Ferris grad travels globe as French wine export manager
What could be more chic than traveling the world as export manager for a French boutique winery?
That is, if you don’t mind surviving on four hours’ sleep some nights. C’est la vie.
The seeds of Meredith Hyslop’s globetrotting career were planted in high school. “I took three years of French at Ferris, which allowed me to test into third-year French at Whitman College,” she said.
After graduation, Hyslop studied winemaking for two years at Walla Walla Community College. Next, she worked a harvest in Argentina before enrolling in a French master’s program focused on the international wine trade.
The master’s program included an internship and industry connections, which eventually led to her current job with Château de Lascaux in southern France.
The label is available locally at Vino!, 222 S. Washington Ave.
Hyslop discussed her career during a brief layover in Spokane.
S-R: Where have you been this year?
Hyslop: The whole month of February I was traveling in the U.S. and China. I also work a lot in Belgium, the U.K., Germany, Luxemburg, Switzerland and New Caledonia. We have clients sprinkled throughout the world, and we’re looking at emerging markets like Russia and Brazil. My job is to make sure our wines are positioned correctly in each market.
S-R: Tell me about Château de Lascaux.
Hyslop: The same family has been farming there for 14 generations. The land has seen different uses, but there have always been vineyards. The Château de Lascaux label was started in the 1980s.
S-R: Lascaux Cave is famous for prehistoric animal drawings discovered there in 1940. Is the cave nearby?
Hyslop: No, it’s about three hours away. The Lascaux (pronounced LASS-co) in our name refers to our limestone soil. And the horse on our label is because of the family’s name – Cavalier. But I think having a prehistoric horse on a French label is also kind of a cross-marketing deal.
S-R: Is the region known for wine?
Hyslop: The Languedoc-Roussillon appellation has always been known for its bulk-wine production. When Jean-Benoît Cavalier (the current owner) took over the winery in ’84, there was a push to validate the region as a producer of high-quality wine. So Jean-Benoît did things like denser plantings to get more highly concentrated fruit rather than just yield.
S-R: How big is the Château de Lascaux operation?
Hyslop: We have about 90 hectares (222 acres) in grapes, and produce about 350,000 bottles a year – 70 percent of it red, but we also do rosé (20 percent) and white (10 percent). (For comparison, Spokane’s largest winery, Arbor Crest, produces about 240,000 bottles annually.)
S-R: What’s your most popular wine?
Hyslop: Our Classic Languedoc line, which includes a red and a white that are a nice introduction for someone who wants to discover French wine. Some people get scared off by French wines because they can almost stink a little too much for what Americans are used to. These wines are very clean and approachable. They have nice balance and a lot of complexity, and you get a sense of where they’re from. They retail for $15 to $20 in the U.S.
S-R: When you arrive in a market – say, Seattle – what do you do?
Hyslop: In the U.S., I work with one of the best importers of French wines – Berkeley-based Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. So when I fly in somewhere, we already have a schedule. All the samples are laid out, and my job is to help distributors develop a market for our wines.
S-R: Are most of them already familiar with your label?
Hyslop: Château de Lascaux was put on the map in 2010 with our Classic Languedoc Rouge, which got a 92 in the Wine Spectator and was among the top 100 wines of the world that year. Since then, people have been impressed with the quality versus the price. Demand for French wines is so high that prices have gone way up. Languedoc is still proving itself as a region that can make really good wines – the same way Walla Walla had to prove itself. Because of that, the prices (for Languedoc-Roussillon wine) are unbelievably great, if you can find the secret treasures.
S-R: Does the fact that Americans are consuming more domestic wines make your job harder or easier?
Hyslop: Easier, because Americans are becoming more sophisticated about wine, and the more they learn, the more they want to explore their options and discover good values. And I think Americans like to root for an underdog.
S-R: How long have you been export manager for Château de Lascaux?
Hyslop: A little over a year.
S-R: What attributes does your job require?
Hyslop: International sales is all about understanding other cultures, so you have to be incredibly flexible. You have to accept that other people have different ways of doing things. Basically, I have to figure out what will make someone from another culture want to buy something made in France from an American.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hyslop: I get to travel all over the world, eat great food, drink great wine and meet interesting people. Sometimes I wake up thinking, “How did this all happen?”
S-R: What do you like least?
Hyslop: That it’s exhausting.
S-R: Any unusual adventures so far?
Hyslop: Ha! In China, people are going crazy buying expensive wines. A potential client of mine sold someone 24 bottles of Lafite Rothschild for around 1,500 euros ($1,983) a bottle. But there’s a legal limit of two bottles per person crossing from Hong Kong into China. So he asked me to bring two bottles into China, and afterward treated me to an amazing spa where I got the best massage of my life. At that point I’d been on the road for a month, averaging three or four hours of sleep a night, so that felt really good.
S-R: What’s working in France like?
Hyslop: Oh, man, it was really tough at first, because we have a much different view of how work should be done. The French see Americans as individualistic and everyone for himself. But when you go into their workplace, they don’t know how to work as a team. It’s like, “Don’t even put your little toe into my territory. I’ll get it done, even if it doesn’t get done as well.” I think they feel threatened that they may have their job taken away.
Having said that, one of my biggest surprises has been how welcoming the French have been toward me, an American working in a very traditional, close-knit industry. I think the French have changed a lot, and are more open to Americans than they used to be.
S-R: What do you like most about French culture?
Hyslop: The balance between work and personal life.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hyslop: The lack of customer service.
S-R: On a scale of 1 to 10, how’s your French?
Hyslop: I’d say it is definitely a nine. French people often ask me if I’m from England or an eastern country.
S-R: What do you do when you’re not traveling?
Hyslop: I have a really great group of friends in Montpellier, and every time they know I’m in town, it’s like, “Let’s go have dinner at someone’s house.” All French girls grow up learning how to cook, so I’m responsible for bringing the wine.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.