Grand Club Classe
The World's Most Exclusive Wine Clubs
Were it not for Klaus Schwab, one of the world's most laudable and exclusive wine clubs wouldn't exist. In 2009, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum decided that its niche programme of crus-classés wine tastings was rather inappropriate, particularly in the context of its Davos discussions on how best to help the global economy recover.
The World Economic Forum tastings had only just got going. They'd begun when Vidhi Tambiah – wine aficionado and later CEO of the Geneva-based World Microfinance Forum – invited FT wine writer Jancis Robinson to host the inaugural event in 2007. That proved a roaring success, and Robinson was brought back by popular demand the following year. Then, in 2009, came Schwab's ban and the tastings were excised from the official programme.
If Tambiah was irritated, others were incensed. One was David Spreng, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Davos regular and serious wine collector. The two got talking and before the year was out they'd founded and launched The Wine Forum. "We wanted to make it a not-for-profit wine club with three key attributes," says Spreng. "Firstly, members must be world leaders in their fields. Secondly, they need to be collectors and consumers of wine rather than traders. Thirdly, they have to be proven philanthropists."
Impressively, its first event was held in Zurich on the eve of the 2010 World Economic Forum. Tambiah and Spreng had lured Robinson back to co-host a remarkable tutored tasting consisting of back vintages from Krug, Cheval Blanc and Yquem. Also present were Pierre Lurton and Olivier Krug, to talk about their immaculate wines to a 60-strong audience that included global CEOs. It was just the start, but it set both the tone and the bar for what was to follow.
Since then, The Wine Forum has gone on to stage some staggering private tastings and dinners from Davos to New York to Hong Kong, featuring not just the world's greatest wines and estates but also the "rock-star" winemakers who produce them. The latter, of course, are only too delighted to showcase their wines in front of such an august and philanthropically inclined group, often without charge. This is, after all, their optimum target audience.
The Forum has also gone on tour, with a series of money-can't-buy bacchanalian excursions to Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Piedmont and California's Napa Valley. These dazzlingly high-level trips are an intense and intoxicating mix of vinous education and pure gastronomic pleasure. Technical information often comes from Masters of Wine, such as Fiona Morrison and Jean-Michel Valette. According to one US member, the tours are "a nice mix of learning about fine wine in the most direct and interesting way. And, obviously, we drink some great bottles with like-minded collectors who become friends. There's always camaraderie, some great dinners and one or two late nights."
The trips only focus on each region's most desirable, collectable and iconic producers. Normally, their cellar doors are firmly fermé. However, when this incredible network of movers and shakers comes knocking, they're usually flung wide open. For example, while in Bordeaux two years ago members were invited to Pétrus's for a tasting with winemaker Olivier Berrouet. On this occasion, Pétrus' owner Jean Moueix also asked the group to lunch at his historic family home in Libourne.
What followed was a feast for the senses. Sitting down to eat, the guests were surrounded by an outstanding private art collection, with works by Rothko, Bacon and Degas, most of which had been collected by Moueix's grandfather. "Before we'd had time to take it in, we were being poured the 1978 Pétrus from a magnum. You just had to keep pinching yourself that this was really happening," said one star-struck guest.
For Tambiah, other profoundly moving inner-circle moments occurred in Burgundy in 2011 and 2013. "They were charity dinners hosted for us by Louis Jadot's president Pierre-Henri Gagey at the firm's private former convent, Le Couvent des Jacobins. The 2013 event was a Who's Who of the Côte d'Or, including none other than Aubert de Villaine, Véronique Drouhin, Sylvain Pitiot, Guillaume d'Angerville and Erwan Faiveley. In fact, there were as many winemakers there as Wine Forum members. And as for the wines…"
Considering that Tambiah and Spreng run the club on a part-time basis and don't draw any salary from their endeavours, The Wine Forum's events and organisation are remarkably polished and professional. Nevertheless, the odd minor slip-up has been known to occur. Last year, Tambiah booked a bus to take the group to Château Margaux, which turned out to be a 40-seater with a hockey-club logo on the side. According to Tambiah, "MD Paul Pontallier raised his eyebrows when we pulled up."
Predictably, Tambiah isn't at liberty to name any of his VIP members. But he can provide some job titles. "They're CEOs, chairs and founders of major businesses around the world. Probably about 80 per cent are invited to attend Davos, Aspen or The Clinton Global Initiative as speakers. We also include media leaders, academics and senior figures from the charity sector." Surprisingly, perhaps, a third of his membership comes from the developing world. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Forum is free to join and there are no annual fees. "We do have room for another 30 people, but our main focus at the moment is on making sure our members take part as fully as possible," says Tambiah. For those who do want to join, there's a strict vetting procedure for newcomers. The bar is set very high.
Should you manage to hurdle it, The Wine Forum's rules are short and simple. Members must not divulge one another's identities or details. Wine purchased through the club must not be resold. Members must match what they spend on wine with a donation to a charity of their choice, which they must disclose so that the details may be published in the Forum's annual journal. In 2012 over 70 were listed, suggesting that the Forum more than lives up to its clever and catchy motto: in vino caritas.
"Philanthropy is at the heart of what we do," says Spreng. "I think members probably do enjoy buying and drinking these great wines even more, knowing that they're also doing something very positive for charitable causes." For instance, the Forum raised $80,000 at the end of its 2012 Piedmont tour. The vintners they'd visited (including Gaja, Ceretto, Giacomo Conterno and Pio Cesare) had donated rare bottles from their cellars as lots, which members bid for at an informal last-night auction. The money went to two charities, one of which – Il Camino Association, a Turin orphanage – took delivery of a much-needed new minibus in January 2013. Likewise, The Wine Forum used a tasting before its 2014 Davos Annual Dinner to raise awareness about the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which inspires young people from low-income communities to plan for their future.
Me and My Favorite Food and Wine Pairings
David Spreng Venture capitalist David Spreng is the founder of Crescendo Venl1l1'e in San Francisco and co-founder o/The Wine For'unl, a philanthmpicfine-wine society.
"Good wine and good food have always been important to me. But having collected some of the greatest labels of Bordeaux and California since the early 1990S, my interest has always focused on the wine first and foremost.
In the past few years, however, I've become much more interested in the art of food and wine matching, One reason for this is the amount of business and social entertaining I do, Another is because I recently set up The Wine Forum, which evolved out of several fine-wine tastings with Jancis Robinson. We're a not-far-profit organisation whose high-profile members have a passion for fine wine and philanthropy, This summer, 30 of us went to Bordeaux for a series of tastings, lunches and dinners, which more than proved that great bordeaux is made for food - especially when you're drinking 1986 Margaux and dining at the Chateau.
Matching food and wine is largely about balance, so that each component brings out the best in the other. Of course, the other trick is picking wines that fit the occasion as well as the food.
Occasionally. some people's approaches can be too extreme. Matching wine and food isn't an intellectual exercise - it's about pleasure and personal taste. I seriously doubt whether the perfect food and wine match exists. There are too many variables.
And yet there are certain things that always seem to work in tandem - such as seared foie gras and sauternes. Another is a great steak with a big Napa cab or top-flight bordeaux (Harlan, Araujo Pahlmeyer, Lewis or Colgin for the former; Leoville-las-Cases, Cos d'Estournel or Pavie for the latter), Conversely, certain things just don't work at all. Opening a decent bottle with spicy food is a waste of good wine. I'd rather have a beer.
If my wife and I are entertaining at home, we tend to choose the food first, because there is usually a good match in the cellar. But in a restaurant, I'm very happy to take advice from a sommelier and occasionally try something I've never had before, especially when I'm Qut with the family rather than business associates. What I like about dining in world-class restaurants, such as The French Laundry or Le Chapon Fin, is the way a really talented sommelier can transform a meal into a culinary adventure,".
Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. Now the World Economic Forum has driven the wine tasters out of Davos. In previous years, one of the highlights of the forum was a small but spectacular tasting of fine wines. But last year Klaus Schwab, the forum's mastermind, decided that guzzling first-growth clarets was an inappropriate way of celebrating the global economic meltdown, and the wine-tasting was cancelled. We all hoped that this was a temporary aberration, but apparently not. The new Puritanism is here to stay; Davos wine tastings are off the menu until further notice.
But you cannot deter dedicated wine tasters that easily. On the first night a wine tasting was organised by former Davos employees who have formed a new organisation called the Wine Forum.
DAVOS: WINING, DINING ... AND MINING
I host wine tastings regularly and am used to keeping an audience, even a crypt full of fund managers, under control. But halfway through a look at 10 wines with – can you believe it? – a mining theme, all eyes suddenly swivelled to the door of our room in the Hotel Seehof in Davos and everyone stood up. It took me some time to see why because neither Shimon Peres nor the glamorous young women who comprise his entourage are particularly tall but, eventually, the President of Israel made his way to my table to taste South Africa's most garlanded dry white and a fine Western Australian Cabernet Sauvignon that he said reminded him of a Pinot Noir.
He came, I think, because he is clearly a wine aficionado, and had to be prised out of his seat after 15 or 20 minutes by his minders. Forbes magazine's seventh most powerful woman in the world, Cynthia Carroll of Anglo American, had been ushered into the seat between him and me in order to provide a buffer of suitably elevated quality at this event funded by the Ukrainian Rinat Akhmetov of System Capital Management, who was himself absent. Only in Davos.
A WORLD OF TASTE AT DAVOS
After a hard day networking and discussing such topics as "North Korea's Mysterious Geopolitical End Game", "Regulation and Financial Market Competition" and "Simple Cell Solutions to Complex Problems", wouldn't you find a wine tasting rather agreeable? It was perhaps not surprising then that the two tastings I was invited to host as part of the "working-dinner" programme at this year's World Economic Forum at Davos were so popular.
Indeed it was the popularity in previous years of such similarly off-piste topics as sex (officially called "Relationships and Self-Esteem") that inspired the organisers of the Forum to add wine to their roster of events in 2007, a less challenging alternative to playing Anatoly Karpov at chess.