PREMIER CRU WINES
Thursday 19 December 2019
Dr Peter Rating – Website: 2/5
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 1/5
Online buying and selling have been established for over 30 years and hark back to the early days of the internet. Wine, as a commodity of reasonably small size albeit weighty and breakable, well lends itself to e-commerce. Google ‘online wine sales South Africa’ and a staggering 31.2 million results appear in little over 0.6 seconds. It is a convenient way to buy from the comfort of one’s own home or work. Moreover, many websites offer a wealth of information about the wines sold and their regions, allow searching and sorting by country, style, cultivar, price, rating and more besides. I haven’t counted the full number of South African companies that sell online but I suspect there are at least 100 – if not more – and that’s not counting the individual wine estates. These range from the hypermarkets and supermarkets to the major wine retailers, together with the specialist and boutique companies that focus on foreign wines and imports. Whilst I prefer to buy wines that I have tasted in the Tasting Room at a vineyard, I nonetheless regularly buy from around 20 suppliers for my own consumption, for my Dr Peter Master Class and other educational tastings, and in support of my WSET 4 Diploma studies. It makes sense to share my experiences with other Cape Wine Lovers and beyond and so this, therefore, is the first of several web-purchasing reviews that I shall be publishing in the coming weeks and months.
I start with Premier Cru Wines which seems a fitting name with which to begin. Ever keen to source quality foreign wines for my studies and tastings (difficult to buy in South Africa), I came across this Johannesburg company that specialises in French wines. Premier Cru Wines was formed on 1 September 2018 and is thus a relatively new entrant. It was founded by Hervé Delabesse who is the General Manager of the company, aka ‘the French Wine Guy’ due to his unpronounceable name. Premier Cru Wines aims to match people to wines and sees itself as a fine wine concierge, sourcing wines from the top Châteaux and Domaines with a personal and bespoke service. Sensibly, the team is made up of experienced French and international wine professionals.
The website is clear with fashionable white, black and gold branding that has a classic feel of quality and exclusiveness. The immediate offerings on the launch page break down into ‘Buy Wines’, ‘Experiences’ and ‘Wine Life’. The ‘Buy Wines’ tab leads to the shop that highlights a wide portfolio of producers. The selections are grouped by wine region: Champagne, Provence, Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Rhône Valley, Loire Valley, Pays d’Oc and Other Countries, and cover around 130 wines. These range in price from R150 to R15,000, include vintage and non-vintage champagnes, together with basic appellation to Premier/Grand Cru/Grand Cru Classé wines. The offering has very much a glossy brochure look to it with good photos of the bottles and their prices beneath. There is, as yet, no link to offer any wine analysis, viticulture and viniculture, ageing or pairing advice or detailed Tasting Note. There is an on-request sourcing and wine concierge service for those looking to build their cellar and for specific wines, respectively. Besides this main function, click on ‘Experiences’ and you will be led to information about tastings, dinners, masterclasses and bespoke trips that the company offers. ‘Wine Life’ covers the exclusive Connoisseur Club, cellar management and wine investment.
So far so good. A click on the ‘Current Selection’ tab downloads an Excel file with which to order. The first page of this somewhat home-made spreadsheet contains cells for the buyer to complete their Personal Details, Delivery Address and Special Instructions. Usefully, it gives an order total in terms of the number of bottles and the VAT exclusive/inclusive order value. Successive sheets cover the same regions as per the selections in the online brochure that details the appellation, vintage, unit price and critics’ rating for each wine. Simply fill in the number of bottles required and the total appears on the front page. The resultant spreadsheet must be emailed to Premier Cru who will process the order. Delivery charges, not included so far, are advised by return email invoice.
I placed my order for a substantial quantity of 40 wines totalling over R10,000 on 28 November. Frankly, it has been a struggle ever since and despite my constant hastening and chasing. I did not receive an Invoice until 3 December with Norman Goodfellows showing in the top left corner. The first line read ‘15x Premiur Cru 6 Bottle Box x 1’ for R225 that, on contacting the company, turned out to be packing boxes for the delivery. On checking, the number required was magically reduced from 15 to 7. Whilst I was fortunate to be offered a trade discount and free delivery, it seemed petty to be charged for boxes for an order of this size. I know of no other company that charges in this way. There is usually a per box inclusive delivery fee or, for orders above a certain value, free delivery. I paid the same day by EFT for the revised Invoice amount at which point I confirmed the delivery address and special instructions.
Matters since have gone from bad to worse despite the best efforts of Hervé with me on his tail. The delivery date has successively slipped with an initial promise of 10 December (still too slow) that came and went. The Fastway courier service is clearly not up to the task and I fear for the condition of my wines being transported between and stored in unknown depots in the summer heat. There was no news on 11 and 12 December so I asked that delivery be guaranteed on 17 December when I knew I was home all day. Nothing. Nil. I even called Fastnet myself as they wanted to know when I was able to take the delivery as “the wine packaging was damaged” and the company did not want needlessly to transport around Cape Town due to the condition of the consignment. Eventually, I managed to gain a contact number for the driver only to find the phone was not answered and the voice mailbox was full so it was not taking messages. Two SMS send throughout the day went unanswered too. None of this was my responsibility as the courier service was part of the order but Premier Cru were unavailable for the day.
Finally, I advised Premier Cru that unless the wine was delivered during late afternoon on 18 December I would be unable to accept the order. The wines would need be returned to Johannesburg and I would seek a full refund. That seemed to concentrate the mind and Fastnet, at managerial level, were far more communicative. Throughout, it was the courier who was chasing and in liaison with me and not Premier Cru, who seemed to have washed their hands of the delivery process. The wine arrived on the afternoon of 18 December – more than 3 weeks after order and payment – in two consignments, each with wines in flat a number of 6-pack boxes that were bubble wrapped. The outer wrap was shredded and torn and so I can well understand the courier company not wishing to be driving around with the wine unless they were certain that I would be able to accept the delivery. Surprisingly, the courier did not wish me to sign for the delivery. There was no order paperwork listing the wines from Premier Cru either but there was a hand-written note from Hervé thanking me for my patience and with 2 complimentary bottles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that I was initially interested in. The wines fortunately were not damaged.
My first order has not been a good experience. Mission critical for any online company is an easy, clear to understand order process that includes delivery costs as well as efficient and timely delivery, together with the ability to track the order. Premier Cru wines under-performed in each respect. The glossy website and the selection of wines offered were promising. Thereafter, the Excel spreadsheet order approach was clunky to say the least with added steps and time needed to raise an invoice with delivery charges, which proved to be incorrect in the first instance. I suggest the company upgrades the website to allow a one-step invoicing policy so that delivery charges, as applicable, are calculated and included at the point of order. The ‘overnight’ delivery itself was shocking and the worst I have experienced. I deserved better as a new customer with an order of significant value. The excuses of a ‘busy time of year’ and ‘load-shedding’ frankly did not wash. It’s not as if Christmas is an unknown or unforeseeable event, whilst other online wine companies have successfully been able to manage throughout load shedding. The company needs either to focus on local sales in and around Johannesburg or to sort out it’s delivery arrangements for orders from farther afield. That said, latterly it was Fastnet and not Premier Cru who were making the effort and to the extent that the local Cape Town Manager not only made sure that the wines were kept in an air-conditioned office until delivery but also was willing personally to deliver to my home to meet the 18 December deadline.
For these reasons, I am unable to rate Premier Cru Wines above 2/5 for the Website and 1/5 for the Experience. Much will need to change if I am to use this company again.