OLN was shocked and saddened to learn today that the UK office of the Wine Institute of California will close due to severe cuts in funding from the Department of Agriculture in Washington DC.

John McLaren and Venla Freeman have spent 21 years spearheading the Californian wine category in the UK from their London office and it is the end of an era for these hugely respected industry leaders.

OLN caught up with McLaren to discuss the news and how the Californian category has changed since he took over as UK director at the Wine Institute of California in 1995.

What has been the reaction to this shock news?

We are buoyed up by the reaction from the trade. It has been supportive and quite touching, coming from people that have always been very business-like.

Was it a surprise to you or did you have an inkling it would happen?

I have always said that funding could be cut at any time, because it has to be signed off each year by somebody in Congress in Washington DC and they don’t know me, they don’t know the UK market, they don’t know wine. They might want to buy a tank instead. But I was surprised it wasn’t put in place in time for the end of the financial year in June. We could have fulfilled our obligations and it comes to an end, but we have been discussing promotions and tastings and booking things and suddenly it has all stopped.

How does this leave the Californian category in the UK?

The UK will be without any representation. Even if they put something in place in future with a PR agency, from September there will be nobody. This is the biggest market in the world by volume and if somebody was just getting into California but now there’s no support they could go to Australia or somewhere else instead.

How is Californian wine performing in the UK?

We are not moving forward overall because Gallo and Blossom Hill are not spending as much as they used to. But in the premium sector, where you make money, above £10, it is growing really well. It needs somebody putting that in the public eye. Then independents and the on-trade can see it moving forwards, and without that everybody becomes isolated and it gets eroded. I am disappointed personally and for the wine trade that decisions are made that don’t seem to fit.

What has the Wine Institute in the States said?

The International Committee in San Francisco is as surprised as I am. Nobody I have talked to seems to have been involved in the decision-making. I am a bit out of the loop.

How has the market for Californian wine changed in the UK since you started at the Wine Institute?

California was 2% of the UK market when Venla and I started. Now it’s 12%. While we can’t claim to have driven all of that ourselves, we have been involved in what California is doing to suit the UK market. Two things have changed in the UK market: the structure changed with Victoria Wine and so on breaking down and the independents coming along and becoming a very vibrant sector; and the on-trade changed as American steakhouses arrived and sommeliers were no longer all French and Italian and would consider Californian wines. On the other side of the pond, California was reinventing itself with different wines from different winemakers hitting different prices points, more European in style and more restrained. One slotted into the other and I was the liaison to the trade, telling them about it, and also telling the producers to put a bit more effort into the UK.

How has the perception of California changed among the UK trade?

Earleir today Joanna Simon [wine writer, Wine Gang member] tweeted to say that just when we were all getting so enthused about California, the Californian Wine Institute is shutting up shop. The UK was really beginning to get enthused about California – not just the trade but the cynical wine writers too were interested in new stuff that tells a new story. Independents want good Californian wine because it shows their individuality. Fifteen years ago California was seen as great at the brands and great at the top end with the strapping Napa Cabernets, but a bit weak in between. But now £8-£15 is strong for California.

What does the State have to do to try to maintain its standing in the UK in the absence of representation by a UK office?

They have to find a way collectively of keeping themselves in the public eye. If Californian wine is changing somebody has to be there to identify the trends and talk about them. Having somebody in the centre who is objective and tells the story is very important and they need to try to do that without having the Wine Institute here. [Declining sales] won’t happen overnight. People are stocked. But gradually you will see a loss of interest in some quarters unless something can be cobbled together.  

How important is the UK as a strategic global market in wine?

If you can prove yourself in London you can prove yourself anywhere. It’s a huge market by volume and it’s also one of the biggest fine wine markets in the world and it’s seen as a proving ground and an important market to be in. It is hard to understand why you would treat this market this way [cutting funding to it]. If somebody pulls out of Nigeria, you might say, ok, they weren’t getting the sales there. But, like Japan or Germany, the UK is a symbolic market.  

What might be next for you?

It is early days. I do quite an odd job in that it is so broad and involves marketing, PR, sales negotiations, diplomacy and so on, and there aren’t many jobs in the wine trade that are so broad, but I am a wine trade man through and through and it might be time for a new challenge in wine.