Don’t believe the doubters…there is money to be made in selling wine. At least that’s what is driving management consultant, Jonothan Davey, to set up his own wine importing and distribution business, Nekter Wines, that is looking to give top winemakers a new, dedicated, hands-on route in to the premium on-trade.
It is one thing loving your wine, it is quite another giving up a career as a management consultant to set up your own wine importing business. But so far, so good for Jonothan Davey and his new Nekter Wines business.
Many people trapped on the corporate hamster wheel dream of a day when they will pack it all in and indulge a long-held passion. But few act on it. Jonothan Davey is one who did. Despite having no more knowledge of wine than any other gifted amateur he resolved to become a wine importer.
One year on Davey, a hipster-bearded 38-year-old management consultant, has pulled off a remarkable coup. He has signed up 10 winemakers – seven from California and three from South Africa – acquired 16 clients (including two Michelin-starred restaurants) and sold thousands of bottles of wine.
And over a glass of 2013 Tempranillo (on-trade price £64) from one of his suppliers, Napa Valley producer Ferdinand, at the bar of one of his clients, Sager + Wilde in Hackney, east London, he swills and sniffs like a pro and talks knowledgeably about topics such as malolactic fermentation and the benefits of natural yeasts.
The idea of going into the wine world first struck when Davey was on holiday in South Africa. He decided to identify the best wines around and, being a management consultant, went about it via a crowd-sourcing exercise.
Wine merchants, off-licence proprietors and sommeliers were all canvassed for their opinions and he ended up with a wide array of choice local vintages.
It was when he got home with a selection of bottles that he began to see the potential of the wine importing business. “Wines that were £7 there, were £20 here and £60 in restaurants,” he says. “I thought ‘Someone’s making money here’, and they’re probably not smarter than me and they’re certainly not harder working.”
He began researching the wine markets of California and Australia as well as South Africa and expanded his wine knowledge by reading the likes of Jancis Robinson and “less old school” authors, such as the award-winning American wine expert Jon Bonne. He also did the WSET’s Level 2 wine course.
A cunning plan
Davey concluded that his best hope lay in targeting winemakers who were number twos at leading new wave wineries, such as Mathiasson and Kongsgaard in the Napa Valley,and were ready to move their own labels to the next level.
He duly approached a very specific list of winemakers in that category. “I said I was good at selling, I had the gift of the gab and I’d like to build a wine business,” he says. “Then I got a mega lucky break. My first email was to Martin Smith, who makes wines in Stellenbosch under the Paserene label. The first line of his reply read: ‘In the words of Bob Dylan, I’ll be in your dreams if you’ll be in mine’.”
As more winemakers came on board, Davey set about turning his pipe dream into a proper business. He came up with the name Nekter Wines – based on the phonetic spelling of “nectar” – and got a graphic designer friend, Samuel Muir, to produce a logo. He ploughed £35,000 into buying stock – £25,000 from savings plus a £10,000 bank loan – and started to drum up custom.
A friend introduced him to his first client, The Clove Club, which last year entered The World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking at number 26. “I went there with Paserene to let them taste the Chardonnay and the Carmenére,” says Davey, adding with a wry grin: “They bought some of the Chardonnay but the amount involved was so small they paid out of petty cash.”
All for one, one for all
All of Davey’s suppliers are producers who believe in minimal intervention: less oak, organic farming methods, minimal yeast, and minimal filtering and fining. In terms of sourcing they are a combination of vineyard owners or renters and people who buy in their grapes but what they all have in common is that they are master winemakers.
And all of them appear to have been won over by Davey’s obvious passion and dedication. “I see myself as the Jerry Maguire of the wine world,” he says with reference to the hyperactive sports agent played by Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe’s 1996 movie of the same name. “You know the sort of thing, ‘I’m your man, I’ll go to the end of the world for you’. I want to harvest with them, drink with them, get to know their families.”
A good example of this approach is what happened when he visited Jack Roberts of California’s Keep Wines last August and mucked in with the harvest. “There were three of us harvesting: me, Jack and a Mexican picker,” he says. “I went to my first vine, looked under the leaves, parted them and carefully snipped my first bunch of grapes. When I had finished I looked at Jack and he had already cut eight and the Mexican guy had done 12.
“As a management consultant, I decided it made more sense for me to carry the baskets to the truck. Over the next three hours I carried 1.3 tons of fruit from the pickers to the truck.”
He adds: “Later on I stood inside a one cubic metre stainless steel wine tank at noon in 40 degree sunshine and spent an hour cleaning it out. I quite like manual labour. If you want a trench dug I’m your man. I want to sweat, bleed and cry with my winemakers – basically put my body on the line. That’s how people bond. It gives me an edge the big boys don’t have.”
It was also a great education. “In the six hours I spent with Jack at his winery I learned so much more than I did in a week doing Level 2 WSET.”
Davey plans to got to South Africa at the end of next month and then spend six weeks in Napa in September and October with Roberts and Evan Frazier of Ferdinand, bribing his wife Natasha with the promise of a house with a pool for her and their two-year-old son Jasper.
And in the future…
In the long run he would like to team up with distributors of wines from complementary wine regions and open a shop. He has already had initial discussions with a sommelier who imports French natural wines about just such a venture.
But his next target is to take his sales up to 20,000 bottles a year. At that level, he reckons he will be able to devote himself to the business full time.
At one point our conversation at Sager and Wilde is interrupted by the Australian barman. “That Albariño is kicking,” he says, a reference to the Ferdinand brand the bar buys from Nekter. “We sold it all by the glass in three days – 12 bottles.”
Sounds like Davey is well on his way to achieving his ambition.
Nekter Wines’ producers
US: Ferdinand Wines, Keep Wines, Convexity, Calder Wine Company, Field Recordings, Benevolent Neglect, Wine Hooligans.
South Africa: Paserene, Bryan MacRobert Wines, Illimis
- For more details go to nekterwines.com