After being bottled in Eastern France, Beaujolais Nouveau wine is transported to the four corners of the globe by truck, train, boat, helicopter, motorbike, rickshaw, on the backs of elephants, and in hot air balloons. On the third Thursday of November every year, bars and restaurants worldwide celebrate the arrival of this fruity wine, which is harvested a few weeks earlier in the Saône Valley. And while there are fewer people drinking Beaujolais Nouveau in France, the wine has found a loyal customer base in the United States.
November 16 marks the official launch of sales of the 2017 vintage. As it falls at the same time as Thanksgiving and has become associated with end-of-year celebrations, Beaujolais Nouveau has found a home in the United States. Americans enjoy almost ten percent of the production volume of the new wine every year, the total of which was estimated at 25 million bottles in 2016. “The United States is one of our key markets,” says Dominique Prion, who heads up the Inter Beaujolais winemaking cooperative in the eponymous French region. “Average consumption has grown eight percent every year, while the figures are dropping in France.”
Despite a “meagre harvest” caused by late frost this year, more than 1.5 million bottles will be exported to the United States in 2017. The wine is transported in shipping containers, a maneuver that requires a sense of logistics only a handful of producers have mastered. Georges Dubœuf is one of the leading players in the field. Nicknamed “the King of Beaujolais,” the 84-year-old wine merchant assembles the harvests of 300 producers and exports his wine to Paris, Tokyo, London, Beijing, Sydney and New York. Nine out of every ten bottles sent to the U.S.A. is labelled with his name.
Georges Dubœuf’s grapes are harvested in August and bottled from October 10 onwards. The producers’ cooperative decides on the date on which the wine is removed from the cellars, and when it is exported outside of the European Union (it left the E.U. on October 25 this year). Driven by truck, then by train, up to Le Havre, the 107,000 allotted cases then cross the Atlantic aboard the MSC Savannah, a freight liner flying the Liberian flag. Expected to dock in Port Newark in New Jersey on November 6, the wine is then unloaded by Quintessential Wines, the distributor of Dubœuf wines in the United States.
107,000 cases of Beaujolais wine crossed the Atlantic aboard the MSC Savannah, a freight liner chartered by Giorgio Gori and DHL. © Patalavaca/ShipSpotting.com
Beaujolais Nouveau represents a “small percentage” of the Californian distributor’s activity, but “a major challenge in terms of logistics and promotion,” says Dennis Kreps, the company CEO. More than 15,000 wine merchants spread across all 50 states have to be supplied by November 16. The bottles destined for Hawaii and Alaska are transported via cargo plane, and the others are loaded onto trucks. Up to three drivers take turns driving to reach the furthest towns in time.
Red Wine Fever
Beaujolais Nouveau has been a highly competitive market. During the 1950s, winemakers rushed to send their bottles to Paris, where bistros would herald the launch of sales of the year’s first bottles on November 15. This date was then replaced by the third Thursday of November in 1985. ‘Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived’ would be displayed in every bistro window. “On the night before the launch, some 100 trucks would be parked in front of each vineyard,” says Dominique Piron, whose family has managed a vineyard in Villié-Morgon since the 16th century. “On the stroke of midnight from the village bell tower, the drivers were handed their instructions and the trucks would set off for Paris. Even television crews would be there, it was very impressive!”
The reduction in delivery times put a stop to this race against the clock, but the arrival of the first cases of wine is still something to celebrate. An American importer even managed to get around the longshoremen’s strike that had shut down ports in 1971, by having 25 cases of Beaujolais flown in by Boeing 747. The bottles were opened and served the very same night in a French restaurant in Manhattan. The event caused quite a stir, and U.S. consumers rushed to discover this new wine.
In 2008, wine merchant Frank Dubœuf delivered himself the first case of Beaujolais Nouveau to New York… on a Harley-Davidson! © Jennifer Mitchell
The following year, The New York Times published a piece about the wine’s arrival, and the same importer — Shenley Industries — once again had people talking. Some 2,000 cases of Beaujolais Nouveau were flown in New York on a Pan Am flight, and Miss France chaperoned the cargo! The extravagance certainly didn’t stop there. In the early 1980s, wine merchant Georges Dubœuf moved into the American market and began delivering the first cases himself — but this time by Concorde! The “King of Beaujolais” made a name for himself in the United States thanks to his publicity stunts, which included a launch party at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a reception at the top of the World Trade Center, a parade of French chefs riding motorbikes through the streets of Manhattan, and parties with fountains of red wine and Playboy playmates in Las Vegas.
The first cases of Beaujolais Nouveau will arrive discreetly this year. The launch of sales is still an event celebrated by French embassies — in the same way as Bastille Day — but the Beaujolais trend is running out of steam. Dominique Piron agrees: “Winemakers couldn’t keep up with the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon. They weren’t able to preserve the identity of the wine or the terroir,” he says. “After devoting a large portion of the budget to the United States for several years, we have decided to change our communication strategy.”
A major part of the Inter Beaujolais budget (one million euros in 2017) is now allocated to the emerging markets of Japan and China. In the United States, the cooperative’s efforts are instead focused on educating consumers. “We base our communication strategy on our know-how and on the wine itself,” says Romain Teyteau, head of exports for Dubœuf wines in North America. “We teach our customers about the Beaujolais region, its terroir and different vintages, our winemaking techniques, the aromas of the year, and the food and wine pairings.”
Georges Dubœuf will be in Tokyo on November 16, while his son Frank, the heir to the winery, will be in Manhattan. Their Beaujolais Nouveau will be served at some 100 tasting events, receptions and dinners across New York and Florida — the two states that make up 20% of their activity in the U.S.A. — as well as in California, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, Utah and Idaho. The Alliances Françaises, the French-American Chambers of Commerce, and the French Consulates are also regular customers.
Beaujolais Nouveau is seen as a poor-quality wine in France, but customs duties and transport costs have turned it into an expensive product in the United States. Expect to pay between 11 and 15 dollars for a bottle in a store and up to 50 dollars at a bar or a restaurant. But the quality of the vintages is improving, which is helping to restore the reputation of other wines from the Beaujolais region. In a testament to this rebirth, a community has formed, and now includes sommeliers, chefs, and young connoisseurs “eager to discover these wines from the Old World,” says Romain Teyteau. “With the end of the fad that has lasted for 30 years, consumers are beginning to realize that other wines from the Beaujolais region can be both credible and enjoyable.”
Article published in the November 2017 issue of France-Amérique