I wrote once before about Foire aux Vins, a rite of autumn where major French supermarkets put their wine sections on steroids. The casual shopper might think that he or she took a wrong turn at the dairy section and ended up in a vineyard, as some store designers install upended barrels to support bottle displays, scatter dried leaves on the floor and even place rows of potted grapevines between shelves of wine from each French wine region.
I was living in Paris, struggling with French verb tenses and trying to adjust to living in a foreign country when the first Foire aux Vins began over 20 years back. These first wine fairs were 5-and-dime-store stuff compared to today’s mega-marketing events that involve wine-tasting, glossy catalogs and wine-and-food-pairing demonstrations. As much as 25% of a supermarket’s annual wine sales occur during the two-to-three-week-long wine fairs.
Like many, I plan out my Foire aux Vins strategy months in advance. The four major supermarket chains, and an equal number of second-tier supermarkets, stagger their sales during September and October. I peruse the catalogs that arrive several weeks in advance, study the recommendations that my favorite French wine journal, the RVF (the Revue du Vin de France) posts on its website, evaluate the presumed needs of my wine cellar (I say “presumed” as my wife tells me all the time that “no one needs 300 or more bottles of wine…”), and research the supermarket “Coup de cœur” recommendations with notes and pricing information that I find online.
This year , however, was different. In late August, almost a month before the first Foire aux Vins, a recruiting agency that had found my name through the French Œnologue association that I belong to contacted me. I met with the franchise owners of the supermarket the Saturday before the event was to take place. They told me that 300 invitations had been sent to their best customers (determined, I suppose, through the store’s loyalty card data), and that they expected around half that number for the Thursday evening event (the Foire aux Vins for this particular supermarket chain was open to the public the following day).
This was the fourth year that they had held such a pre-opening event. The preparations consisted of clearing all of the aisles immediately next to the store’s entrance, stocking the wine on the shelves based on the catalog’s organization, installing the wine-barrel and other point-of-purchase displays, and preparing four different foods that would accompany an equal number of wines. The first food-wine agreement consisted of salmon-shrimp canapés and a Pouilly Fuissé white. The second was to be breaded pieces of chicken and duck with a red, Haut-Médoc Bordeaux. Next, the guests would be served grapes and cheese (Swiss Emmental and Roquefort blue) placed on skewers, accompanied by another red, this one from the Blaye-côtes-de-Bordeaux appellation. One of my favorite sweet wines, a Monbazillac from the Dordogne region east of Bordeaux, would be accompanied by one of my favorite French desserts—a chocolate Opera cake. This dessert consists of layers of almond sponge cake that are soaked in coffee syrup and that are then placed in-between layers of ganache chocolate-and-cream filling and coffee buttercream. The cake is then covered in a chocolate glaze icing. I made a mental note not to eat for at least two days before this pre-Foire aux Vins opening.
All of the food preparation and the serving of the wine and food throughout the evening were to be done by the supermarket staff. The owners, a young couple, were enthusiastic and professional, as was all of the staff in the modern, immaculately clean supermarket. If this supermarket weren’t a 30-minute drive from our home, I would be a loyal customer.
Another œnologue would also be answering questions about the wine on sale, and a man named Jacques, they told me, would be doing the “animation” for the event. What they meant by “animation” left me pondering, as this vague French term could mean anything from juggling bottles to singing. As it turned out Jacques was a small, compact guy with enormous energy and a very loud voice (he told me towards the end of the evening that he was the voice of both the Toulouse rugby and soccer clubs, doing the play-by-play announcing during their matches. And his “animation” mostly consisted of asking a variety of wine-related questions, with food and wine prizes awarded to those answering them correctly. He also got a kick out the fact that an American was in attendance—helping, he said with a wink and chuckle, the French to choose wine. I knew better than to divulge my having previously worked with Coca-Cola, or things could have become more like a “roast” rather than an animation.
Like all Foire aux Vins in France, more than 50% of the wine was from Bordeaux. The rest was predominately from the southwest (just as if you went into a Foire aux Vins in Alsace, most of the non-Bordeaux wine would be from Alsace). I noted that, out of the 400-500 different wines available, there were several Australian, Italian, Spanish and Chilean wines, and one lone American wine, a red and a white Robert Mondovi Woodbridge.
I have a friend (who shall remain nameless; OK, he’s my brother-in-law) who only drinks either premier or grand cru red Bordeaux. Not the worst problem, you might say. But the thing is that he drinks this with everything from a salad, pasta, a steak, fish, foie gras, an omelet, pancakes, a pizza, a hamburger, a hotdog, a sausage, French fries, ice cream, etc. I thought of him when the first man arrived in the Foire aux Vins section, wheeling his shopping cart like a Frenchman accelerating his Peugeot to get that last parking spot, directly to the Bordeaux section. His objective was the store’s entire stock of Château Branda, a 2010 Puisseguin-St-Emillion that the Revue du Vin de France had given 15 points out of 20. I would have liked to have purchased a bottle of the wine, which, at €10.95, represented good quality for its price, but he took all of the free-standing bottles off the shelf, along with three unopened cartons that were on the lowest shelf waiting to be stocked. Five minutes after the supermarket doors had opened at 8 p.m. for the pre-Foire he was already headed through the checkout. No other wines, nor the food-wine combinations to come, interested him, obviously.
No other, so-single-minded wine buyer caught my attention, but there were plenty of questions from shoppers about various wines, requests for recommendations, and people unable to find wine on the shelves that they had seen in the catalog. Two middle-aged women had me search for over 15 minutes for a particular champagne, before I noticed that they were carrying another supermarket’s catalog.
And from time-to-time I would hear the voice-of-Toulouse’s-sports teams-Jacques asking a wine-related question, such as how many different grape varieties are permitted in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC blend? Fortunately, he didn’t ask them to name all 13.
All four of the wine-food combinations were spot on. From my point of view the evening was a great success. The store owner, who had told me that the objective was to offer their customers an enjoyable evening rather than to sell a lot of wine, seemed pleased. And Jacques even gave me a chance at the end of the evening to say a few words. After thinking for a second, I remembered having seen that the American portion of the Foire had been diminished by a grand total of one bottle, so I thanked, through the store’s intercom system, “The one shopper who had purchased a bottle of Californian wine.”
It’s too bad that irony doesn’t translate very well. And if someone from Robert Mondavi is reading this, I think that you may need to rethink your marketing strategy in France.