On the Trail

Secrets of the Bordeaux Negociant

David Driscoll

As the spirits buyer for K&L, I travel to Scotland quite frequently in search of whisky. While most of our customers seem to imagine me visiting distilleries and tasting single malt right off the still (which does happen every now and again, I'll admit), most of my time is spent dealing with middlemen and their storage facilities. I visit nondescript warehouses full of booze and owned by independent bottlers—the companies that buy and store whisky from producers and bottle it under their own label. As a distiller who specializes in aged goods, you can imagine it might be tough to wait ten to fifteen years to recoup expenses. You need some money coming in up front. It's for that reason that many distilleries sell filling contracts to middlemen who sit on that supply like real estate for as long as necessary until it's ready for sale. As I learned during my first K&L trip to Bordeaux this past Spring, there's a similar system in place for the esteemed region's wine producers. Allocations are purchased by third party companies known as negociants and warehoused for years until a buyer is found. As a major Bordeaux retailer, K&L purchases much of its wine from these industry players. While we also buy directly from a number of chateaux, sometimes we need more inventory than what they can offer. Other times we're looking for more value-oriented wines from producers who don't have the budget to market their own goods. In these cases the negociant also functions as a sales rep. It was the latter circumstance that brought us to Barriere this past April.

Much like I spend much of my time searching for under the radar deals from unknown distilleries, Ralph and Clyde (our two Bordeaux experts) dig deep each time they travel to Bordeaux, on a quest to find quality from the highest of high end to the most basic everyday bargain. I was really impressed by some of the wines we pulled out at Barriere, especially for the price. I wasn't familiar with a number of the properties, as many of them were wines not normally seen on the general market, but who needs name recognition when the wine tastes as good as it does? One of the most impressive values was from an estate owned by the well-known vigneron and consultant Stephane Derenoncourt called Domaine de l'A, a ten hectare operation in the Côte de Castillon. Just east of St. Emilion, the wine is an overachiever in every way. The 2012 vintage for example is a soft, easy drinking, and complex merlot-based cuvée that comes from serious stock. For less than twenty-five bucks, it's a hot deal that drinks well in the short term, and one that I never would have known about were it not for Barriere. Another new discovery for me was Domaine Andron, an Haut-Mèdoc property owned by the folks at Cos Labory brings serious bang for your buck action. We snagged a 2010 Andron for $19.99 full of rich fruit and deeper, more complex notes of tobacco and earth. I couldn't believe how delicious and well-priced it was—especially given the quality of 2010. 

But that's why you have to taste everything. As I've learned in Scotland over the years, the most romantic visits and the most exciting visits aren't always one in the same. The real business—the type the yields great booze for great prices—often gets done in a boring old warehouse. They're not so boring, however, once you start thinking about what may be lying inside of them, waiting to be discovered by the dedicated merchant.

-David Driscoll