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Published:  23 July, 2008

Directors, Grand Cru Wines Ltd, Interview: Anastasia Edwards

Grand Cru Wines Ltd, Mas de Moussier, 1100-5 Avenue des Alpilles, 13310 Saint Martin de Crau, France Tel: +33 4 9047 2906;

Liz Berry MW was a classical-guitar teacher before joining the Vince Food and Wine Group (Europa Foods), where she was eventually promoted to the position of wine buyer. She passed the Master of Wine examination in 1980 and in 1981 purchased the shop in Old Brompton Road that became La Vigneronne. It was one of the first retail stores to specialise in fine and unusual wines, including Penfolds Grange, Torres Black Label and fine Californian and South African wines, as well as the less well-distributed areas of France such as Alsace and the south. After brief stints in law and accountancy, Mike Berry, Liz's husband, worked for Standard Chartered Bank until 1981, when he joined Liz at La Vigneronne. He is an avid collector of wine books, decanters and other wine paraphernalia. The Berrys sold La Vigneronne in 2003 and now focus mostly on sourcing wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon for the UK market. Grand Cru's retail clients include Handford Wines, Terroir Ltd, S.Wines, Gauntleys of Nottingham and The Ultimate Wine Company. Main restaurant clients include The Fat Duck, Foliage, Tom Aikens and the Orrery.

What made you decide to leave La Vigneronne and up sticks to France? Liz: We actually moved to France 10 years ago. It was quite hard running a retail business from France, so we decided to move into wholesale and restaurants to make some of our wines more widely available.

What are the logistical challenges of being based in France but trading in the UK? Liz: Not being able to just drop in on customers. But things are happening very rapidly in the Languedoc-Roussillon, and we are much more flexible now to go and see producers. We deal with Geodis, who do all our shipping; orders can be faxed or e-mailed to us in France, so it makes no difference if we are in an office or not.

How and when did you discover the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon? Liz: We have had a house in the area for the last 20 years. There is a restaurant, Mimosa, that we have been going to for years, and they've always been very passionate about wines from the area; we came across quite a few wines through them. We've been importing Languedoc wines for the last 20 years and I wrote a book on the Languedoc-Roussillon in 1985, when most of our producers didn't even exist. Languedoc-Roussillon: The World's Largest Vineyard was unfortunately too far ahead of its time.

When you first imported wines from the region what was the response? Liz: It's always a problem when the names are not known and people are expected to pay higher prices for them. There are still quite a few restaurants and merchants who will say, Well we have a Languedoc on the list' - meaning a cheap or a house wine - and who are not trained to accept that these wines can be a step above. We still get customers who say, I'd like something pre-hype.' It's not a matter of hype that these wines are expensive: it's minuscule yields and a very great deal of investment. On the other hand, it has also been rewarding because the very first pioneers, like Mas de Daumas Gassac, at that time found it much easier to sell their wines in England than in France, because the English are much more open and enquiring, whereas the French have the wine snob thing against vin de pays.

How do you source the wines? Liz: One person will say, I've got a friend who is just starting out. Would you be interested in going to see them?' It's come very much from word of mouth, one producer to another. It's a very exciting region: 2001 is the first vintage of many of the wines we are currently offering.

How have you educated the consumer? Liz: At La Vigneronne we had two tastings a week. Obviously we can't do that now, but we've started to do newsletters about who's who and who's doing what.

Liz, tell me about being an MW. Liz: There was no Languedoc when I did it! At the time I was probably one of the first MWs to be working in a supermarket, and MWs weren't absolutely certain that working in a supermarket qualified as working in the wine trade.

What is the future of the Languedoc-Roussillon? Liz: I hope that the future will be good for young vignerons because there are so many of them. There are people starting up every day. There are so many fine-wine shops in the south of France that are finding it hard to keep up, despite specialising very strongly in the Languedoc. It is going to be quite a crisis time, I think. There are a lot of big businesses making good standard wine in large quantities. Obviously the supermarkets need volume, and I think they are likely to follow these international vignerons rather than the small local vignerons. The cooperatives are in a state of crisis because they're fighting very hard to sell what are, frankly, not particularly brilliant wines. It is inevitable that some people will go under. Mike: The challenge will be trying to get through to the public that there are some great wines down there. I think too much has been made of all the cheaper wines available. We're selling into some of the top restaurants in England because they've got good French sommeliers who actually know a lot more about the wines from this region than a lot of people in the retail trade know. So it's just a matter of education - hopefully we'll get there in the end.

Has the battle been won? Are the wines on the map? Mike: We're having to defend our choice still, especially at the top end of the market. People say, Well, for 20 I could buy a really good Chteauneuf.' Well yes, but our reply is that the quality you get with wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon is so high. Yields are often two-thirds of what they are in Chteauneuf.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming vignerons? Mike: Go for quality, and keep it small.