Supermarket wine buyer, turned winemaker, Justin Howard-Sneyd MW explains how a poor vintage ended up creating a second wine for his winery, The Domaine of the Bee in France’s Languedoc Roussillon. The wine is the brilliantly named “The Bee-side Grenache”. He also gives an insight into the highs and lows of being a winemaker.
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW on what it is like making wine in what he describes as the “pimple on the bottom end of France”. The Départment ‘Pyrenées Orientales’ in the Languedoc Roussillion. But a pimple, he says, they “are hugely proud about”.
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW clearly has a great deal of fun making wine at his winery, Domaine of the Bee, in his small part of the Langudoc Roussillon. He also has great fun with the name and dreaming up all sorts of scenarios, April Fool stories, and ways to keep his “Bees” in the news and make more people aware of them so that they can give them a try.
So when he decided to make a second wine for the winery, in order to salvage something from a difficult 2014 vintage, he wanted to come up with a name that would be as memorable as hopefully the wine was. One name immediately stood out. The Bee-side.
Or to give it, its full title The Bee-side Grenache. A wine he felt had good depth and concentration, but not quite the level to be bottled as his primary Domaine of the Bee wine. A Grenache that deserved to be bottled immediately. Only 1,333 bottles were made, all complete with a typically astute design from Neil Tully of Amphora Design.
The label even uses language more fitting to a record sleeve than a bottle of wine. It reads: “Original Grenache material from the Coume de Roy and Bac de Genievres vineyards has been mixed in the studio by producers Justin Howard-Sneyd and Jean-Marc Lafage resulting in a purity of tone and a harmonious blend of delicate yet expressive red fruits and hints of fennel and rosemary.”
And around the edge of the label, it reads: “All rights of the manufacturer and of the owner of the fermented work reserved. Unauthorised opening, hiring, lending public tasting and talking about this bottle is encouraged.”
Here he tells the story of how that wine was put together as well as looking back over his years as a winemaker. Including the highs, lows and the tribulations of having to sell wine at a loss, for bulk, from a poor vintage like he did for his Carignan from the same 2014 vintage.
I was pretty miserable after the 2014 harvest. Just two weeks before we started picking, things were looking pretty hopeful. We had a larger number of grapes than usual, and they seemed to have survived the attacks on mildew and odium earlier in the year. We knew that the skins were on the thin side, but we had our fingers crossed for at least averagely good quality. But in late September, they just weren’t ripe.
We decided to hang on for a week or two.
When we did start to pick, the drosophila suzukii and the eudemis had done their work, and hollowed out a lot of grapes, turning them into vinegar bombs. So we selected extremely hard in the vineyards, and left 50% of our fruit lying on the ground. And then we took out another 5-10% when the grapes arrived at the winery.
So, a potential 6,500 bottles becomes only 3,000.
And the thin skins also didn’t give up a lot of colour, especially in our Carignan which is usually reliably black. So the wine we had made was only OK.
It took several tastings and visits over 2015 to conclude that we were not going to release Domaine of the Bee from the 2014 vintage. But I am sure that this was the right decision, however expensive it will turn out to be. The Carignan was just ordinary, and we won’t sell ordinary wine.
Jean-Marc Lafage (winemaker, who we have worked with us since 2012) and I spent a weekend in the mountains in February with my good friend Andrew Shaw (then of Bibendum PLB, and now wine buying supremo at Conviviality), and the three of us took up the barrel samples, and played around with the blends. After eliminating the Carignan, we tried various combinations of the three Grenache barrels to see if we could come up with something we felt happy with.
Two of our three barrels, one from our ancient Coume de Roy vineyard that normally makes ‘Les Genoux’ and our barrel of Grenache pressings, combined to create a really delicious glass. As we moved from the tasting phase of our evening, towards the drinking phase, a smile spread across my face as I realised that we had a special wine here. Not Domaine of the Bee as such, but something different – lighter, softer, and more gluggable. But VERY gluggable!
(Here Justin Howard-Sneyd talks about his vineyard at Coume de Roy)
Story of Domaine of the Bee
Making Domaine of the Bee for nearly 10 years now has been a wonderful experience. We bought the first block in 2004 with no plan. I think if we’d forced ourselves to make a business plan, we might have talked ourselves out of it. When confronted by the ‘will I / won’t I?’ moment, it just felt like the right thing to do.
Some of the best decisions in life are not made by the head. We gave away the grapes for the first three years, and then bought two more small blocks in 2006 and 2007 to give us a total of four hectares.
2007 was our first vintage – made in a building that was rented from the Mairie by our winemaking friend Richard Case (of Domaine de la Pertuisane)
We adopted the ‘Screaming Eagle’ business model, and wrote to 500 people to let them know that they could buy their allocation of six bottles. But explained there wasn’t quite enough to go round if they all wanted some, so they’d better be quick. Little known to me at the time, but the 30% response rate that we did achieve is almost unheard of for a piece of direct mail – it probably helped that many of the initial 500 were friends and relations who wanted to support us. Not quite Screaming Eagle then, but a good start.
Things have changed a bit since then. We have had a huge amount of positive press reviews from the likes of Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Andrew Jefford, and Olly Smith, and have developed a strong following from a loyal customer base who love what we do.
We still sell the vast majority of our wine (70%+) direct to our own customers, in the UK, and a little in France and Hong Kong, and we ship to a few trade customers in the USA, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
In the UK, we now have 180 Wine Club Members, and another 300-400 people who buy from us occasionally, and a mailing list of over 2,000 people, many of whom keep on reading our newsletters because we make a lot of effort to make them entertaining.
We make and see around 4-5,000 bottles of wine every year, mostly red, but we branched out a couple of years ago to produce a white and this year we made a rosé, both wines from Jean-Marc Lafage’s grapes, rather than our own.
And we started an English Sparkling Wine project from the 2010 vintage, which we now sell as a guest wine on the Domaine of the Bee website.
(Here Howard-Sneyd explains importance of the soils in Maury, video shared by fellow English winemaker in France, Steven Cronk of Mirabeau Wine in Provence)
Need to be ambidextrous
One of the joys of running your own business is the sheer number of things that you have to become proficient in. We need to have a working understanding of: soil nutrition, drainage, pruning, pest management, wine chemistry and microbiology, label design, dry goods ordering, shipping, storage, dispatch, website management, social media, customer service, licensing, marketing, tasting co-ordination, account management, credit control and spittoon cleaning to list only a few things.
And it is pretty clear that you are unlikely to be a master at any of these if you want to be a jack of them all.
The latest joy is VAT. We crossed the threshold for registration (£82,000 rolling turnover) in March 2016, and I have spend several happy days since then wrestling with the complexities. And we’ve had to register with the AWRS. And Brexit has dropped the exchange rate from 1.40-ish to 1.16, and since our costs are mostly in euros, this will make our 2016 and 2017 wines more expensive to produce.
And all this on less than two days a week, as my day job as a wine consultant keeps me busy on the other 3-4.
We are toying with the idea of buying another vineyard or two, and would love to hear from anyone who might like to get involved, especially anyone with a small wine shop or restaurant who fancies a couple of hundred bottles a year, and somewhere to take their team during harvest for a bit of fun mucking around with grapes.
I might have to add ‘crowdfunding’ to the list of skills I need to learn.