In the family

Like the Mafia and Royalty, the wine trade sets a great deal of store by the concept of family.

There’s a pervasive feeling, whether in the sales material of merchants or the existence of collaborative associations such as Australia’s First Families of Wine or the international fine wine club Primum Familiae Vini, that family is the best model of ownership for the best wines.

Unlike supposedly more ruthless, faceless corporate brands, family wine firms are considered stewards of the land with a strong connection to their consumers. Their expertise, passed down the generations, is seen as a guarantee of consistency and reliability, while the absence of shareholders means there’s less temptation to look short term and cut corners.

Whether this is actually the case with many family firms is almost beside the point. The wine trade’s love of family is, to a large extent, emotional, not rational. It’s based on an image of a bygone winemaking time that either never existed or was nothing like the idyll we imagine, but which has a powerful hold on the trade’s collective imagination.

You can see how strong the connection is whenever a longstanding family firm decides to sell up. Two recent deals spring to mind: the acquisition by sports magnate Stan Kroenke of a majority stake in Burgundy domaine Bonneau du Martray, from Jean-Charles Le Bault de la Morinière; and the sale, by the Biondi-Santi family, of their celebrated Brunello estate to the EPI Group, owners, since 2011, of Charles and Piper Heidsieck champagnes.

In both cases these deals brought an end to around two centuries of ownership by a single family. And in both cases there was something approaching grief among some commentators. It’s “a bit of a sad day for Italian wine”, said one UK-based Italian-specialist MW of the Biondi-Santi sales, who nonetheless saw it as “inevitable given the way Brunello has become an investment-grade area”. French observers made similar points about Bonneau du Martray, with Le Figaro saying domaines in Burgundy have “little chance” of making the change down the generations given inheritance laws and the astronomic rise in land values in the region.

While you can understand why inhabitants of Burgundy and Brunello may lament the coming of outside investors and the feeling they’re being priced out of their local industry, should wine buyers and their consumers fear such changes? I’m not convinced. Of course there have been occasions when a corporate takeover has sucked the soul from a family business: Mondavi springs to mind.

But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes a change of ownership can bring new impetus and a fresh perspective, and in both these recent deals, there is every reason to be confident that will be the case again. Certainly EPI (a family firm itself, lest we forget) has a sound track record in its stewardship of the Heidsieck brands, while Kroenke’s passion for wine is no mere passing fad, with Bonneau du Martray joining highly rated Californians Screaming Eagle, Jonata and The Hilt in his growing collection.

The point is that family ownership is no panacea. Whatever the line of business, it’s not the type of ownership that matters, but the individuals. Or, put another way, it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.