Wendy Narby: Bordeaux is very innovative

by Eve Resnick on February 11, 2009

in Innovation

Wendy Narby is one of the best representatives of the links between Britain and Bordeaux. She moved to Bordeaux about 20 years ago and is now one of the best specialists of the Bordeaux wines, acting as a consultant, a teacher and a guide. She came to France in the ’80s to study wine marketing and got her master from a school of the ESSEC Group in Paris. Her dissertation was on “Marketing Bordeaux wine” – what a surprise! In 1989, she married Hamilton Narby, an English speaking Canadian from Montreal and a negotiant in Bordeaux. Hamilton convinced her to move to Bordeaux – “not a hard sell”, said Wendy with a smile.

I met Wendy a few months ago and I liked her warm and outgoing personality as much as her passion for Bordeaux, wine, food and everything good in life. I discovered her professional talent when she presented to a group of Napa Valley winemakers invited to Bordeaux the industry of the region. She mentioned the “innovative” aspect of the Bordeaux wine industry – to the surprise of her American listeners who pictured Bordeaux as the epitome of conservatism. She very nicely agreed to answer a few questions on this topic.

What makes Bordeaux “innovative” in the wine business?

I think it used to be conservative and for many properties it is perhaps an image they choose to cultivate but, for the vast majority, it is just no longer the case. Examples – look around some of the cellars, we have some of the most modern cellars using the very latest wine making techniques. Of course, Bordeaux is all about the place (terroir) but technique is nothing new. Blending but has always been a keystone of what is Bordeaux and if that is not a technique…!

Haut-Brion was one of the first properties to have stainless steel tanks as early as the 60’s and the innovations have been coming on ever since. One major reason I believe is the influence of the Institut d’Oenologie (Enology Institute) here, not just for the R&D going on there but for the rapid dissemination of this information from the institute to the growers and wine makers via the structure of consultants and through the role of the negociants that often get such criticism commercially but play a major role in many cases in advising their suppliers – growers – and offering them expertise that they would not normally have access to. They are also a very innovative force as they are in direct and constant contact with the market place which, for smaller growers, is very difficult, and they can relay this market information and translate it into practical wine making, packaging and marketing advice.

How do you foresee the future of the Bordeaux wines on the international markets? I’m referring mostly to the estates that are not part of the Grand Cru system. How could they manage to fight competition and innovate?

I see many young wine makers and managers at the properties I visit in the region. These young people are highly trained individuals either in oenology or in business or both! They speak foreign languages and have usually spent a period wine making or working in other wine regions throughout the world. They are bringing this experience and this market knowledge back home.

As a consequence they are making wines, especially in the ‘Everyday’ price range that are not just extremely good value for money but of consistent quality (often a criticism of Bordeaux with the vintage effect that accompanies our climate), of a style that suits the market for their price point and attractively packaged. They are also aware that making a fine wine is not enough. They travel and meet the customer either opening their cellars and their homes to visitors – hence, the increasing number of tasting rooms and chambres d’hôte (B&B) in the Châteaux especially in the Côtes region – or getting on the market place via the negociants, through initiatives like Everyday Bordeaux or in wine shows where they have direct contact with their final customers.

I also think that these wine makers show a side to Bordeaux that is uncomplicated and I believe that education as well as wine tourism is the key to reassuring people that choosing Bordeaux from a supermarket shelve or from a restaurant wine list is not automatically an expensive or an intimidating choice – Education is the key. The CIVB (Bordeaux Wine Council) via its wine school ‘l’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux’ has betted on this by training 145 international wine educators about Bordeaux; its innovations and accessibility and also by partnering with 19 wine schools internationally to spread this message – being very aware that not everyone who is interested in Bordeaux can get here to learn about it. Since 1990, over 100,000 people worldwide have followed the Bordeaux Wine School programmes: amateurs, distributors and educators. As of 2007, 14 000 professionals had benefited from these training programs. Education is definitely a key.

Technical innovations in wine making and blending, a new generation and a new style of Bordeaux producers, education are indeed the keys to the new world of Bordeaux wines. Wendy Narby will be our guest on our live radio show, the new wine consumer, on March 17th. She’ll give us more details on this topic and you’ll have a taste of her warm personaility and passion for life and wine.


1 Mark Fisher February 11, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I met Wendy when we were both serving as judges at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo international wine competition in 2006 and 2007, and she is indeed a fine ambassador for Bordeaux wines. But she has a tough sell, and her statement that education is "the key in reassuring people that choosing Bordeaux from a supermarket shelf or from a restaurant wine list is not automatically an expensive or an intimidating choice" is dead-on. That's certainly the perception of wine consumers here in the USA heartland where I live and work, and it will take a very powerful campaign to dislodge that notion. My question is: Why would the makers of world-class Bordeaux sign on to such an effort? Wouldn't they feel such a campaign could dilute the prestige of their brand?

2 Frederick August 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Because the vast majority of Bordeaux is inexpensive, not prestigous or pretentious at all.

Most is just good basic table wine, some is merde, and some is classified.

The few makers of the world-class stuff don't need any marketing board help … they're still riding the classifications of decades ago all the way to the bank … while the average producer is going bust with the new world marketers and the new fashions in fruit & alcohol-bomb taste.

Buy a $15 bottle of Bordeaux Superiore or Medoc today and drink it tonight is the campaign.

Rick Schofield, Hyde Park, NY

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