Sport and Wine

Thursday, 22nd November 2012 by Richard Foster

The following article appeared in this week's edition of Harpers Wine and Spirit Trades Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Richard Foster:

Sport and wine are not the most natural of bedfellows but there are a fair few connections between the two, providing strong links that may cause the odd surprise. Alongside Sir Alex Ferguson’s well-publicised love of wine and his penchant for sharing a bottle with opposing managers there are plenty of examples of where the worlds of sport and wine overlap.

Stephen Browett, owner and chairman of Farr Vintners and co-owner and joint chairman of Crystal Palace FC since the summer of 2010, shares a passion for leading Bordeaux wines and Championship football. “Football and wine are hobbies for most people so it’s nice to have them as my job,” Browett admits.

Although if you were to choose two industries that were characterised by their instability and unpredictability then football and wine would have few equals and there have been plenty of casualties recently.

“These are two very different businesses,” Browett confirms. Farr Vintners has grown consistently into a highly profitable £150 million company which Stephen proudly declares “has never borrowed a penny from a bank". In September it was named En Primeur Wine Merchant of the Year at IWC Awards for the sixth time in seven years.

Meanwhile Crystal Palace has not tasted such success and has remained at the second tier of English football for the past seven seasons. The team recently appointed new manager Ian Holloway, following the departure of Dougie Freedman to Bolton Wanderers.

Stephen Browett and Ian Holloway

Where Palace do show consistency is, by contrast, in regularly losing money (on a much smaller turnover of around £20 million), as is the wont of nearly all football clubs at this level of English football, with possibly only Blackpool making a profit amongst the 24 Championship clubs, according to Browett.

So it is clear that an astute and successful businessman as Browett and his fellow co-owners at Palace are putting in money through love rather than expecting too much ROI. The outstanding success of the 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux vintages has allowed Browett to indulge in investing in his favourite football club.

One area where Browett is keen to leverage his expertise is in improving the catering facilities at Crystal Palace. Consequently, he has introduced some higher quality wines into the restaurants and executive boxes at Crystal Palace’s home ground, Selhurst Park. So you can now enjoy a Verget Chardonnay whilst watching the local derby against Charlton or a Château Thenac Bergerac seeing the Eagles battle Blackburn. 

The improvement on the match day drinking experience was acknowledged by Delia Smith, a director of Norwich City, who hailed Palace as “having the best wines in football.”  Further endorsement was provided by Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football League, who was so impressed by the wine on offer he ended up ordering a few cases for himself.

Browett’s mission to improve the drinking experience at Selhurst Park also includes offering some interesting local ales throughout the ground, which is a rarity within football. By hosting a beer festival for the first time in 2010 Palace certainly broke new ground and pointed towards a future where there is a greater choice of higher-quality ales.

So rather than the prospect of uninspiring and undistinguished lagers, there are real ales available, such as those from award-winning Kernel brewery and new local micro-brewery, Cronx, the first to open in Croydon in over 50 years.

Browett did encounter some logistical issues with getting the barrels in the right conditions as they could not lay them down for the customary three to four days to allow sediment to settle.

By serving the beer ‘bright’, the sediment problem is greatly reduced, but the downside is that the beer cannot be stored and needs to be drunk that day so the supply is designed to pretty much run out on the day, thus minimizing waste.

Another of Browett’s innovative ideas is the offer to anyone in the wine trade who takes an executive box at Selhurst Park is invited to bring their own wine and won’t be charged any corkage.

This is surely unique in sport where you can bring your own as part of the matchday experience. The concept of BYO led to a crowning moment for Stephen as football and wine met in a truly memorable way. When Palace went to play Manchester United at Old Trafford in a League Cup quarter-final in November 2011, Browett was aware that Sir Alex was celebrating 25 years as United’s Manager that month and so he selected a 1986 Château Latour to give to him in recognition of his notable anniversary. The gift was much appreciated by Ferguson and softened his disappointment as Palace turned out unlikely winners. As Stephen summed up “Crystal Palace not only gave Sir Alex the best wine but the most appropriate.”

If Browett was allowed to dream then one day Palace would be rubbing shoulders with the elite in Europe and he could share a glass and a few anecdotes with likes of Jean-Louis Triaud, who alongside owning Châteaux Gloria and St. Pierre is also President of Bordeaux FC, one of France’s pre-eminent clubs, or even Château Latour’s Francois Pinault who owns Stade Rennais. But back to harsh reality, he sees Farr continuing to build on its solid foundations, with the Asian market in particular growing in importance from its current base of being 50% of turnover to 70% in a few years and just maybe in that time Palace making a return to the Premier League.

Finally, when asked if Crystal Palace were a wine what would it be and why, Browett’s answer was as quick as it was comprehensive, clearly illustrating the depth of his shared passion for football and wine.

Well it would have to be a Bordeaux and assuming the five First Growths would be let’s say Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool then Palace would be a Fifth Growth, but an over-performing one with ambitions to be a Second Growth.

So my choice would be Grand Puy-Lacoste, a good, honest Pauillac. A real wine, a real football club, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon with its roots in the right place. It’s never going to be a trendy superstar. Every five years it will get a Parker score of 95, get into the Premier League but won’t stay there but will always attract a loyal following.”

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