‘Think small but act big!’ is the philosophy behind newly-formed Graft Wine, the UK importer formed by the merging together of two of our most innovative specialist importers, Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine. In an exclusive Buyer interview Graft’s two chiefs, Nik Darlington and David Knott, talked to Chris Wilson about the reasons behind the move, where the efficiencies lie, what new wine producers they will be taking on, and also why the current economic climate both in the wine trade and broader UK economy demanded a bold step. From the off new producers will include Matthew van Heerden, Polperro, Bodegas Nekeas, Andreas Gsellmann, Domaine du Vieux Pressoir, Corvers-Kauter and Vigneti Cenci.
New importers Graft will have a combined portfolio of nearly 400 wines from 86 producers.
The move has been in the pipeline for many months and will be officially announced to the trade on 8th July. Ahead of the announcement Nik Darlington from Red Squirrel and David Knott from The Knotted Vine spoke exclusively to The Buyer about the move.
In the exclusive interview with Darlington and Knott we discover how and why Graft came about, the pair’s ambitious plans for the business and get the lowdown on the new producers they have just taken on.
Why the name Graft?
Nik Darlington: ‘Graft’ represents the coming together of two companies creating something greater than the sum of its parts. David and I were also very keen to have a name associated with the land, vineyards and farming. The best wines really are made ‘in the vineyard’.
What’s the simple message that you want Graft to convey – what would be your strapline?
ND: Think small, but act big! You can work with the Graft Wine Company and get that offering and vibe of a small specialist, but we’d still want you to expect similar levels of service to bigger companies. In the grand scheme of things, we may have occasionally punched above our weights but both Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine were really small businesses. The Graft Wine Company obviously makes us a bit bigger, but we’re still a very small business with the same fast-paced, quirky ethos as before. However being small shouldn’t mean we can’t aspire to offer similar service levels and resources to much bigger players.
How much of your current customer base is shared?
ND: Remarkably little, just over 10 per cent, more or less.
How will you manage your respective existing portfolios?
David Knott: We’ll be keeping existing portfolios largely as they are and creating something Nik and I believe will be very exciting and compelling for each other’s existing customers across the country, and buyers of companies who may not have considered us before.
How much untapped opportunity is there for Graft, and which sectors are you looking to target?
ND: Based on our talking to customers, we know that some of the greatest immediate opportunities are for them to access all the wines of effectively two small specialists at once. We know it’s often tough taking on more and more small suppliers, so we are solving that particular problem for many businesses we already work with. And, as before, Graft will always seek to work with great independent wine merchants, restaurants, bars and pubs around Britain.
DK: We want to be able to offer a broad but concise portfolio that delivers quality across the range, so if you are looking to work with us you can explore the list in the comfort that all the wines have been selected with great care, have true regional and varietal character and have been made by knowledgeable winemakers producing the best minimal intervention wines out there. We have big aspirations for the portfolio and we have been rigorous about only taking the best wines we can get our hands on so I hope this makes it an exciting list to work with from a customer angle.
In terms of logistics, what are the advantages of the new company?
ND: There’ll be some economies of scale to be gained internally for sure, but given Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine shared so few customers already there isn’t going to be a sudden windfall on the logistics front. Where we expect to become far more efficient is in shipping from winemakers around the world, something that will likely become ever more important in the coming months.
Will it be good to share the responsibility as the business moves forward, how important is this ‘emotional’ bond?
ND: For me yes it’s so important. Setting up and running your own company can be incredibly fulfilling and a huge amount of fun and I don’t regret it for a moment, but it can also be highly pressurised and often very lonely, even with the great people around you that I’ve been fortunate to have.
DK: For sure. It is very difficult setting up a business in this trade so I think there is a great level of mutual respect for each other and what we have achieved. I think sharing the responsibility and having a sounding board for ideas and strategy will be amazing. I think as well Nik and I bring very valuable but different skills to Graft, which will allow us to focus on our areas of strength whilst driving the business as a whole forward.
Do you have any new producers to unveil as ‘Graft’ producers?
ND: We do! Sam Coverdale is a new name people should remember, as his organic & biodynamic Even Keel and Polperro wines are some of the best bottles coming out of Mornington Peninsula. Also from Australia, Dan Graham’s Sigurd wines are stunning, and proof that it’s not just South Africa that’s cornering the southern hemisphere market in great Chenin Blanc!
Also, having for so long focused our Austrian range at Red Squirrel on wines from just one Wagram village, Grossriedenthal, we’ve branched out into Burgenland with biodynamic vintner Andreas Gsellmann. Then there’s Matthew van Heerden, a former young international winemaker of the year, and his beautiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Elgin Valley. And, last but not least, Bodegas Nekeas with their high-altitude, old-vine wines from Navarra.
Do you have plans for a portfolio tasting this year?
ND: The Graft autumn portfolio events will be on 10th September in London, 16th September in Edinburgh and 18th September in Manchester. As with past Red Squirrel portfolios we’ll have many winemakers there from around the world. Registration is already available on the events page of the new Graft website.
You said that ‘now’s the time to do something bold’? What do you mean by that, and how ambitious and risky is this move?
ND: I’ve put an enormous amount of work into Red Squirrel and sacrificed a lot to get it to where it got. David has done the same with The Knotted Vine, so it’s definitely intimidating starting anew. There’s also obviously a lot of uncertainty around our trade and the wider UK economy at the moment but, rather than batten down the hatches, with the launch of Graft we’re saying there are so many opportunities out there if we work hard and remain positive, and a resilient demand for delicious, exciting wines backed up by great, attentive customer service.
I’m not saying we’re reinventing the wheel, but I do come back to this idea of thinking small and acting big. Graft gives us the extra bit of scale to act bigger in terms of the service and resources we can offer to customers, and still think small in terms of our personal relationships with customers and winemakers and naturally the types of wines we have too. So sure, all in all, it’s a bold move but not at all against the grain for Red Squirrel or The Knotted Vine because we’ve always dared to be different.
- Graft will have a combined portfolio of nearly 400 wines from 86 producers in England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany, Turkey, Canada, the USA, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand
- The company will be taking on brand new producers from the off, including Matthew van Heerden (South Africa), Polperro (Australia), Bodegas Nekeas (Spain), Andreas Gsellmann (Austria), Domaine du Vieux Pressoir (France), Corvers-Kauter (Germany), and Vigneti Cenci (Franciacorta, Italy)
- Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine currently supply clients in the on-trade and independent off-trade across the UK, but of current customer bases there is roughly 10 per cent crossover so we see a great opportunity for restaurant and merchant buyers to access an even wider, better range of wines from two of the most dynamic specialist importers in the UK
- Red Squirrel will continue as an online retail brand as that is how it started and it is now fairly well established in the public’s mind, but all trade-facing activity will go through Graft and the Red Squirrel retail website will continue to operate in the way it does now, with very light-touch promotion and prices that shouldn’t undercut anyone, purely an outlet for the public to buy wines that are largely only available in restaurants
Meet Nik and David and the Graft team at their portfolio tastings on September 10th(London), 16th(Edinburgh) and 18th(Manchester), at Out The Box in early October and at Wine Australia’s ‘Australia Redefined’ event on 17th September.