The wine trade is full of characters. It’s what makes it such a fascinating sector to be in. But it is also very open and welcoming to newcomers. Jonothan Davey explains how many big name restaurateurs and sommeliers in the premium on-trade have helped Nekter Wines find its feet with its range of minimal intervention wines from around the New World.
With the likes of Sager + Wilde and The Fat Duck stocking his wines then everything appears to be falling into place for Jonothan Davey and Nekter Wines but, as he explains, it’s been far from plain sailing.
Jonothan Davey has had a rollercoaster two years since starting Nekter Wines that specialises in wines from off the beaten track
In hindsight, starting a business in an intensely competitive industry without any background, experience, any real contacts and a knowledge bank which extended to “I actually quite like wine” was intensely idiotic and laughably ludicrous.
If anyone were to come to me today to ask me whether they should undertake such a folly, my first instinct would be to warn them wholeheartedly against the enterprise. I would impress upon them that considerably more time is spent labelling bottles in (invariably freezing) warehouses in Essex than is spent joyfully biting into Counoise grapes mid-carbonic fermentation in the Californian sunshine.
But that would be to miss the point. The wine business, it turns out, is driven by an infectious passion, a thirst for (more than just) knowledge and at the end of the day is about making the moments that matter in life (and some that don’t) that much sweeter and that much more enjoyable! The beauty of that balances out even LCB in January!
Nekter Wines hit the streets of London in June of 2016 – starting with just one producer, Martin Smith, the winemaker at Vilafonté who had just released the second vintage of his own label the excellent Paserene, and a shipment of 800 bottles of wine (“if it doesn’t take off we can always drink it ourselves”).
Our first fumbled tastings were with Guy Palmer-Brown at the Clove Club and the Birdman, James Ramsden, of Pidgin/Magpie fame. Despite them both being thoroughly bemused by a new supplier tasting consisting of a single bottle of Elgin Chardonnay and a Bordeaux Blend based around (still) the only use of Carmenére in all of South Africa, they went well. Guy took the Chardonnay, paying me pretty much on the spot to avoid the hassle of setting up an account for me and James took the Marathon.
Where we are now
From those inauspicious beginnings we now represent 19 minimal intervention producers from South Africa, Australia and California and have a portfolio of over 60 wines. We have a philosophy we work to: all of our winemakers work organically and sustainably; they all follow the same principle of “Doing as little as possible to the grapes to make the wine as amazing as possible” subsequently practically every one of our wines would be classified as natural, although we prefer the phrase “Minimal intervention.”
We are looking to limit our portfolio to about 10 producers in each of California, South Africa and Australia. Any more than that and we believe it detracts from our ability to truly represent the winemakers. Similarly we are looking to limit the number of partners here in the UK. We will ensure each of the people who sells our wine has some element of regional exclusivity. Our approach is to build partnerships based on mutual trust and understanding rather than chasing anyone and everything which might sell a bottle of our wine.
Reflections on the industry
The wine industry is full of amazing and passionate people, many of whom have spent decades learning their craft (which seems to involve an enormous amount of drinking) and earning their stripes along the way at all stages of the hospitality ladder – we feel very fortunate to have been welcomed so warmly into their community.
Most of our work is currently in the restaurant trade – we are proud to be able to say that 80% of the wines on our list regularly feature at Sager + Wilde – that we have listed wines with the likes of Noble Rot, the Remedy Wine Bar and Vagabond as well working with restaurants like The Fat Duck, The Clove Club, Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, The Winemakers Club, Magpie and Pidgin.
We would not be where we are now, were it not for the graciousness and generosity of these people in allowing us that first chance to work with them. Hospitality is a hard and unforgiving environment. Economic and political drivers transcend everyone and the world as we know it is going through enormous change (don’t get us started!).
This is felt especially keenly in this industry and in the spirit of partnerships we are working on bespoke terms with a number of our clients to help them manage through these difficult times – actually building those partnerships rather than simply paying lip-service to it.
Reflections on the Gods: winemakers
Central to all of this have, of course, been the winemakers themselves. It has been a genuinely mind-blowing experience to meet such a diverse group of people, joined by a common desire to make a magic tonic which can taste of candy floss, silt, leather, smoke, wet forest floor, eucalyptus and practically any fruit you have ever tried or even heard of. And yet is basically made out of grape juice, the yeast and flora which naturally grow on those berries and a touch of sulphur (sometimes) to keep the essence of the magic bottled tight ready for the moment when it is released.
That release, when it comes, is always an event for the end-consumer – from the end of a long work day, a treasured bottle that harkens back to a fond memory, or the special occasion of a birthday or an anniversary, wine is a product which is indelibly and irrevocably tied in to emotion, to friendship, to celebration, to life.
So we salute these winemakers, whose livelihoods and the future of their families is devoted to creating those moments and are at the mercy of fire and frost and drought and flood and hail and heat and pests and blight. It is an almost biblical existence – and incredibly humbling to observe.
Reflections on the Journey
It’s not all been plain sailing, there have been plenty of learning experiences along the way: “Digging out a seven ton tank is not for the faint-heated, especially not twice”; “Is it usual for your skin to be Magenta?”; “I’m not sure you understand Mr Davey, you still haven’t submitted your tax return for March 2016 – HMRC, March 2018”: “Oh, it’s a Chablis? Ok, and what grape is it?”: “Don’t look now, but there is a giant spider above your head – whilst driving in a car in Australia”; “My hands will go back to being pasty white, won’t they?”
What happens next?
We want to change the way that consumers engage with wine. Wine should not be a commodity – it should not be a case of going to the local off-licence to buy “a bottle of Chardonnay please” for £5 or £15 or even for £50. Wine isn’t petrol. Part of the pleasure in buying wine is about discovering the journey the bottle has made, the story of its winemaker, the philosophy behind their wine. It needn’t be intimidating, any more than finding the right book in the book store need be intimidating.
That’s the next part of the Nekter Journey, to bring the winemakers and the consumers closer together… we’re going to start this at the London Wine Fair in May, so please come along and say hello – and stay along for the ride!!
* You can meet Jonothan and taste the range of Nekter Wines on Stand Y109 at the London Wine Fair between May 21-23.