The London Wine Fair has shrunk somewhat in recent years – partly a reflection of consolidation in the market. Companies such as PLB and Bottle Green, which previously hawked their wares from some of the largest stands, are among the firms that have been swallowed up.
But in challenging economic times it is a case of survival of the fittest and visitors pounding the floor at Olympia this year were met by several thriving suppliers, providing evidence of a new breed coming to the fore.
“The day of the middleman is ending and the day of the global specialist is coming,” says Mark Lansley, managing director at Broadland Wineries. As a sound bite it’s a little Tolkeinesque, evoking a wizard declaring the end of the age of elves and dwarves and ushering in the age of man. But it perfectly sums up the direction the supply market seems to be moving in.
Off-Piste is a strong example. It is an innovator, a brand creator and an agency that values agility and flexibility and is trying to push boundaries to appeal to younger adults. It is challenging the status quo in terms of design and packaging, and has brands such as Most Wanted that transcend countries and regions and focus instead on strong branding and well-known grape varieties. These allow it to circumvent problems such as currency fluctuations and poor harvests by simply going wherever in the world offers the best quality-to- price ratio that year.
Owner Paul Letheren hired Rachel Archer, who created the ultra-successful I Heart brand at Copestick Murray, and formed what he considers a dream team with former Sainsbury’s winemaker Clem Yates MW.
One is obsessed with wine quality and the other with design and innovation, both equally geeky and driven in their own fields. “We are very lucky to have Rachel as the creative genius behind the designs, and Clem, who is so obsessed with quality, a real technical nerd,” says Letheren. “Having good people is the core to any business.”
Broadland has a similar thing going on. Some people still think of Broadland as a bottler, but it is not. It is completely out of the contract bottling business and is dedicated to creating its own brands and supplying private label, a venture it believes will help it grow turnover from £60 million today to £250 million by 2025.
“I would have said 12 months ago that our competitors were Kingsland, Lanchester and Accolade,” says Lansley. “Now we see our main competitors as Off-Piste and Free Run Wines. We as a company are now shifting into a new phase.”
It has Arabella Woodrow MW in the Yates role – she was at Morrisons while Yates was at Sainsbury’s – and has promoted Simon Oastler to marketing director to perform a similar role to Archer. “We have a very clear view of the growth we want to achieve in the next few years,” says Oastler.
“We need to ensure we keep the ability to be flexible and adjust to customers’ needs to suit their consumers. We want to keep that agility while continuing to grow at a pretty fast rate of knots. Where we will really accelerate is where we build labels and brands and support them.”
BREAKING COUNTRY TIES
Many brands that are succeeding are those that are not tied into regions and countries. I Heart has blazed a trail, soaring into the UK top 20 brands on the back of double-digit growth year on year, and Off-Piste is trying to replicate this with Most Wanted. Broadland has R&R, a similar proposition that encompasses wines from all over the world – a Chilean Merlot, an Italian Pinot Grigio and an Argentinian Malbec.
There is nothing to say that next year the Merlot could not be from California, the Pinot Grigio from Romania or the Malbec from Australia. Ehrmanns has a great brand, Beefsteak Club, featuring an Argentinian Malbec and a Spanish Tempranillo, but it could swap the countries of source and would consumers care, so long as the quality is there? These companies have MWs and talented winemakers and can ensure quality.
“We found the most amazing Malbec in South Africa,” says Letheren. “With Most Wanted we have the freedom to go with that instead of Malbec from Argentina. We could change it and I don’t think customers would bat an eyelid.”
It flies in the face of what marketers tell us all the time, that consumers are demanding provenance, but the sales figures on I Heart and other brands speak for themselves. Broadland’s small-format Minivino range is another that is tied only to popular varieties and not regions, and it says that is performing very well. A willingness to experiment with packaging and design is another feature of these thriving suppliers.
“While I appreciate the heritage of a 75cl, 256g bottle of wine, there are some inherent problems with it,” says Lansley. “It breaks, it’s heavy, it’s not fully recyclable. I am a chemical engineer and very interested in the science behind wine brand design. In other sectors I have worked
in, the approach to innovation is much more academically focused. Chemical trials take many years, there is consumer testing that takes ages. Our hit rate is going up. When I first joined we succeeded in certain areas but sometimes misfired. Now our hit rate has improved.”
Archer has just developed 25cl cans of sparkling Pinot Grigio, with juice sourced from Hungary by Yates, and they were garnering a lot of attention at LWF. “We feel now is the time for more innovation in terms of packaging and serve occasion and we are really excited about it,” says Archer. “Some people ask whether consumers will be comfortable buying wine in a can.
The same question was asked about screwcaps 15 years ago. Today they are not only accepted but positively welcomed by most drinkers. It is very important the wine industry recognises that, as consumer lifestyles, openness and interests change so must we. Drinks in cans have been a part of consumers’ lives for decades. For many craft beer producers and consumers, cans are now the format of choice. We are simply moving with the times.”
She adds: “I have always worked for small, dynamic companies and it’s easy to forget that a lot of people’s idea of innovation is a million miles from where we need to be.” But she has been impressed by the ambition starting to be shown by parts of the wine trade when it comes to modernising to keep up with spirits, beer and cider. “It’s great that we are seeing a lot of innovation,” she says. “Who knows what will work and what won’t but it’s a positive thing that people are innovating.”
Origin Wines is another company driving innovation in a bid to appeal to younger drinkers, and its partnership with Electric Sky Wines has resulted in 25cl cans of rosé from the Languedoc and DOC Prosecco in a 20cl bottle with a crown cap closure. “Innovation in wine is often changing the vintage or the colour of the label,” says owner Bernard Fontannaz. “We are not using enough different types of bottle. If you look at spirits, or perfume, what they are doing is so much better.
A wall of wine is intimidating for anybody. If something stands out and makes them smile, it’s priceless. In spirits not one bottle is the same. There’s diversity and nobody questions the quality of the product itself. Why can’t we do that in wine? Why are we stuck with a claret or Burgundy bottle? Wine could be funky and fun. The wine has to be good quality. That goes without saying. But we have to enhance the experience and that’s why packaging and formats are important.”
All this innovation is great at recruiting new shoppers, but they will only return to buy a wine again if the quality is right. “We have no duff wines,” says Lansley. “Every single one is checked by Arabella, or she had a hand in blend- ing it. We test things to death. If you are bringing wines in from overseas you won’t necessarily be doing the level of testing we do. Many folks don’t have a laboratory. They are hoping the boat didn’t sit in a
dock somewhere on the equator for ages. We run QC charts, checking batch after batch, variation after variation.”
He adds: “I don’t think there’s a future for the middleman. Dyson is a great example: an innovative, design-driven company. In wine middlemen are transaction processing houses, not handling much product on a day-to-day basis, not adding much change or value. A lot of those have gone. Those winning now are adding value. They are specialists. Hatch Mansfield, I don’t see them as a middleman. They are experts in their field.
“The bottlers were all production focused, with the exception of Accolade. The background is filling, engineering, logistics. We have all been developing, but there’s an opportunity now. I now see us as getting into brand development in a more scientific way. The hackneyed phrase is a one-stop shop, but we want to be a bloody fast one-stop shop that’s flexible and agile.”
The age of the middleman is certainly dying. To succeed now you need to give retailers something they cannot do themselves, or have not thought of doing themselves. You need innovative branding that will reel in new consumers, and quality juice for that price point. Of course, you need all the logistics, strong sales teams, and the entrepreneurialism and dynamic flair brought
by the likes of Robin Copestick, Letheren, Fontannaz, Charles Elms, Nicolas Bauer, Kim Wilson and Joy Edmondson at the burgeoning North South and all the other agency bosses who have survived the past few years and are thriving.
But, first and foremost, you need a quality product and interesting design, and those offering it can look forward to a healthy future.