Chteau Latour, the illustrious Bordeaux 1st Growth, has announced that 2011 will be the last vintage to be released En Primeur.
This is big news, as for the first time since the 1960’s, a First Growth Chateau breaks with the unique and over time very successful way that Bordeaux sells its newest wines.
Why would Latour do this? What are the reasons behind this decision? What are the implications? Here are our thoughts.
First of all, being Fine Wine Merchants, this is a tricky subject. Our blog is widely read. By consumers, by fellow wine merchants, by the French Negociants and even by the Chateaux. Their interests are not always aligned and taking position could have repercussions on our ability to work with them. To illustrate that, it is very telling to see how few players in the market are willing to go on record. However, Latour’s decision to stop selling its wine En Primeur is too big a thing to stay silent about and loyal readers and customers won’t be surprised to see that we tell it as we see it. Moreover, we side with the end consumer: if it’s right for the person who buys the wines we sell, it’s right for us and it should be right for all other actors in the distribution chain.
Chateau Latour is owned by François Pinault, who runs the PPR retail empire. PPR, previously known as Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, owns luxury brands like Gucci, Yves St Laurent and Puma and additionally is involved in other luxury goods and sports brands. PPR is also involved in online retailing, in a wide variety of products. They have financial muscle and they understand retailing luxury goods. Moreover, PPR is a big corporate business. It’s fair to assume that the reasoning behind the move to quit the En Primeur system must be that Mr Pinault expects it to be better for PPR, ultimately maximizing its profits. Even though Latour say it’s all about selling their wine when it’s ready to drink and about “killing” speculation.
The En Primeur system
In its simplest form, the En Primeur system means that Chateaux sell wine from the barrel, years before it’s ready to be drunk and 2 years before it will be delivered to customers. It’s sold at a discount, in return for cash up front, which allows the Chateaux to finance the next crop. That was the original thinking behind the En Primeur concept.
However, if you have enough cash, why would you sell your wines En Primeur?
If Latour’s decision is indeed just about no longer selling En Primeur – which I’m not convinced about – what are the implications? Let’s look at the effect on price first. Let’s presume Latour decides to release 6 years after the harvest, instead of one year. Even though they might have enough cash to be able to do that, it doesn’t mean that cash is free. So, assuming the cost of money to be 5%, releasing 5 years later means costs have gone up 28%. Releasing after 5 years, at 28% more, wouldn’t make financial sense as the returns for Latour would be the same. Possibly even less because of the need for added storage facilities. Add to that the risk of price fluctuations and most likely – all other things being equal – Latour would have to price at 28% plus. Furthermore, they’d also want to receive a premium for holding the stock and controlling supply, because otherwise the whole exercise IMHO just doesn’t make sense.
How that translates into consumer prices remains to be seen. Perhaps it would do away with unsustainable, speculation fueled price hikes. Perhaps prices would stay the same as they are now. In either case though, the profits would be for Latour and not for the (speculating) consumer.
Moreover, the EP system is a bit more complicated then described above, as it has also morphed into an allocation system, effectively securing demand for the Chateaux. This has provided tremendous value to the Chateaux over the years, as they can “force” buyers into purchasing something they don’t necessarily want (for fear of not being able to get access to it in the years to come) whilst charging extremely high prices in the sought after vintages. This is particularly valuable when vintages are harder to sell and not something you do away with lightly. Therefore, Latour abandoning En Primeur makes people think there’s more going on than what is being communicated.
Is this just about quitting En Primeur?
For example, it could also spell the end for Latour selling through “le Place de Bordeaux”, with its allocation system, couldn’t it? Not necessarily so. It’s important to understand that Latour quitting EP doesn’t mean they will abandon selling through “le Place”. Indeed, Latour have communicated that they won’t. If that’s true, then Latour can still release stock into the market using “Le Place” and allocations, but would have achieved a higher return than before. This system could also exist for drinkable vintages only, provided there’s enough of an incentive for merchants that sell on the public.
So, all good then. Latour only wants their wine to hit the market when it’s ready to drink. They want to get rid of speculation and they will continue using the current distribution network.
The way Latour is distributed
Not quite. As mentioned, there is a strong sense that this is not just about quitting EP. Latour has been awkward with Negociants for a long time and has been courting big buyers directly. For years, they have released very little stock onto the market ( at high prices) and seem to have been preparing themselves to restructure the distribution of their wine. Many people expect the move to quit EP to be the start of a bigger plan. But again, the official communication does not support that.
Our guess is that Latour ultimately want to take charge of distribution, of the way its wines are sold, in order to maximize its profits. Ultimately, Chateau Latour would like to control the supply chain. Quite like some other luxury goods empires, who are very successful at it. Take for example LVMH, a rival of PPR and owner of Moet & Chandon and Hennessy Cognac. LVMH spends a lot of effort and money in controlling where their products are being sold. If for example prices in the UK are lower than in Japan, they will try and make sure that international traders don’t use the price gap to supply cheaper stock to Japan and in doing so potentially lower the price in Japan. LVMH want the price gap to remain and pocket the difference themselves. LVMH are very good at this.
Think of it, if you have a brand as strong as Latour, why would you let 3rd parties share in the profits if not necessary? You could do it all yourself. In fact, you are already doing it yourself, just not with this particular brand that you own. Why not cut out the courtiers (which would save 2%)? Why not cut out the Bordeaux Negociants (which would save 15 to 20%)? Why not cut out the International Wine Merchants (which would save another 10 to 15%) and go straight to their customers? Indeed, there are very persistent rumors that direct selling is already happening. Or even, why not cut them out as well and open your own retail stores?
But what about the bad vintages, critics might argue. How would Latour sell those if not through EP and “Le Place”? Could they get the same uptake, at the same price? It would be less forced, that’s for sure – which is a very good thing. It would be more consumer driven, which is good as well. Yes, there would be a risk there for Latour, but if they can control supply and pricing, that risk surely is manageable. Particularly if Latour would throw some allocations to the Negociants, or big International Merchants, who would be starved for Latour. Or even discount it in their stores. After all, there would be a margin to play with.
Will others follow?
Already, there is massive speculation about what the other Chateaux will do. At the same time, it’s clear that, even if they wanted to abandon the EP system, only the biggest names could as smaller Chateaux simply don’t have the cash. But could this be viable for the bigger names? As stated above, you’d have to have the financial muscle to forego at least 5 years of cash flow. You’d also need to be reasonably sure that customers want to buy your wine without the added benefit of the traditional reasons (EP and secured allocations), now but also in the years to come.
Regarding the other, unconfirmed option of leaving “Le Place” altogether, that’s an even harder challenge, as you would need to be able to control distribution. There aren’t many Chateaux that tick those boxes.
What does it mean if I just want to drink the stuff?
It will certainly improve provenance. It will probably mean Latour will be even harder to buy. Regarding price, that remains to be seen. Hopefully it will benefit drinkers, but our feeling is that if winemakers start to behave like the luxury goods empires that in some cases own them, it’s not in the interest of the end consumer. Surely increased control by the brand owner is not done just to protect the interest of the consumer.
Does this affect your decision to purchase Latour 2011 En Primeur? Clearly, you won’t buy it to safeguard future allocations, so the rationale to buy Latour will have to be that you love it and you like the opportunity to, for the last time, buy it now, En Primeur, years before you can drink it, because it works out cheaper.
Let’s hope we are being too cynical. Let’s hope this is just about what Latour communicates, which is that they would like to supply the market with the best Latour they can possibly make, ready to drink and with perfect provenance.