For any retailer with ambitions to head up a drinks company, González Byass UK managing director Melissa Draycott’s story should prove inspirational, finds Lucy Britner
Melissa Draycott is no stranger to the shop floor. During her near-20 years at Sainsbury’s, the González Byass UK managing director counts a stint as store manager at the supermarket’s Cambridge branch in the early noughties. (Back then the drink of choice for the town’s students, she says, was mostly vodka.)
After that, she moved up to be senior spirits and fortified wine buyer and eventually senior wine buyer for Sainsbury’s. In 2021, Draycott took the top job at González Byass UK, having spent the previous 12 years as the company’s sales director.
González Byass boasts some big names in fortified wine in its portfolio, such as Tío Pepe, Croft and Quinta do Noval, as well as brands such as Beronia Rioja, Australia’s Wirra Wirra and Champagne Deutz. The business is split 80/20 (volumes) in favour of the off-trade, and Draycott says turnover was around £20 million in 2022.
When it comes to doing business with buyers, Draycott’s experience has given her a natural “in”.
“I think you’ve got a better rapport, because you’ve been on that side – and I wasn’t just a buyer, I’d been on the shop floor as a store manager. That experience helped me be a better buyer. You weren’t just buying, you were hoping to buy a product that will sell well, that the customers want. I learned on the shop floor that you need to have great availability.”
She tells a story of when she was a spirits buyer and “worked hard on range and availability”.
“My first Christmas, we didn’t have a single out-of-stock,” she says. “And that means you sell more, and you beat your competition.”
So, what is it buyers are looking for right now? According to Draycott, it’s sustainability credentials. “There’s growth and interest in organic and some supermarkets won’t list any own-label unless it’s vegan or vegetarian. If it’s something that can be done, they want it, but I know it’s hard for some wineries to make wine like that. Low and no-alcohol are also on the agenda.”
Draycott says sometimes the sherry brands also open the door, since they are big names listed by the supermarkets. “All of the retailers have got Croft Original,” she adds.
We’re talking at the company’s portfolio tasting and Draycott points out Croft’s label tweaks as well as a recent activation with Bake Off star Sandro Farmhouse – an effort to attract younger drinkers to the category by showcasing a new spritz-style serve.
Tío Pepe, too, gets a lot of attention at the tasting, as the company demonstrates the Tío Pepe & Tonic serve, part of a summer campaign for the brand.
In terms of sherry’s performance as a category, Draycott says that from a 5% decline on average each year, sherry sales jumped 20% during the pandemic, and consumption is still slightly above pre-pandemic levels.
“Who knew, but when lockdown happened, loads of people started buying sherry from the supermarkets – it was like their comfort go-to drink. Croft and Tío Pepe volumes grew in the off-trade. It’s almost like people are secret sherry drinkers.” There are not-so-secret sherry drinkers, too, and Draycott emphasises sherry’s use as a cocktail ingredient, and increased interest from bartenders.
Whether it is being sipped in secret or not, fortified wine is about to get more expensive as new duty changes approach. In June, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association recognised Draycott’s efforts to lobby government over tax hikes with a special award.
“We managed to stop a duty increase going through in February. When it was all starting – and because I used to be a fortified buyer – I know all the other suppliers. I contacted them and said, ‘we need to do something together on this’ and so, along with [WSTA chief executive] Miles Beale, we all started having meetings. This was still during the pandemic.”
Draycott says the lobbying hasn’t stopped and she recently had a meeting with MP Grant Shapps. “He came to our office, and I told him how much products would increase by overnight in August. I gave him bottles to hold. He said he had learned from what we were saying and would take it back to his colleagues to explain.
“Fortified is a category in the mix of all this that is being forgotten. What’s worrying is that if they push it too far, we might actually sell less.”
Asked whether abvs could be lowered, Draycott says: “You could [do that],” but warns that “it’s very close to changing your product, and some sherry styles’ DO rules don’t permit it”. She says the company has done trials but has no plans to do anything different at present.
“We want to look after our customers,” she adds.
Beyond fortified, Draycott is keen to mention the success of the company’s Beronia Rioja brand, with the Reserva making Vivino’s top 10 bestselling red wines last Christmas.
“We’re doing really well with Beronia. Obviously, we have to keep an eye on the competition because there are a lot of Riojas, but no one else is really doing any marketing, apart from Campo Viejo.”
Draycott also mentions Soberano and the potential for Spanish brandy, which she says is growing as a category.
“Spain’s trendier, perhaps, than some of the old Cognacs and French brandies.”
Spain aside, anyone who follows Draycott on social media will know she rarely posts without a glass of Champagne in her hand. And she counts helping to bring Champagne Deutz into the company fold as a big achievement. She’s also a member of the Champagne Academy, has educational ties with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and was awarded membership of Wines from Spain’s Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino for outstanding contribution to selling and promoting Spanish wines.
Indeed, she is a Caballero and, like a wine Wonder Woman, can wear a red cape. It’s clear throughout our conversation that Draycott is keen to support her colleagues as well as the next generation of drinks trade professionals. “We are a friendly company,” she says. Well, Draycott is certainly friendly company – perhaps that comes from being a retailer.