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With Ryman reason

Published:  23 July, 2008

I'm not sure that I'm the right person to write this piece. Arthur Miller would have handled it so much better: the steps that take someone in this direction rather than that, the consequences piling up, the unavoidable dnouement. But Miller is dead, and in any case I doubt if Harpers could have afforded him. So here I am.

And here is Hugh Ryman, back in business and not keen to dwell on the past. But, as in an Arthur Miller play, the past is unavoidable - and liable to illumine the present in unexpected ways.

The background is this: Ryman is the son of Nick Ryman, who, in 1974, having sold his stationery business, moved, with his family, to Chteau la Jaubertie in Bergerac. Here he made wine of considerable appeal - fresh, fruity, fashionable. But father and son were not close; one heard rumours of colossal rows. Hugh made the wine there between 1984 and 1987 and, he says, revolutionised the making of the white wine, increased the vineyard by 30% and sales by 50%. In 1987, however, Hugh left Jaubertie, and, he says, I didn't speak to my father for five years.' He went off to set up his own company in south and southwest France, and in 1991 he started making wine in Hungary. He was one of the first flying winemakers - perhaps the first - and Oz Clarke, in his 1993 Wine Guide (Webster's/Mitchell Beazley), wrote of him thus: [Ryman's] whole philosophy is based on what he learnt from Brian Croser in Australia. Now he is the star producer of the southwest of France, has shocked everybody by his 1991 creations in Hungary and is set to shock us all still further by what he can weave out of the tangled webs of potential brilliance in the newly independent ex-communist states that circle the Black Sea. He has a lieutenant, a Croser-trained Australian, and a roving team of winery and vineyard workers - Australians - all trained in the art of the possible, all with one thought drummed into their heads - there's no point in making a wine unless it's going to give pleasure to the person who drinks it.'

Ryman, in other words, was a star, and the wine world was at his feet. He made wine in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Spain,

Italy, Turkey, Romania, Moldova, the USA, Italy, Morocco, Germany, Hungary and all over France. He made wine for Safeway, Sainsbury's, First Quench, Diageo, Southcorp, Whitbread, Binderer He thought big: a million cases of this, a million cases of that. His Rueda was voted the best white wine in Spain three years running. He won four White Wine of the Year awards at the International Wine Challenge, and two trophies. His company - Rystone, which he had formed in 1993 with Esm Johnstone of Chteau de Sours in Entre-Deux-Mers - bought Jaubertie, paying Ryman pre over seven years. Rystone also invested in Chteau Vignelaure in Provence and bought Chteau de Sours.

Our fundamental error was that our trading business grew at more than 30% per year,' Ryman says now. We had a lot of properties, and we needed double the turnover we had. We had debts, and they needed servicing, so a year later we had cash-flow problems. We should have raised double what we did' from the institutional investors to whom they had gone when setting up Rystone. In 1997, Johnstone bought de Sours back, and at about the same time the other investors in Vignelaure bought that back, and Ryman's father-in-law bought Jaubertie. Johnstone suggests that after that Rystone was in pretty good shape financially.

The narrative diverges here according to who is narrating. For Ryman, it seems to have been undercapitalisation and lack of cash flow, in spite of the sales of properties, that brought down the company. Another version has it that the fracas over the Conca de Barbera that wasn't Conca de Barbera was the coup de grce to both Ryman and his reputation. Johnstone thinks that this was fairly trivial in the longer run and says that the problem was that Ryman was caught making 90% white when the market suddenly switched to red. This version is not necessarily incompatible with Ryman's version; it's just that Ryman never mentions it as a factor.

Some divine right'

Outsiders seem to have become aware that things weren't quite right some while before the company actually went down: there were stories of people being paid late or not at all; stories of winemakers being put up in hotels and discovering their bills weren't being paid after all. Ryman had a run-in with Customs & Excise over unpaid duty and VAT, which resulted, as such things do, in wine being seized. One source who knew him well at this time says that, although he gave constant reassurances that all was well, he didn't seem particularly plausible; indeed, this source describes Ryman as appearing to think it rather funny, as though he had some divine right'.

The Conca be Barbera business erupted, says Ryman, when Jim Budd, scourge of fraudulent wine companies, started to enquire into the origins of one of Ryman's wines, which was bottled in France and shipped to Norway. (There seems to have been bad blood between Rystone and the Spanish company over payment agreements.) Budd sent a fax to Ryman, asking where it was from. Ryman, in reply, sent the papers - which described it as via de mesa.

Ryman maintains that he had never looked at the documents and, further, that his Spanish wasn't good enough to spot

the significance of the phrase Vino tinto tipo Tempranillo filtrado de mesa. Had we realised, we would never have sent them through to Jim Budd. It all happened at the same time as we were restructuring and selling our assets.'

It's easy to believe that he didn't know what the documents contained; nobody, but nobody, would have sent such damning evidence had they known. But this doesn't answer the main question: Did Ryman know that the wine was not from Conca de Barbera? He says he didn't. He was under extreme pressure at this time; it's as though he slightly lost the plot.

Looking back, I would do it differently,' he says of the collapse of Rystone. When you're in difficulties you have to sum up the pros and cons, and very seldom do you get thanks for trying to salvage something - and I wasn't the majority shareholder. Perhaps I was naive. I thought something could be salvaged Nobody had a majority share in the company, and we had to act very quickly, but we couldn't, and then it was too late. I tried to restructure, but it was impossible to do.'

A one-man band

Nevertheless, Ryman has climbed back.

He's a one-man band these days, without a company - though he says he's not prevented from having one - doing a spot of winemaking but rather more fine-tuning between producer and distributor: he describes his role as that of head waiter, working between the kitchen (the producer) and the dining room (the customer). He likes searching for undiscovered areas, and he's doing quite a bit in Spain, Chile and elsewhere, but only 5-10% of his business is with Britain.

I like to work with people who have the production, co-ops who can deliver, who are getting their act together, and have size, and quality potential. It's about service and people who understand it The market is difficult, and [it's] getting more and more demanding. I don't work directly with supermarkets because they like to go through importers; I work mostly with producers and with importers. There's a window at the moment, before supermarkets demand standards that small producers can't do.' When that window closes, he says, he'll move on, find another niche. Per year I'm handling nearly a million cases, and I could do double or triple that and still stay a one-man band. I've gone through high overheads, and I don't want to do that again.'

Making small batches of wine again appeals for the future; he likes the thought of being more hands-on again. Everything will be much more branded in the future, and it will be more difficult to play in that league; it will be all Constellation and

that sort of thing. So it will be possible to go back to making small batches' - for another part of the market.

Above all, he wants to keep a lower profile. It's taken a long time to build things back up and rebuild trust.' A lot

of supermarket buyers have been very supportive, he says: I saw who my real friends were.' His reputation was certainly damaged, and those who lost money don't speak of him in particularly friendly terms. He seems tense and ill at ease with himself - but then he always did seem pretty tightly wound, and being questioned about it all over again is not conducive to relaxation.

I have a lot of admiration for him,' says Johnstone; and he is, everyone would agree, a very good winemaker.