The historical tale is that in August 1822 an established wine merchant had the idea of opening three warehouses of wine to measure and then sell to “customers” in bottles. This was a new sales formula for wine. The wine merchant was established at 53 Rue Sainte Anne in Paris. His wine depots were in place at Saint-André-des-Arts, the second place was at Rue Montmartre and the third was located at Cloitre Saint-Honoré. This merchant promised, “to reconcile the superior quality of the wine with a reasonable price.”
By 1922 there were 180 depots and shops which Mr. Etienne Nicolas “took over.” To commemorate the occasion at that time, according to my readings, a leaflet resembling a large restaurant menu displayed a mythical character. He was Nectar the delivery man, who indisputably became the emblem of Maison Nicolas. Dransy, a Swiss designer, created this first marketing character. So began the marketing of the company.
From 1928 to 1973, this French wine shop “chain” known as Maison Nicolas, recognized the synergy between wine and art by sending out an annual catalogue to its loyal customers. The Wine History Project has twenty-four of a possible thirty-eight of these highly collectible catalogues in its collection. Each annual catalogue had a unique theme for the artwork. Each year an artist was commissioned to create artistic covers and text illustrations to accompany the Wine List for that year. As a note: no catalogues were produced between 1940-1948 because of World War II.
Etienne Nicolas (1870-1960) guided the firm through a major expansion after World War I; for one thing, he purchased quarries in Charenton outside of Paris to house the substantial reserve stocks of Bordeaux and other French wines acquired by the firm. These quarries maintained a naturally constant temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees centigrade) and humidity of 80 percent. The storage capacity of the caves was 12,000,000 bottles and in the mid-1980s they contained over 7,000,000 bottles, of which almost 2,000,000 were of “Grand Vin” quality.
Specific to this exhibit, from 1928 to 1973 Etienne Nicolas recognized the synergy between wine and art. The catalogues were produced by the printers Draeger Frères, who owned a major design and print studio and hired top designers. The firm commissioned great artists to illustrate the catalogues for each year. Draeger Frères was a French printing company that was founded on August 13, 1886, by Charles Draeger. After his death in 1899, his wife moved the printing company to Montrouge, south of Paris in 1907, and ordered plans eventually from Le Corbusier to enlarge the factory. This company produced the “best and most prestigious French advertising” and had an international reputation. Renowned artists, mainly poster artists and illustrators, collaborated at this company for many years.
It is unclear whether the printers, Etienne Nicolas, or the artist selected the annual theme for the artistic covers, interior illustrations, and the text which accompanied their Liste des Grands Vins Fins or Wine List each year. The themes of the catalogues displayed in the Wine History Project offices for this exhibit include:
- Peintures de Guerrier/Warrior Paintings
- Sous le Signe des Fruits de la Terre de France/Under the Sign of the Fruits of the Land of France
- Sous le Signe du Mexique/Under the Sign of Mexico
- Sous le Signe de L’Ete de la Saint-Martin/Under the Sign of the Summer of Saint Martin
Today the catalogues are referred to as perhaps the “most elegant wine lists ever produced”. This was a major breakthrough in the approach to marketing and Nicolas Establishments helped to establish this new way of marketing for wine. Draeger Frères, and possibly Maison Nicolas, added to the popularity of the French posters during those years. Many French artists became graphic designers and typographers or illustrators to earn a living during these years. The French poster continues to be a highly collectible form of artwork.
No catalogues were produced between 1940-1948 because of World War II. It was important for the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County to collect these catalogues as we are able to see not only what vineyards and wineries were offering in their wine selections, but also the cost of each of these vintages during the span of a forty-five year period. And don’t forget, a collection of great artists’ works from that same time period.
Alfred Latour (1888-1964) illustrated the 1934 catalogue for Nicolas. Latour was the son of a typographer and had inherited the love of that field of graphic design. Through posters, advertising, and bindings he introduces a sense of variation and color choices. The Draeger Establishments offered Latour the post of artistic director in Paris but Latour had initially declined the offer. However, his name does appear as responsible for the typography and layout of the catalogues between 1945 and 1964.
Catalogues exhibited from April – July 2021 at the Broad Street office from the WHP Ephemera collection include: