To make a small fortune in wine, one must start with a big fortune, goes the saying. But it does not hold true for Joseph Helfrich, owner of Les Grands Chais de France, who started the wine business with practically no capital in 1979 and now owns several wineries with annual revenues of 735 million Euros, writes Subhash Arora who interviewed him during a visit to his Arthur Metz winery in Alsace last week.
There were over 80 thirsty guests who had visited the winery. They had been to the steep vineyards next to the winery and had even sat through a PP presentation in German, French and English. The Crémant d’Alsace Rosé Brut Millésime bottles were being popped open. Leading from the front was a gentleman in suit, opening some bottles, making sure the glasses of the bubbly were handed out quickly as exotic tapas made from mussels, shrimps, bratwurst, sushi and several other forms of meats were raining in all directions.
Meet the Man
The venue was Arthur Metz winery in Merlenheim Alsace, near Strasbourg. The guests were the international judges for MUNDUSvini wine competition being held in Neustadt, who were visiting the winery and vineyards. The gentleman busy opening the bottles was Joseph Helfrich, owner of the winery he had acquired in 1991, not far from where he grew up in Petersbach on the northern foothills of the famous Vosges mountains. The winery is only one of the pearls of the big and beautiful necklace known as Les Grands Chais de France. It is the second biggest family -owned wine company in France, smaller only than Castel which is many years older- and the man has made JP Chenet a universally popular French brand for value-for-money varietal wines.
The 54 year old Joseph Helfrich is so humble and down to earth that when I decided to interview him on the spot because of his incredible achievements, he agreed to spend 10-15 minutes with me despite the guests clamouring to chat with him. There was only one condition- he must have his son Frédéric to be present in the interiew -not only because he seemed to be very fond of him but also because he is rather uncomfortable in English and my German geht nicht.
As Christoph Meininger, owner of the Meininger publication and organiser of the MUNDUSvini disclosed to me, Joseph has been continuously declining to accept the coveted recognition in the form of ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ which his publication started awarding a few years ago. Handed out at a gala dinner, on the eve of Prowein, where around 600 guests are invited, wine celebrities like Gina Gallo have been the recipients of this recognition award in the past. ‘I am still working on it and I hope he will finally give consent to accept the award he so richly deserves, says Christoph.
The self-made empire
The empire created single-handedly by Joseph Helfrich from scratch in 30 yearsis nothing short of a miracle but it is also a success story legends are made of. He was almost penniless in 1979 as his father who had been in the business of eau-de-vie which had been going down fast and he went bankrupt. The 23-yeear young Joseph decided to start selling wine with an investment of € 1000. Last year, the total revenues of the GCF group (Les Grands Chais de France) were € 783 million –with the ubiquitous JP Chenet contributing 30% of the total revenue.
Hard work pays
‘How did he do it?’ was the first question I fired out of sheer awe. After all, 31 years is hardly the time frame in which one expects such a fantastic performance. ‘I don’t know’ is his immediate reply with a smile that indicates he is proud and happy of his enviable record. ‘With hard work,’ is a little more serious answer he comes out with. But the real reason was something more.
Selling as Varietals
‘By keeping things simple’ is also his secret recipe. ‘There are many producers who keep things un-necessarily complicated. Thirty years ago, Bordeaux was too busy selling wines based on the complicated appellation system. I decided to market wines which were simple in understanding and reasonably priced and tasty in the glass. Alsace was always selling varietals. Therefore, I tied up with producers in South of France and introduced JP Chenet as a brand for the masses in 1984,’ says Joseph.
‘But this is not a brand like Mouton Cadet which does have a high quality image besides being a mass brand,’ I ask. ‘It was not my intention to make it a high quality brand but a popular brand. We are like the Gallo of California and Jacobs Creek of Australia and we did succeed in selling volumes as we kept on establishing the brand. Today we sell Chenet in 160 countries including India,’ adding that ‘we do have several up market brands we have added in J.P.Chenet in recent years.’
‘But you generally focus on selling the cheaper level of wines?’ He was quick to react, ‘The average selling price of a bottle in France is around € 1.65. Our average pricing per bottle is more than that average.’ At 387 million bottles sold last year, the average price seems to be only in line with the national average and if one considers that even Arthur Metz sells some Grands Crus wines for € 10-12 and one of the companies even markets wines like Petrùs, the price for the ubiquitous Chenet has to be much less than the French average.
The export king
The other smart policy was to concentrate on exploiting the brand in the international markets. ‘Today we have 17.5% share of French exports and we work with 620 growers,’ he informs me. Germany is their biggest export market. Keeping it expanding made him acquire wineries and distilleries and he became the leading French wine and spirits trader
‘Over the period of last 20 years we have acquired several companies and are in fact present in all parts of France except Champagne,’ he says. Earlier, while making an impressive presentation, Frédéric the son had told the audience that the GCF Group companies are present in the major French wine regions like in Alsace with Arthur Metz, Lacheteau in the Loire, the Caves of Landiras in the Bordeaux region, Pasquier Desvignes in the Beaujolais, the Maison du Vigneron in the Jura and Domaine de la Baume in Languedoc Roussillon.
Two-year Long Term Plans
‘So what are his long term plans?’ ‘I always think long-term which 2 years at a time is,’ he says lightly. ‘We hope to continue to do what we are doing today. We would like to develop our brands individually in all the countries of the world and develop different brands.’ This would imply that in a market like India for example, he may like to promote Arthur Metz and J P Chenet through different channels.
‘I would like to add that for us Grands Crus labels are as much a part of the portfolio as cheaper labels and I would like to develop them individually in several countries. Our strength will be to link every brand together-and link it as a French brand,’ he says.
‘We have to respect a lot of things-especially the terroir’, he says. Meanwhile he has started getting a lot of urgent messages that the visitors are ready to leave. Although I have to conclude the interview abruptly, but not without sizing up the man who is so humble yet an ambitious workaholic. ‘The only time I saw my father when I was growing up was when I could travel with him to the winery or the customers,’ says Frédéric who knows he also needs to work hard to prove worthy of his father who has become a legend of sorts, during his young life even though he has years of remaining on the pitch.
For more info on his empire, visit www.gcfplanet.com or www.jpchenet.com or write to Joseph directly at firstname.lastname@example.org