It’s the dream that seduces so many into the wine industry: that one day they will find themselves drinking nothing but the world’s finest wines, while socialising with the great wine makers – and making plenty of money. For most people, it remains a dream. The wine industry is, after all, a notoriously difficult place to turn a profit, where the usual career path involves stacking crates and selling cheap branded wines.

But one man has managed not only to live the great wine dream, but to prosper while doing so: Philippe Capdouze, the man behind Ficofi.

Who is Ficofi?

Ficofi is built around a very simple idea: wine tastings as a form of corporate hospitality. For 20 years, Capdouze and his team have poured the world’s finest wines for some of the world’s richest individuals and corporates, including Cartier and Deutsche Bank. Every year the company conducts more than 200 high-end wine tastings in all the great cities of the world where the wealthy and powerful congregate, from Paris to Jakarta. These aren’t ordinary events: at any given time, guests could find themselves tasting Yquem 1875, Montrachet 1990 or Romanee Conti 1971.

“The tastings are not blind, but themed,” says Andrew Caillard MW, who consults for Ficofi. “Each table might comprise a vertical of a major grand cru classe chateau, or a horizontal of a particular vintage like 1982 or 1975 etc. The tastings comprise a who’s who if the fine wine world in every conceivable bottle format, including magnums, double magnums and imperials.” Caillard, who is an auctioneer for noted Australian auction house Langton’s, is one of a small group of well-known wine authorities who consult for Ficofi. He says that what makes the Ficofi tastings stand out for him is how relaxed they are, despite the calibre of wines on the table. “Aside from Champagne, Bordeax and Burgundy etc, a tasting might also have wines from Italy, California and Spain,” he says. “Tasters just walk around the table and taste according to their own interest. Where else can one ever drink and compare so many great wines of the world?”

Experts such as Caillard, Sotheby’s Serena Sutcliffe MW and Jeannie Cho Lee MW are on hand to answer questions. And the guests themselves are an impressive line-up, by all accounts. Caillard says “it’s a very impressive demographic”, a sentiment with which the many winemakers and chateaux owners who give testimonials on the Ficofi website seem to agree: “clients of very high quality” says Charles Chavellier from Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Or to put it plainly, Ficofi tastings attract rich people.

Even in the good old pre-credit crunch days, putting high net worth individuals from around the world in front of the world’s finest wines and introducing them to chateaux owners is no small feat. Just how did Philippe Capdouze do it?

Charm and tennis

Capdouze began, not in wine, but in business. “I studied chemistry and physics when I was 20,” he says. He was also an outstanding tennis player, who coached business people, plus someone deeply interested in wine. Fortunately for him, he was studying in Bordeaux and out the front of the university was the Institute of Oenology, where he took his optional subject. He would also open a bottle of the end of his tennis sessions, to help educate his students about wine. Soon his clients were telling him he should do it seriously. “At the time, wine was only for drinking, not for social relations,” says Capdouze. “It was a very new idea to use wine for corporate hospitality.”

In his final year, he created the idea of Ficofi as a business case for his special project. Some of the business people he knew encouraged him to take it further, which he did, on the strength of a small student loan. A few friends also joined in, including Laurens Delpech, who helped build relationships with clients.

So Ficofi was born in 1990. Capdouze says his initial contacts within the Bordeaux wine community came from playing tennis and expanded from there. “We created a wine tasting club and each month I invited one Chateau owner to come. It was a good way to contact new people.”

But at that stage, Ficofi was still small. After university, Capdouze went to work for Renault in Paris, returning to Bordeaux on the weekends to teach tennis, while running wine tasting events at night. “I had two lives,” he says, though he’s quick to add that Renault knew about what he was doing and were happy about it. He also says that he never raised capital for Ficofi, choosing to reinvest profits instead. From the beginning, having a relaxed atmosphere was important, regardless of how impressive the wines. “My philosophy, when I was teaching tennis,” he says, “is that if you are too professorial, if you think that the speaker knows everything and the student has just to listen, you cannot increase the level of your student. In wine, many people are afraid because they know nothing, so we try to be very interactive.”

He says the friendly atmosphere is one of the things that keeps the chateaux interested. In 1993, Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanee Conti came to a tasting. In 1995, when the first Palais des Grands Crus was held in Paris, 12 Bordeaux and Burgundy owners presented their wines. By 1996, Ficofi was receiving allocations from Bordeaux’s chateaux, becoming one of the most active companies in the Bordeaux market. By 1997, Capdouze was at a point where he had to choose between Renault and Ficofi. Capdouze says it was a hard decision, because he had such an interesting job. “I was afraid to go into a small company,” he says, adding he was worried that Ficofi wouldn’t provide enough intellectual challenges for him. “But I was afraid for no reason, because the quality of the clients we have makes for good business.”

Soon, the tastings were expanding to New York, London and Geneva. Today, Ficofi is an international company operating in more than 20 countries, with a turnover of more than €30m.

In bed with the chateaux

“For the first 12 or 13 years, we had only corporate hospitality,” says Capdouze, adding they also offered vineyard trips. As these events can take place anywhere in the world, from New York to Manila “it’s very complicated in terms of logistics and organisation”. The event, the Palais de Grand Crus, spreads wines across the tables, allowing people able to taste as they see fit. A dinner for up to 1,000 people follows. Mostly it’s up to the client to bring their own guests, though there are events where people can buy tickets. Capdouze says logistics are no problem, regardless of where in the world the tastings take place because “we have a format adapted for everything”.

As the tastings became more successful, it soon became obvious that there was a demand for another type of wine service: help with collecting. Capdouze says that he resisted expanding Ficofi into this direction for some time. “Originally we didn’t want to sell wine. We considered it not our business, but then seven years ago we say ‘why not?’”

To use Ficofi’s Ultimate Grands Crus Collection service, which began in 2005, you need a minimum of €300,000. For this, you get your own concierge service, beginning with an interview with Capdouze, who will ask you what you want. “Do you want specific vintages? In Asia it’s important, because they buy vintages for the birth of children,” says Capdouze. He says it’s also important to sort out whether the client wants to collect wines for the long term, or drink them now. “We have a Danish client and each month he invites between 100 and 300 people to his island, so he needs not only first growth, but wines he can pour everybody. He consumes $400,000 of wine a year in ten events. So we try to understand the purpose.”

All the wines are stored with Ficofi, in secure storage in Geneva and the client receives a monthly report. “Switzerland is the best place we have found in terms of confidentiality and quality,” says Cadouze. “We have 2000 square metres with our own humidification, so it’s very precise.”

Regardless of where in the world clients are, they can request one or more bottles and have them delivered safely. “If our client is living in Hong Kong he can ask for a delivery in Hong Kong, but if he has a dinner in London, he can ask for the wines,” explains Capdouze. “He can use his own collection when he travels.”

Since the inception of this service, the value of collections managed has reached above €70m. The most intriguing part of all of this is that more than 90% of the wines come from the Chateaux themselves. “Sometimes they come from Bordeaux wine merchants, but where we know the wines are coming directly from the Chateaux,” he says. “A very small part come from brokers, when we need old Ports. We never buy private collections, because it’s too much time and complicated to do.”

According to the Ficofi website, because Ficofi is bypassing the negotiant system, clients can expect to pay up to 25% less than the going market rate for their wines. Yet Capdouze says he has no financial ties to the chateux, only that they are friends. So how does he bypass the negociant system? By inviting the negotiants themselves to Ficofi tastings, apparently, where they too are able to network with chateau owners and high net worth individuals, while tasting rare and precious wines.

“We have an old relationship with Ficofi, and they are a very reliable partner,” says Bernard Hervet, managing director of Faiveley, one of Burgundy’s biggest shippers. “They know how to showcase the great wines and have always been very strict with their choices.”

He adds that their wines are well served by being at a Ficofi tasting, because of Ficofi’s image and ability to connect with “rich and very demanding people”.

Into the future

The big question, of course, is how well Ficofi will continue to connect with their all-important client base in the face of the inexorable credit crunch. Capdouze laughs, somewhat drily. “My business and events will of course be affected,” he says. “We worked for Lehmann Brothers and Bear Sterns. People are afraid to buy an expensive bottle or make a big event when people have lost their job.”

But he says that Ficofi has diversified into regions where the credit crisis is yet to bite hard, sch as Asia. “The supply chain and sourcing has to be in France, but our distribution and our clients are based roughly in Geneva, Russia, the Middle East and in Asia. What I see in Indonesia, the Philippines and Russia is that they are not affected.” Indeed, Ficofi apparently has plans to open in Singapore at the end of this year, and then in Tokyo and Seoul next year.

The Ficofi idea sounds like a simple one. Yet there are many wine lovers who have dreamed of such a thing, but never made it happen. So what made Philippe Capdouze different? His wine knowledge and wine acumen clearly play a part, but if anything comes out of the story, it’s his skill of building business relationships and bringing people together – it’s not every student, no matter how good a tennis coach – who can convince Chateaux owners and established business people that putting their wines and money into going to tastings is a good idea, while keeping on the good side of the negociants you’re bypassing.

That’s a very special skill indeed.
Felicity Carter

This article was first published in Meininger’s Wine Business International magazine in 2008. Apparently, Ficofi is still going strong.

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