We often like to imagine that the big players are all anonymous, global corporations controlled by unapproachable managers, probably with an address in the Cayman Islands. But this is not the case with Les Grands Chais de France.
The Les Grands Chais de France Group, with annual sales of around 400 million litres of wine and 35 million bottles of spirits in 160 countries around the world, is undoubtedly one of the biggest in the industry. But at its core, it is an Alsatian family company – based in the tranquil Northern Vosges region of France.
“The management of day-to-day operations and the definition of strategy are carried out by the Helfrich family,” says Joseph Helfrich, adding, “The family has been Alsatian for generations and is very proud of its heritage and culture.” This culture is evident within the company to this day. In 2014, the Helfrich family received a Meininger “Excellence in Wine & Spirits” award for Family Business of the Year. This is very fitting, because wine and spirits are the core business of this family company, which has its headquarters in Petersbach.
It all began with spirits. Alsace is renowned for producing wonderful eaux-de-vie brandies. When Joseph Helfrich founded the Les Grands Chais de France winery in 1979 at the age of 23, with just 5000 francs in his pocket, the direction was already set. A passion for good spirits was in his blood on his father’s side as his father, René Helfrich, owned a small distillery. The decision to sell Cognac and brandy beyond the French borders – Germany was right next door and even East Germany was a good market for the bilingual Joseph Helfrich – proved very astute, despite the fact that Cognac was seen as rather exotic by Alsatians. The first brand to be introduced was the Cognac Comte Joseph. Wine followed soon after. The idea of putting the wine into curved bottles originally intended for spirits made the J.P. Chenet brand famous overnight (1984). And speaking of night: At that time, bottling was carried out at night, with visits to customers taking place during the day. Capacities had to be expanded constantly. Introduced in 2000, the Grand Sud brand, with its striking litre bottle, was another success. J.P. Chenet and Grand Sud are now two of the most important wine brands in the food retailing sector. J.P. Chenet is the best-selling French wine in the world. Around 76% of the company’s revenue (2012: €841 million) is generated from exports.
The ability to offer good quality – as demonstrated by numerous awards – at reasonable prices sums up the core idea of the Helfrich family, for whom food culture and the French way of life are virtually a daily pastime. Joseph Helfrich describes himself as cosmopolitan, and it is indeed essential to bear in mind that consumer habits and preferences vary throughout the world. The Alsatians are reaching more and more consumers with their wines. Not forgetting their spirits. For example, the Jelzin vodka brand is one of the top sellers in Germany, with 16 million bottles sold.
To offer quality, above all you need good raw materials. It is therefore strategically wise to establish collaborations with good grape producers – preferably on a long-term basis, creating a solid relationship based on trust, as is often the case with family companies. It is therefore no surprise that the Les Grands Chais de France group is one of the largest vineyard owners in the world. The group currently owns 33 wineries in many wine-growing areas of France and 1,500 hectares of vines, including the leading Crémant and wine producer Arthur Metz and the Domaine viticole de la Ville de Colmar in Alsace, Lacheteau in the Loire, Pasquier des Vignes in Beaujolais, Maison du Vigneron in the Jura region, Caves Carod (Clairette de Die, Rhône) and Domaine de la Baume near Béziers (Languedoc). The group also owns an ultramodern winery in Landiras in the Bordeaux region which, with a capacity of 170 million bottles, is almost that of the Petersbach headquarters (181 million bottles). Incidentally, at these two production and logistics sites of Landiras and Petersbach alone, GCF, as the company is abbreviated, provides employment for almost 1,100 people, with around 2,000 employees throughout the world. Other trading companies have gradually been added to the portfolio, such as the renowned Bordeaux wine trading company Calvet (2007). In 2001, the group gained a staff team with excellent expertise and prime contacts in the premium Bordeaux wines segment when it acquired the company Crus et Domaines de France. The group now distributes a wide range of its own and other brands, its customers including most of the large food retail chains, for example in Germany, Edeka, Metro, Rewe, Kaufland Tegut, Netto and other discounters.
Too big for one family? Of course this success would not be possible without dedicated, qualified employees. A large team of winemakers is responsible for ensuring that the high quality standards are maintained. Naturally, the company has all the relevant certifications, such as the International Food Standard (IFS). However, the company‘s fate still lies in the hands of the family. As Marketing Director, Laurence Helfrich is responsible for the distinctive bottle shapes and designs. Frédéric Helfrich is following in his father’s footsteps as Export Director, while his sister Anne Laure has taken over as Product Manager in the important area of communication. The family and staff all work together towards a common goal. This is something the Helfrichs are especially proud of. Justifiably so.
Groupe Les Grands Chais de France
1, rue de la Division Leclerc
Tel. +33 388 70 79 79