“That’s quite nice, isn’t it,” says Gregory Swartberg, coming into the room. I turn around. “The collage for the Queen’s Award… That’s what you were looking at, right?”
I confessed it was. Swartberg is the founder and CEO of fine wine specialists Cru Wine, a ten-year-old start-up that has ranked among the Financial Times’ list of the 1,000 fastest-growing European companies for the last four years. In 2020, the then-Prince of Wales handed Swartberg the Queen’s Award for Enterprise and it was a photo of the occasion that Swartberg had caught me admiring.
“He’s a great person,” says Swartberg of the new king as we settle down to talk fine wine (the next best thing to drinking it) at Cru Wine’s office in Kensington. “He had a funny joke in which he said that he uses some of the excess English wine to run his Aston Martin.”
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Whether that says more about the king’s appreciation for English wine or luxury cars I will leave to you. But what is beyond doubt is that Cru Wine has come a long way since Swartberg started the business aged 25 in 2013, leaving behind a career in mergers and acquisitions to pursue his hobby. He had grown up in Provence, and he was 17 when a formative experience set him on the road to wine.
Sent to his father’s wine cellar to fetch a bottle for dinner one evening, he settled on “Château Sheep”. “It can’t be expensive,” he thought. His father disagreed when the young Swartberg popped open a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild. “I did get into trouble,” he concedes. “Ultimately… I did buy the same bottle back a few years later when I managed to make some money.” But the learning curve, though steep in price terms, was worth it. “[It’s] what kicked off my passion for wine,” he says. “And it has become my favourite wine now off the back of that.”
Did he have trouble getting people in the wine trade to take him seriously at such a young age? “No, I think people took me seriously,” he says. Swartberg did his homework, reading up on wine and studying at the prestigious Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in London.
A “certain level of knowledge… creates a certain level of trust and credibility” with his customers, says Swartberg. Then again, the business is young and so are some of his clientele. “Young people like buying with us… because we do have that little bit more of a younger, modern image than some of our traditional [competition].”
Appealing to wine enthusiasts
Cru Wine sees itself as “digital-first” and cru-wine.com features an investment platform through which collectors can grow and track their wine portfolio. It was the difficulty in having access to “all the knowledge that [buyers needed] to buy the right wines” that inspired Swartberg to start the business (his typical customer spends £20,000 to £30,000 a year). “We’re really active on social media and we really try to make it as easy as possible [to get wine data online].”
That has gone down well with the younger cohort – the 32- to 45-year-olds. So, people like Swartberg, then. “Yes, some of [my friends] love wine, we get together and we drink wine.” Others don’t drink at all, which is “a bit of a newer trend”. Any good non-alcoholic wines out there? “No, they haven’t cracked it.”
Swartberg advises new collectors to start with “the usual suspects… [but] try to mix it up a little, enjoy, have fun… because next to [wine] being a great investment, it’s also really fun”. It can be tax-efficient, and investors, he’s found, like putting their money in something “tangible”.
The world of wine – and Bordeaux in particular – is still old school and relationships with experts in the field are as important as ever. That’s why Swartberg is unconcerned when I bring up the issue of “wine fraud”, where fake labels have been put onto bottles of the “good stuff” – a plague on the industry in recent years.
Cru Wine only buys from “very reputable merchants we’ve been working with for years, or directly from wine producers”. Buyers also get an “ownership certificate”, which allows the wine to be traced.
In any case, the business is insured, he points out. But fraud is a problem generally. “If anything, it should be tackled even a bit harder than it is.”
Searching out new wine markets
So, what’s next for Cru Wine? Swartberg has his eye on India, which still levies a hefty tariff on wine. “One day that might drop… and a middle class… will [emerge that will] also start drinking wines.” The US is also developing a “culture of wine drinking”.
As for New World wine, “we’ve been promoting California for a while”, he says. “The quality is really high… We work with a number of wineries directly”. Plans are afoot to open an office there. But for now, “the company is still very much Old World”, which mainly means Bordeaux, where Cru also has an office.
“We’re right in the middle of ‘en primeur’” (when new wine is bought before it’s even been bottled) and the 2022 vintage is “great,” says Swartberg. It’s not a homogeneous vintage, wines from some areas are better than others.
“You do have to select carefully, you can’t just buy across the range, so having a wine merchant that you trust… is definitely the right approach… And frankly, I do recommend people to buy this vintage because the quality is particularly good.”
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Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.
Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.
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