe Wender, have bought Camille Giroud, a boutique merchant firm in Burgundy whose specialty has been producing long-lived Pinot Noirs.
Brothers Bernard and François Giroud sold their Beaune-based business for an undisclosed amount. The deal included the sizable stocks, the brand, the winery and its office buildings, but not the Girouds' own 3.7 acres of vineyards.
Colgin, who becomes Giroud's CEO, is taking over a winery in serious need of fresh energy, a new paint job and a good cleanup; it harks back to a traditional Burgundy that seems to be light-years from cosmopolitan Napa Valley where she makes her blockbuster Cabernet Sauvignon.
Both Bernard and François, chain-smoking and looking worn out, said they were tired of their jobs and ready to move on to other projects. "When you are 50, it's time to get out," said Bernard, who has been working at the firm since he was 18.
"We had to tighten our belts all these years to afford investments, and now we're done doing that," added François, 46.
At first, Camille Giroud was a pure négociant firm, only buying wine and handling the aging and bottling itself, said Bernard. But as it became harder to find wines that would make for long-lived red Burgundies, the brothers began to source grapes instead. By the 2000 vintage, the Girouds were buying only grapes and making wines from 40 different appellations, totaling 5,000 cases of red wines and 2,750 cases of white wines a year. The company reported $1 million in gross revenues last year, according to the Girouds.
The sale, which closed Jan. 19, marks the end of a family business that was founded in 1865 by Bernard and François' grandfather, Camille Giroud. However, the new owners — seven Americans who have created a limited partnership called Renardes — said they are committed to continuing Giroud's unique style.
"We are doing this because we are great lovers of Giroud's wines, particularly the older vintages, and we wanted to see the Giroud name and style preserved," said Joe Wender, a wine collector and investment banker who discovered Giroud's wines during a visit to Burgundy several years ago.
Camille Giroud built a reputation for specializing in tight, firm wines that were aged in the négociant's large cellars and not sold until the owners decided they were ready to drink. Giroud now stocks 350,000 bottles, many from legendary vintages for red Burgundy, such as 1937, 1947, 1949, 1964, 1966, 1971 and 1978.
"When the Girouds purchased grapes or wine, they always looked for structure. [The wines] were more tannic. They made vins de garde. And this will continue," said Becky Wasserman-Hone, who has been appointed Giroud's new managing director. Wasserman-Hone, founder and co-director of Le Serbet, a Burgundy-based company that exports Burgundies, added, "If you keep the wines long enough, and don't have to worry about selling them, then they will come around."
Giroud had fallen on hard times in recent years. Although it was a unique source for old Burgundies that had the potential to make Giroud a cult name, the négociant came across as staid.
From its old winery a few blocks from Beaune's train station, Giroud failed to develop the sort of sizzle enjoyed by Colgin. Her trophy wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard, has garnered critical acclaim and only "outstanding" and "classic" scores from Wine Spectator since its first vintage, 1992. The wine's release price has more than quadrupled since then, from $29 to $135 for the 1997 vintage.
Giroud was bucking a trend in Burgundy (and elsewhere) to produce wines supple enough to enjoy shortly after release. "We are guardians of a certain style of wine," said Bernard. "Our grandfather started this, and when we were young, we were lucky to taste old vintages. We wondered how come these wines have stood the test of time? We have always sought to do wines that age a very long time."
The brothers' refusal to use new oak didn't help Giroud's popularity with consumers who have developed a taste for wines softened with fancy wood. For aging its wines, Giroud would consider to be suitable only barrels that had been used for at least five vintages to age other people's wines. It is not uncommon for the merchant to use these barrels for another 10 years, according to David Croix, 23, who was recently hired as winemaker. Originally from the Loire Valley, Croix, who has a degree in enology, has apprenticed in Burgundy, Champagne and Beaujolais.
From the 1996 vintage on, the firm didn't have enough money to buy top-notch grapes from premiers crus and grands crus, so it made mostly village-appellation wines.
Banks were ready to finance the cost of building up and keeping the large, unsold stocks, but they didn't want to extend the loans needed to buy first-class grapes or even vineyards sought by the Girouds, according to the brothers. "We couldn't finance by ourselves the investments needed, and we wanted to sell [the business] for more than a year," said François.
"I think Giroud has a great history and tradition," said Wender, "and we will do our best to return it to the stature it had in the past."
The Giroud brothers will remain on as consultants to help the American owners during the transition. "All of this is a bit emotional," said François, as he took out tobacco and rolled another cigarette in his fingers.