Mark Bedini Interviewed by 12×75.com

mark 4 april 2011FINE+RARE laid bare: Leading fine wine blog 12×75 invited Mark Bedini, co-founder and Executive Chairman, to discuss many aspects about the past, present and future of FINE+RARE. Including what it was like to meet HM the Queen.
[12×75.com] You’ve been in the wine industry for over 30 years and have seen it from many angles; you’ve worked as a shop assistant, a warehouse manager, a broker and the MD of a division for a large UK Merchant. When it came to starting your own business why is it that you chose to start a brokerage house versus becoming a merchant?

Emerging technology offered a point of difference from being just another ‘merchant’ and provided a solution to the barrier of hefty capital requirements to set up as a stockholder of fine wines. It meant we had to be innovative to compete with the big boys.

[12×75.com] Technology plays a big part in Fine & Rare. Tell our readers about some of the features of the Wine Desk and more importantly how it benefits your customers?

It began as a relatively simple system to store and organise supply-side information on fine wines that delivered us an efficient referencing system allowing us to source a very broad range of wines quickly at market competitive prices. WineDesk thereafter naturally grew in it’s capabilities as a full trading platform where back-to-back deals could be undertaken with full logistics, or order tracking supporting them. The introduction of automatic pricing was perhaps the greatest signal moment – developing algorithms to provide automatic analysis and the setting of target, or ‘market’ prices for any number of different wines. At the throw of a switch this instantly delivered F+R an enormous increase in availabilities of wines we offered for sale with complete confidence in pricing. In that moment our dream to provide buyers with a heart-stoppingly broad choice of fine wines at competitive prices became a reality.

Furthermore, by remaining totally independent of wine agency and distribution agreements F+R remains very much on the ‘customer’s side of the counter’ avoiding the typical conflicts of interest inherent in the agency/stockholding model. Customers are free to buy whatever they want without strings attached, hidden margins, or producer enforced prices for example – we seem to have democratised fine wine buying!

The recent introduction of ‘My Portfolio’ – an online wine portfolio valuation, personal review and disposal management system – reinforces our holistic attention to the requirements of the fine wine collector/investor. Additional and unique features include graphs showing price and percentage performance over time, ‘FLOORS‘ offering protection against price falls (alternatively providing a lock-in to future prices/returns) for ‘Reservists’; Private Clients who have chosen to sell through us, and ‘Ranking‘ where Reservists can increase trading margin to increase supply-side competitiveness and accelerate sales of their wines.

Technology is absolutely at the heart of F+R and our ambitions and customers should expect a steady stream of new features and tools to be released as time goes by.

[12×75.com] Last year the fine wine market took quite the hit, what do you think is going to happen to the price of First Growths and are Burgundy Wines deserving of their current hype as a smart investment?

Markets simply reflect supply and demand. Recent burgeoning demand particularly from China created considerable speculative buying running up to the middle of 2011 since when prices have fallen back from impressive levels. Looking at some of the market leaders (Margaux, Mouton, Lafite and Latour) it’s interesting to see the charts showing declines levelling out and prices largely back on trend (2004 to now). See Latour 2000 for example or Lafite 1996.

My personal view on investment in wine is to strictly limit it to the Medoc 1st Growths: Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton because they represent the greatest market liquidity – and stick to the better, post 1970’s vintages: 1982, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, (2009 and 2010). Moving outside this range would really reflect an individual’s own preferences for having a bit of a punt and can bring dividends especially in a strong market. However, the need for investors to sell often coincides with downturns in market cycles and this is when liquidity really matters. Trying to spot the next big winner is (to my mind) delusional and largely pointless – rely on these top wines, which in any case lead/set the market and are much easier to sell when necessary.

[12×75.com] Given that you’ve started stocking wine, where do the lines blur between being a brokerage house and a merchant?

From day one we have always been obliged to take up allocations of some important releases in order to take part – specifically the annual Bordeaux en Primeur campaigns where the simple truth is that if you turn down your allocation (of a top wine) this year you’ve more or less lost it forever. There are other, infrequent occasions where an unmissable opportunity is presented requiring a cash purchase, but they must pass the test of hard commercial scrutiny and reasoning before we take them onto our own books. Credited (i.e. unpaid) orders can also end up as our own stock, albeit not intentionally. Our commercial culture is therefore unwaveringly that of a broker so there is no blurring.

[12×75.com] Are your current customers still very interested in Parker points or do you think that critics’ opinions have less weight?

I believe that tide is turning.

Parker himself still remains the most important taste guru and his publication ‘The Wine Advocate’, under its now several reviewers, remains very well followed, but the fact that the man himself reviews less has released some authority back to other opinion formers, including the merchants themselves. Personally I welcome this re-engagement between buyers and their merchants and that a residue of good professional reviewers has also been established – buyers should be well informed. But watch this space! I’m very interested in how peer-to-peer reviewing may take a major hold….

[12×75.com] When Fine+Rare quote/state a price, isn’t there that risk that the stock will have run out and / or the price gone up, when you eventually go to purchase it on behalf of your client?

Just as any traditional merchant’s availabilities of fine wines change as a result of orders and are therefore offered ‘subject to remaining available’ etc., so are the wines we source. However, the advantage of being a broker means that by maintaining high quality supplier data feeds F+R can source from a number of alternative stockholders if need be. Our customers find the sheer range and flexibility of our offers and selection of over 45,000 wines hugely exciting and our Account Managers provide them with a personal service and develop a highly satisfied, long term relationship.

[12×75.com] I use one feature on your website very often and that is the ‘Market Data’ tab, it allows me to graph the history for a wine I’m potentially going to buy. What other ‘funky’ features to you intend to add to your website.

You’re going to have to wait and see. Having said that, I can guarantee you’ll love them!

[12×75.com] Other than 12×75.com, of course, which other wine companies, publications, blogs, wine ideas, etc… have made you STOP and just say ‘wow’?

Not many come to mind, but a few have made me say ‘Yikes!’ and got me thinking – WineSearcher for example, which then turned into an important independent referrer for us. Otherwise, CellarTracker has some cool ideas and where Eric’s evangelical passion screams out. The Wine Advocate, of course.

[12×75.com] You have two boys at public school; they must think it’s cool that their dad sells booze for a living? Do you envisage them joining you, and one day making Fine & Rare a family business?

F+R was never set up to be a family business, hence it’s name is not Bedini & Cuchet etc., not that some of them haven’t done quite well (J&B for instance!). My two boys have to face the world and make something of themselves on their own terms and they already know this. If they end up at F+R it will be on their own merits.

[12×75.com] We contacted your friend and business partner Bud Cuchet to ask him what it was like to work with you.

He said:

“I think one thing which I always bring up is that I use to dread Monday mornings because Mark would come in with a new idea that he had spent all weekend formulating. He has great vision and is always thinking of new ways for us to be doing things better…….”

[12×75.com] That said, what do you envisage is the future of Fine + Rare?

The short answer? To be the fine wine marketplace for collectors and investors in fine wines. I can’t tell you the longer answer because that would be giving too much away.

[12×75.com] Assuming you had a bet with Robert Parker and the wager was dinner at any restaurant anywhere in the world and you won, where would you have him take you, and which bottle of wine would you order?

I’d ask him to choose the place and the bottle!

[12×75.com] You’ve been in the wine industry your whole working life, if there’s anything else you could have done, a job that revolved around another passion, what would it have been ?

I think I’d have ‘followed the money’ by choosing a more lucrative industry….

[12×75.com] Fine and Rare won a Queen’s Award for enterprise in 2011, what’s your secret and what was it like to go to The Palace to receive this prestigious award?

No secret – just focus and commitment on getting things right for our customers and a really, really good team of people collectively taking the business forward with an amazing ‘can do + will do’ attitude -visitors are always saying how impressed they are by the youth and dynamism of the staff here are and the buzz they feel around the place.

Meeting Her Majesty The Queen and Prince Philip and many of the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace was a huge moment for me and Bud. Winning the award was an unexpectedly intense experience in that it recognised F+R’s undeniable success after all the effort to build something (and overcome some terrifying moments along the way!).

The sun shone that day in more ways than one.

[12×75.com] We would like to thank Mark Bedini for taking the time to do this interview. Mark is the Co Founder & Executive Chairman of Fine+Rare.