You don’t often meet people who work hard, drink hard and have a lot of fun doing both. Frenchman Thibault Pontallier is one of those characters. The son of Paul Pontallier, general manager of the world famous wine producer Château Margaux, Pontallier has always been immersed in the wine world. In April 2010, Pontallier became Château Margaux’s ambassador and set up an office in Hong Kong. It was there that he met Arthur de Villepin, an art lover and fellow wine lover. The two clicked and soon created Pont des Arts, the first high-end, international brand combining art and fine wines & spirits. Pont des Arts is now distributed all around the world in the most exclusive places, and is slowly making inroads into Japan.
Each wine has been selected and blended by Thibault and his father in collaboration with acclaimed wine experts from Bordeaux & Burgundy. For its two first collections – 2010 and 2011 vintages – Pont des Arts worked with Zao Wou-Ki whose paintings are widely recognized as an exemplary reconciliation of Chinese and European aesthetics. With the 2012 vintage, they worked with one of the most famous artists representing China's new generation: Yue Minjun. Pontallier says Pont des Arts is now considering to work with a Japanese artist.
Pontallier graduated from the top European Business School HEC Paris with a double Master’s Degree in Management. Before moving to Hong Kong, he lived and worked in Vietnam, Norway, Italy, Spain and New York. He also worked for the United Nations in 2008. A frequent visitor to Japan, Pontallier took time out during a recent stay in Tokyo to meet Japan Today.
How did Pont des Arts get started?
I moved to Hong Kong as brand ambassador for Château Margaux in 2010 and I met Arthur. He was into art and I’m into wine and we just clicked. He wanted to do something different with art and I wanted to do something with wine. We discovered that wine can be a fantastic bridge between cultures. We are doing limited editions of wines & old spirits with artistic labels and bottles and we love what we are doing.
Where are your main markets?
We are in 20 countries today. We sell around 20,000 bottles worldwide each year. China accounts for 40% of that and is our No. 1 market, followed by Hong Kong. That’s because we have been collaborating with Chinese artists. Japan is a growing market for us and is No. 3. Then our biggest markets are Europe and the U.S., and we can’t wait to also launch very soon amazing Western artists for our new collections, which will definitely make our brand more famous in the West.
Who are your clients in Japan?
Overall, I’d say about 60% of our sales are to private clients who love our limited-edition collections or special bottles. They use them as company or personal gifts, at art galleries or just keep them as collectibles. Next are high-end hotels and restaurants. We deal with them through global wine seller Pieroth, which is our partner in Japan. The remaining 20% of our business in Japan is with high-end department stores like Isetan in Tokyo.
So far, the classic collection of 6 bottles has been our best seller for private clients. In September in Japan, we sold 45 sets. We have also been doing quite well in some high end clubs in Osaka where people enjoy a good looking bottle with a great taste.
How do you market the brand in Japan?
We’ve had some coverage in Japanese niche wine magazines. We are getting exposure on social media - Facebook, Instagram are helping spur demand. It’s a bit like launching a new fashion brand per say. The main thing is to get the story of the brand and founders in the forefront. Word of mouth is important. Our Japanese friend Yureeka Yasuda (with her company Wonderlily) is also helping us to promote our brand in Japan with the right people and key places like the Peninsula, the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, top Japanese restaurants, great department stores, art galleries, local magazines, and so on.
It’s very different from traditional wines which have a very long history and were already well known in Japan. With Pont des Arts, it takes a bit more time to explain what we are about. Also the good thing about Pont des Arts is that every six months we have something different and exciting coming out, like a great old whisky, a limited Grand Cru Champagne next year, etc.
Are the same products popular in all your markets?
Although we only sell high-end wines, champagne and spirits, in some countries, some products work better than others. In the U.S., it will be champagne and rosés that will be the most successful. In China, they love red wine, while in Japan, white wine is more popular for example. Also different people and different generations like different artists.
So far, you have only used Chinese artists. Do you have any plans to collaborate with a Japanese artist?
I would love to work with a Japanese artist in the future, maybe for a champagne in 2017 or a great whisky and possibly again for the Olympics in 2020. We are also thinking about a very special & artistic bottled water from France and we may collaborate with a Japanese artist for that.
The whole idea of Pont des Arts is to create a beautiful bridge and metaphor between art and wine, to pair each wine with a special painting to show the taste, the perfume and style. Our next collection in January will be by the top Spanish painter Miquel Barceló. As we progress, we might work with a Western artist one year and an Asian artist the next year.
So how is the "bridge" progressing?
When you create a new brand, you attract other top wine-making families and amazing artists and that’s happening with us in France. This bridge is getting shaped, attracting both new artists and fantastic winemakers. Wine and food are excellent bridges. I always say if you put world leaders in a room with good wine, they will immediately find something in common to start talking about, and probably take better decisions in the end.
What do you think of Japanese wine and spirits?
I love Japanese whisky and I have visited the three main distilleries here. The best of them are very soft, delicate and feminine, it can sometimes be the perfect combination of power and softness. I also like some of the Japanese wines, especially the whites or beautiful Merlots like the Chateau Mercian Signature.
What do you think about the wine knowledge of Japanese consumers?
I’ve been coming to Japan for eight years and I can tell you that the level of refinement is amazing here. The quality of sommeliers is exceptionally high. What I find interesting is that the demand for Burgundy wine and vintage champagne in restaurants is driven by women in Japan. Japanese have a delicate palate and so they love French wines. That’s why I think we have a huge potential here.
How much wine do you drink?
Easily a bottle a day, maybe a bit more on weekends, so I guess 8-10 bottles a week. But don’t worry, my liver is OK. You know, if you have dinner with my family in France, there is no water on the table. My father always said that water is only useful to rinse the different wine glasses! We sit for three hours over a meal and have soft wines which are quite refreshing. It makes the whole meal more interesting.
Do you travel much?
All the time. Maybe I am at home in Hong Kong about a third of the year.
What is the most fun part of your job?
Creating, blending and launching a new wine or spirit is very exciting … and we always have something new coming out. You travel around the world; people have a look at the bottle, have a drink and there is a minute of silence before they say, “This is fantastic.” You create an emotion that transcends any culture. You can’t beat that.© Japan Today