The fine wine think tank

Forget Davos, because wine now has a high-level gathering of its own. Felicity Carter talks to the people behind Areni.

FM4FW at Kirwan
FM4FW at Kirwan

There are many wine events, but only one brings together oil executives, technology gurus and sociology professors. It started as Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines (FM4FW), a forum to discuss the future of fine wine – but it’s since morphed into something more ambitious.

Small beginnings

Nicole Sierra Rolet has always been immersed in big ideas. “I worked on a big magazine called Institutional Investor, as well as on the program side and on conferences, and was in charge of defining agendas and topics and getting the right global thinkers and actors together.”

Then she and her husband, financier Xavier Rolet KBE, founded Chêne Bleu in 2007, at Domaine de la Verrière in the southern Rhône, which Rolet had owned since 1993. Around the tenth anniversary of Chêne Bleu, Sierra Rolet “used the excuse of the birthday to do a little recap and soul searching of where we had come in ten years.”

One thing she realised was missing from wine was collaborative conversations. She was convinced that industries directing their energies towards “small, petty-minded occupations like trying to steal market share” did less well than industries focused on growing to benefit everybody. Chêne Bleu, Sierra- Rolet decided, was the perfect place for such conversations. She called her idea Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines (FM4FW) and based it on the think tank model of panels, round tables and guided brainstorming.  “It was a fairly home-grown, bottom-up event,” says Sierra- Rolet. Jancis Robinson MW was among the first attendees, as was French critic Michele Bettane and Meininger’s Robert Joseph, along with people from finance and other sectors.

Trying to get high-level people together in one place – especially to a rural area – opens up formidable logistical challenges. Fortunately, Sierra Rolet had just attended Vinocamp France and had met someone who could help.

Perfect partner

Pauline Vicard, who grew up in a family of Burgundy winemakers, had studied marketing and communications. “I went worked in the UK for a year, and realised I was missing the wine world,” she says. Vicard returned to France and studied wine in Dijon, then did an international degree in trade, and worked in business intelligence. “I started a wine club with friends because I wanted to keep tasting and learning.” Before long, Vicard was selling wine, doing wine educating, and doing marketing. She even opened wine pop-up shops and co-founded a wine-and-tea shop. “But setting up business in France is very difficult – you spend a lot of time doing administration work.”

Eventually, Vicard headed back to London. “I worked in a wine bar in the City to see how people were buying and drinking wine,” she said. “They spent a lot! You could sell £3,000 of wine at lunch to three people.” The first time she organised a Christmas party, she underestimated the quantity of wine needed by a factor of three. But, she noticed, the wine trade remained low margin, even when selling to bankers. “Everyone tells you that education is the key to wine, but nobody gives value to education.”

Then she met Sierra Rolet, and the pair so impressed one another, that Sierra Rolet asked her to come on board FM4FW. “I started in March 2017 to organise the event, which was in June,” said Vicard. “We were designing a program to make people think, but we had very little time or human resources.”

As well as organising hotels and logistics, they believed the most important thing was to find high quality thinkers – which they did, including experts in drone technology, robotics, marketing and finance. After the event was over, Vicard turned the insights into white papers and a report, an enormous amount of work. 

The feedback from participants was so positive, however, that another FM4FW was held at AR Lenoble in Champagne in 2018. After that, it was clear that something bigger and more permanent was needed, leading to the founding of Areni, with Vicard as director. Areni is a body that does in-depth research into the fine wine market and holds regular “Insight Series”, which are short events devoted to a single question. So far, they have been held in London and New York. Vicard says it’s the research that makes Areni viable.  “It’s a virtuous circle – because you’ve got the research, you can publish and attract members. Because you’ve got good members, you can attract sponsors.”

There are two membership tiers. Fellows, a tier that is invitation only, can participate in FM4FW and then there are Members, who pay €160 per year to access the research. Members can apply to attend FM4FW. “What I really like is the high-level people we attract,” says Vicard. “We can get to high-level questions straight away, because people have a global vision.” Even so, she says Areni is aware the future of fine wine belongs to diverse voices.

The results

FM4FW is an engaging mix of conviviality and work. Attendees bring along a fine wine, and with so many famous wine figures among the gathering, the result is a table smothered with fabulous wines for the sharing.

Attendees are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and can include anyone from Eric Asimov of the New York Times to Dr Beverley Skeggs from the London School of Economics to Dr Akilah Cadet, founder of Change Cadet, which specialises in diversity and inclusion. Everything is done under Chatham House Rule, meaning anything said can be reported upon, but without attribution, so people can speak freely. Discussions are substantive and can become fraught, especially around topics like race and privilege.

It is important to both Sierra Rolet and Vicard that FM4FW should be more than a talkfest. “We all love networking,” said Sierra Rolet, adding that it’s too easy for people to come together just to have a great time. Participants create goals, which they agree to adhere to, such as developing mentoring programs to bring underserved communities into wine. Vicard then tracks what happens with the goals. 

Sierra Rolet said that listening to the discussions has changed her outlook. “It brought to my attention risks that I was very oblivious to, that could pull the rug out from under so much of what we do,” said Sierra Rolet, pointing to issues like rise of the temperance movement. “I think I was in a bit of a bubble in believing that the cultural legitimacy that surrounds fine wine could ever be questioned.”

Vicard says the aim is to transform Areni into an Institute, which can only happen in the UK once a body is recognised as producing high-level research. “Ultimately we want a brick and mortar edifice in a major capital city with a library,” she says. “And a wine bar, of course, where members can come and talk.” And then, because this is goal oriented, the members will go away and make things happen.

Felicity Carter attended FM4FW in Champagne in 2018.

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

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