Frances and my paths keep crossing for many years now. I started off as her intern at New Zealand Winegrowers many years ago and went on to work at Villa Maria, Frances previous stomping ground as a winemaker, before we swapped continents and having our first child around the same time.
Frances is still living in Amsterdam and due to her entrepreneurial spirit founded the boutique perfume brand Abel. I caught up with her to find out more about Abel, the only 100% organic eau de parfum in the world that is so pure you can even enjoy it mixed as a cocktail!
Hi Frances, thank you so much for your time…
Tell us a bit about Abel…
Several years ago I was frustrated when I couldn’t find a natural (and ideally organic) perfume that smelt and looked great. I’ve always been super intrigued by the world of smells, in fact when I was deciding to study viticulture & oenology, I was also interested in studying to be a perfumer – however Milan or Paris seemed a little out of reach for this South Island country girl!
So when I realised this desire I had didn’t seem to exist, I thought why not? And if I pulled together the right experts around me, could we make one? The idea was born. That was the beginning of 2012.
Fast-forward to today, Abel now produces two perfumes (we think they are the only 100% organic eau de parfum in the world). We are sold in several countries (mainly in Europe) in some of the world’s most exclusive perfume houses.
What does a “normal” working day look like for you?
There really is no normal. Between a 1 year old baby and managing all aspects of the business with no full time staff, but people based all around the world. It’s a balanced chaos!
What are the similarities between wine and perfume?
There are loads! From the roots deeply entrenched in French culture, to the romance and passion inspired by the olfactory experience. Interestingly, it was the similarities that drove my interest in both, but it’s the differences that have actually been more profound throughout our journey with Abel!
In winemaking, the vineyard is king and the best wines are still produced using the best grapes, from the most carefully nurtured vineyards on the best sites – a formula that hasn’t changed in many centuries.
With perfume it’s different, you start from scratch and develop a perfume to meet a creative vision – combining the ingredients you need and perfecting it as you go over many trials. Modern perfumers have a palate of over 3000 (mainly) synthetic ingredients from which to build that vision. Sometimes these synthetics have been created to replace natural ingredients (i.e. synthetic musk, to replace natural musk that used to be taken from the gland of the make deer), sometimes they are to created to smell like notes that never existed in nature (i.e. burnt rubber!).
In creating Vintage ’13, we were limited to a palate of organic ingredients (much smaller even, than a palate of natural ingredients). So like winemaking, it again became about the quality of the individual organic ingredients – we compared sandalwood from Australia, with its fragrant eucalyptus notes, to sandalwood from East India, with its rich warmth. Working with natural ingredients is different to synthetics in many ways, not least that we are subject to limited supply and seasonal variation (we can’t just replicate the note in a laboratory). The philosophy behind our ‘Vintage’ fragrance is that each time we bottle, we will release a new ‘Vintage’ – much like a vintage Champagne, showcasing the seasonal nuance of that year’s vintage.
What do you miss from working in the wine industry?
I miss the camaraderie of the New Zealand wine industry. It was a really great world to be part of.
Perfume in cocktails. Tell us a little bit more about this trend …
Our perfumes are made using only organic essential oil and food grade organic alcohol (therefore are drinkable **in small quantities!). When I saw an article about perfume inspired cocktails at the Ritz Carlton Berlin Curtain Club, I got our Berlin based distributor to get onto them about a REAL perfume cocktail! We are now served at the Ritz in a special Abel cocktail (Black forrest champagne – yum!), and like serving the perfume in cocktails as a surprising way of telling the ‘organic story’.
Wine & dine, what’s your favourite match?
So many favourites! I think there’s something to be said for the local pairings in their local environment – it’s a little cliche I know. But nothing taste better than Marlborough mussels and a local Sauvignon blanc when in Marlborough. We were recently in the Cinque Terre and sitting overlooking the ocean, the austere white harvested from the (frighteningly steep) terraces nearby with their local pesto gnocchi.
What’s your go to wine at the moment?
I love living in Europe with the wealth of European wines on offer. Most recently, I picked up Spanish Tempranillo / Syrah / Merlot from Tierra de Castilla in central Spain at my local organic grocers. We drank it on Sunday evening with a Moroccan chicken tagine I had slow cooking all afternoon. I remember using the words “stinky” “salty” and “ripe” when drinking it which are all very good words in my view!!
Favourite spots in Amsterdam:
I’m a huge fan of our neighbourhood – Amsterdam’s Oud West (the old west). It’s a melting pot of ethnic street markets, boutique hotels and trendy cafes. I keep a Pinterest board of some of my favourites!
Highlight in 2014:
Hands down, the birth of our son Rufus – which took place in our apartment, on a full moon, Friday 13th! The birth itself was incredible but it’s what it signified and the days and week’s ahead that are truly mind-blowing!!
Last book read:
John Lennon’s biography (actually still in the process of reading)… My husband Dave is a big non-fiction reader who travels to London often for work, so I generally find I’m reading his WKSmith cast offs! (Obviously English books aren’t everywhere in Amsterdam!)
Advice on buying perfume:
Try before you buy. As in try properly. A good perfume (especially some made with at least a few natural ingredients ) will evolve significantly as you wear. So you need to find something that works with your body chemistry. Don’t buy trends and don’t buy something you like on someone else.
Dead or alive, who would you want to wear your perfume?
Fran Lebowitz. I recently read an article about her opinions on modern dressing (it made me regret the amount of time I spend in my yoga pants in public!). But she has such sass, conviction & personality and takes a choice-full approach to grooming – something I wish more people did!
Thanks Frances, I hope our paths keep crossing!