It's ho-hum news these days when yet another well-heeled Englishman ditches the sceptered isle to tend grapevines in France. But Alan Jones, 60, has put a different spin on the trend. Instead of a vineyard, the former marine biologist from Leicestershire started a sturgeon farm near Bordeaux in 1995. Now, his company, Sturgeon, produces two-thirds of France's caviar. "Wild caviar is becoming more scarce and expensive," says Jones. "So I thought there would be a market for farmed, cheaper, and more ecologically friendly caviar."
Boy, was he right. Jones sold $3 million worth of fish eggs in 2002 and has been in the black for three years. Distributors, including the renowned Petrossian, stamp their own logos on tins of his caviar. Jones's own brand is Caviar d'Aquitaine, named for the Bordeaux region, and sells at a big discount to its Caspian Sea counterpart -- $45 for a 30-gram tin vs. $150 for top Iranian beluga. Yet gourmands don't turn up their noses. "It is consistently of great quality," says Stéphane Raimbault, a star chef at L'Oasis near Nice, who has crafted a summer menu around Caviar d'Aquitaine.
At first, though, investors didn't bite. When Jones teamed up with Jean Boucher, a wealthy Bordeaux businessman, to buy a hatchery, bankers would not lend them a sou. "The banks thought we were mad," says Jones. Boucher, who is the majority stakeholder in the venture, put up the initial $5 million investment.
The banks underestimated Jones's ability to turn his PhD in marine biology into a business. Although he was anything but a caviar connoisseur -- he had tasted it only once -- Jones had spent 20 years supervising fish farms for Britain's Agriculture Ministry and Kraft Foods Inc. The sturgeon that he and Boucher acquired, a Siberian species yielding caviar with fruit and nut flavors similar to Ossetra, has traditionally been farmed for its flesh.
To speed a return on their investment, Jones and Boucher bought fish that were already four years old -- halfway to maturity for the female fish. Thus, they were able to realize their first harvest in 1999. This year, the venture will produce 5 metric tons of caviar, and Jones is aiming for 10 tons by 2008. He has learned that letting the caviar age in tins for four months produces a better flavor. Jones's wife serves as an official taster, often bringing home a tin for dinner. More than half of the shiny black eggs are eaten in France, and the bulk of the remainder ends up on other European tables.
Caviar d'Aquitaine doesn't suffer from the wild fluctuations in the price of wild Iranian or Russian caviar, since the cost and yield of farmed sturgeon is predictable. Jones has visited sturgeon farms near the Caspian Sea, which remain the caviar gold mine. But for now he's happy being le roi du caviar in France.