Steve Daniel has been buying Californian wine for longer than some Californian producers were actually ready to sell it. That was back in his Oddbins days when he was responsible for bringing wines – like Frog’s Leap – to the UK long before they had made their name in California. Fast forward to 2021 and Daniel is still, in his role as head of buying for Hallgarten & Novum Wines, looking to promote and showcase what California does best, which brings us to its recent partnership with Terlato Wines to introduce iconic producers, Sanford and Chimney Rock to its fine dining customers. Here Daniel and Chuck Cramer, Terlato’s UK and European sales & marketing director, explain to Richard Siddle why they think there are so many more opportunities for premium Californian wine in the UK.
Having Terlato Wines’ Chuck Cramer working in the UK market is an asset that Hallgarten & Novum Wines is very keen to use, says head of buying, Steve Daniel.
Having decades of experience buying wine from a particular country or region has its ups and downs. Yes, you may have an incomparable knowledge of what different producers and individual AVAs can do for you, but equally it takes a lot to really excite, and get the heart beat going about listing a new producer.
“California does not make it easy for you,” is how Steve Daniel puts it. Too often producers only have limited volumes of wines available for export and what they do can bare little relation to what they are selling at home and are unrealistic in terms of the margins they can expect to get. That’s the “frustrating” end of California, he says.
Daniel knows only too well California’s various achilles heels, but his love for the region and the wines they make keeps him coming back. It’s why he was one of the first names down for California Wine Institute’s inaugural buyers trip to the state in autumn 2019, covered by The Buyer, and the chance to see first hand what the new California is doing.
Although he did not list any wines directly from that particular trip, he came back armed with tasting notes and reviews about the sort of wines and producers he knows will do well in the UK.
Right wines, right time
Which is what brings us to today’s conversation with Chuck Cramer, head of UK and Europe for Terlato Wines, which has built up one of the most influential collections of premium Californian players – including Sanford and Chimney Rock, which moved its distribution to Hallgarten & Novum Wines earlier in the year.
Daniel is clearly delighted to have such pedigree wine names to work with. “Having a brand like Sanford makes it so much easier,” he adds.
Producers of the standing and critical acclaim as Sanford Winery in the Santa Rita Hills and Chimney Rock Winery in the Stags Leap District, Napa help open the doors of fine dining restaurants and hotels, says Daniel.
He is particularly pleased to have Sanford and Chimney Rock as part of its portfolio as it prepares itself for the inevitable “horror show” of what is happening in Burgundy, and other parts of France, now and into next year with chronic shortages of wine.
“The 2021 vintage from Burgundy is looking non-existent and we are having to look for alternatives,” explains Daniel, which is very much where California comes in, particularly those premium producers operating in the more cooler climate areas, like Sanford in Santa Rita Hills.
“Sanford with all his history, and reputation is well placed to work in the gap that is opening up,” he adds. “California is a great alternative to Burgundy.”
It is the “forward thinking and innovative” end of California that you want to be buying wine, stresses Daniel. “That’s where you want to try and tap into at a price the UK consumer can accept.”
He is, though, always aware that California, being the world’s fifth biggest economy is pretty “self sufficient” in terms of selling the wines it produces at a price they want to sell them at.
What California does best
The skill for the UK wine buyer is to look at the two ends of the Californian market and see what difference you can make either at the icon, fine wine level, or at the “affordable end”. There is still not a lot of value to be had buying, never mind producing wines in the middle.
“That’s the big difference it has to countries like France, Italy and Spain where they can produce such great value wines in that £10 to £20 area. California does not really have that.”
Instead California is more about the personalities, the individuals, the entrepreneurs behind the wines, that help them stand out. Or the icon wineries, that become personalities in their own right.
Which is very much where Sanford, in particular, sits on the back of the cult status it now has thank to the ‘Sideways’ Hollywood movie.
He says the decision to link up with Terlato Wines and take the two brands on was heavily influenced by the buyers’ trip in 2019.
“It helped to focus my mind on what California does well. I came back realising you don’t go to California for Sauvignon Blanc or affordable Chardonnay and Cabernet. You go there looking for your Rhone varietals and your high end classic Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Don’t go mainstream, but go for the best you can get. If you want cheap varietal wines then go somewhere else. Go for what California does best.”
The beauty of working producers with the stature of Sanford and Chimney Rock is you are not taking on “lookalike wines” but buying to the “original” – the real thing when it comes to cool climate iconic, innovative Californian wines.
“Sanford and Chimney Rock are both pioneer wine producers,” adds Daniel, “people who were and are doing things differently, that have a story to tell.”
Daniel says he first listed Sanford when he was at Oddbins in the late 1980s and it was brought in by the late Geoffrey Roberts. “California was a happy hunting ground for real bargains back in those days,” he remembers. “Californians were also drinking Merlot in those days. Not Pinot Noir. It was a really good time to go there.”
He says he remembers Sanford always being “ahead of the curve” in terms of its winemaking that was not necessarily classified as “cool climate” in those days, and it has continued to “refine” its style over the years.
“I did not know Chimney Rock then, but it has gone on to be an iconic Napa Cabernet that does what it says on the tin. It is what a lot of people want and is a great wine for a premium steak restaurant. It’s a big, refined, juicy Cabernet.”
Chuck Cramer is not your usual UK and European sales & marketing director for a major Californian producer. He not only lives in the UK, but is out every day pounding the streets talking to and listening to what sommeliers and top wine buyers are looking for from California and the rest of the world.
He is equally ideally placed to know which are the right distributors for Terlato’s brands. Which importers have the customers and the network to help move their wines in what is such a competitive market.
Cramer says he had been courting Hallgarten for some time, and it was the end of 2020 that the business really needed to make the move.
“Looking at the quality of the wines we have, I just knew they would sit better with Hallgarten, particularly with its strong London fine dining wine business. We were just not getting any traction in that channel so we started talking and by April we were ready to start shipping the wine. We have already had three more shipments since then.”
The initial Hallgarten & Novum Wines deal has seen it take on Sanford Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the Sanford & Benedict single vineyard Pinot Noir.
Cramer explains: “Our 2019 Sanford Pinot Noir is the first vintage under the helm of new head winemaker, Trey Fletcher. Hallgarten is set to launch the Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Stags Leap District, Napa which will be ready for delivery (realistically) into UK accounts, early January 2022. We are also brining in Elizabeth Vianna’s, Chimney Rock winemaker, single vineyard Tomahawk Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 which is a beauty of a Cab. These are exciting times for Terlato Wines. We wanted to prioritise the wines we knew we could get into fine wine dining restaurants,” says Cramer. “They are just such a natural fit for these wines.”
The response has been more than he could have expected. “Steve and his team have really embraced the wines and we already have Sanford in the 20 top fine dining restaurants in London. We have just got some killer listings and are really working Sanford by the glass, with, for example, both Pinot Noir in Goodman and the Chardonnay is going on BTG at Nobu Portman Square very soon. The team is doing a magnificent job with these wines.”
On the ground support
Having Cramer on the ground is a real gift for Hallgarten, adds Daniel. Not only is here there to help work with the sales teams and talk about the wines, he lives and breathes them coming from California himself.
“It really is quite unique. I don’t think I know of any other producers who work in this way, but having someone here full time is such a massive help to our sales team,” says Daniel.
He adds: “Having Chuck on the ground is what really encouraged us to take the wines on. Historically Californian producers are quite happy leaving you to it. They think the job finishes as soon as the wine leaves the winery. Chuck, by comparison, is a real help and asset for our guys. It means they can be quite the double act going out to see customers. That really is so useful, particularly when you are selling such high end wines. It really does help open doors.”
It also, says Daniel, gives the sales team the “confidence” they need to sell these kinds of wines and that is actually easier than they think because you learn how to truly believe in what you are selling. Working with Cramer gives them that confidence.
The next stage is to build distribution of Sanford around the country and Cramer is looking forward to working with Hallgarten’s regional teams to see what can be done in the fine dining sector outside London.
“The fine dining scene is more disparate, but it is out there and they probably have got space on their lists for a cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” says Daniel.
He admits he had “steered away” from iconic Californian wines at Hallgarten in the past as the right wine had not come along, but the experience of working with Sanford and Chimney Rock, alongside Cramer, has given them “courage” to start looking at the category again.
“Sanford gives us a good place to build a range around with a few benchmark wines,” he adds, which could also mean exploring more “bespoke” wines that are “reflective of what California can do”.
Cramer says he is also excited about other wines in the Sanford and Chimney Rock portfolios they can work on together, wines that further express the terroir and the work that is taking place in the vineyards as well as the wineries.
“There are some exciting wines with great stories that we are looking to bring over,” he adds
It’s been a busy year for Terlato and Cramer in the UK as it has also taken on ABS Wine Agencies to look after its Federalist, Dueling Pistols Rutherford Hill wine ranges. (Click here to read an interview between Chuck Cramer and Eliot Awin from ABS Wine Agencies about the partnership).
“With the support of the Terlato family, I am really pleased with the changes we have made and the impact they have on the wines in the market. A lot of the time we are just working on handshake deals so you have to be really comfortable that you have the right fit,” says Cramer.
The opportunity is now there to work with its partners to drive new business with more customers around the UK, and then supporting them on the back of that.
“We have been able to open up contracts that we have not been able to get into before which is just awesome,” he adds.
It also clearly makes his job easier and confirms to Terlato that this is a market investing more in.
But you also need to have a happy distributor to make the wheels go round and Daniel says he the first few months of trading “have been really positive” both in terms of sales, but also the quality of distribution they have achieved.
Hopefully, he adds, Hallgarten provides a good, strong partner for a business like Terlato to work with. “We are financially strong and are not going away anywhere. We have that base on which we can be innovative, our sales teams are hungry and want to get out there and sell these kinds of wines. There’s no point in me just collecting wines for the sake of it. Your sales team has to buy into them as well.”
Which is why Hallgarten is always keen to stress to its producer partners that it only wants to work with the right restaurant customers. The businesses that want you to help them sell more wine and work with you staff to do so.
“Everyone is under pressure to turn their stock, and we want to help them do that,” he says. “That’s why we spend so much time and effort training our staff – time that will help them support our customers. Our job is not finished when we sell them a bottle of wine. That’s when the real work starts.”
Work that Terlato’s Chuck Cramer is ready and waiting to do with the Hallgarten & Novum team.