ABS Wine Agencies doesn’t court publicity. It is usually quite happy going about its business on its own, quietly under the radar. Which is not surprising when you find out it is actually at the cutting edge of wine distribution not only in the UK but through its burgeoning UK bottled and own label business driving exports all around the world. So here’s your chance to find out what they are really up to.
ABS Wine Agencies are one of a growing number of wine distributors that see themselves as both international and UK wine suppliers.
But it’s not surprising it has also became better known just as ABS when the Siegel Wine Agencies was bought in to the company in 2005.
ABS prides itself of being a family-run business, working with family run wineries. So much so that its commercial office in Dorking is actually in a converted house, tucked away down a driveway on a standard residential Dorking street.
It is so homely you almost expect everyone to be walking around in their pyjamas, to see Sky Sports playing away in the corner and the sound of the Archers theme tune coming through from the kitchen.
That homely feel is very much how ABS operates and it appears to be working as it is a serial winner in the various national wine importer and distributor of the year prizes.
Accolades that clearly mean a lot to them, considering the larger scale of the competition they are up against.
“I think it is principally because we have built such long term partnerships with our producers,” says Elliot Awin, commercial manager. “Some of our Australian and German wineries have been with us for 30 years, South Africa, 20 years, and Chile for 17 years. We also look to work with family run wineries who share the same values and help us tell a good story about their wines.”
ABS first made its name in the sector with its strong Australian portfolio and whilst it is still a key part of the business, and ABS is one of Australia’s biggest importers in the UK, it now only represents 20% of its volume. It has also been able to build up strong ranges from Germany, particularly with the acquisition of Siegel Wine Agencies, and South Africa, which are now worth both 20% of its turnover.
“We were also able to take on some good strong French properties when we took on Charles Hawkins’ wines. We also have interesting wines from Argentina, Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal and the US,” adds Awin.
Bottling in the UK
ABS stands out from many of its peers for the long standing work it has done in building up its own exclusive brands and own -label wines, many of which it drives by bottling in the UK. It might now be the fashionable thing to do, but bottling in the UK has been part of ABS’s strategy since 2013 when it first started with Greencroft Bottling.
With such a strong Australian and South African footprint it clearly makes sense for a business like ABS to look at the UK bottling route to help compensate for the big changes in currency, which came to a head in 2016 with the UK’s decision to leave the EU. It also makes it a far more competitive supplier to work with for major on and off-trade retailers and has enabled it to get preferred supplier status with key customers.
It works with the two MWS, Philip Goodband and Lynne Sheriff, to help develop the ranges and uses their expertise and experience in helping to find the right styles of wine. They can then clearly act as good ambassadors for the wines in the market.
“We are doing more now to run our own exclusive entry level wine range and we are keen to build that up,” confirms Awin. “It allows us to support specific sectors of the trade.”
He adds: “We are also doing more UK bottling through Greencroft to help compensate for the exchange rate.”
Wines that are picking up accolades in their own right for their quality.
“We were very proud, for example, that our Brookfield Shiraz Cabernet bottled in the UK was in Matthew Jukes Top 100 from Australia.”
It is an approach that has helped them win contracts with British Airways and the Wine Society to make certain wines.
By developing its own brands and bottling in the UK it means it is not only taking complete control of its own supply chain, but is creating wines that are competitive and suitable for the UK market, and also to then export out to Europe and other countries.
“All our own label wines from Australia, South Africa, Chile, Germany and Italy we also look to export as well. It means our buying power for the UK is bigger and our pricing better as we are able to sell wine around the world,” explains Awin.
It’s why at last month’s Prowein ABS was not busy seeing its existing UK customers in Dusselforf but using it to drive its own export business and own label wines around the world from its own stand. ABS is now working with distributors as far afield as Vietnam, Thailand, Russia and Poland.
It now has a range of around 13 to 14 wines covering Australia, South Africa, Chile, Germany and Italy.
That international buying power can help not only in accessing more wine from different countries, and building stronger partnerships with its producers, but to help then get better prices for its UK customers.
On the ground approach
How ABS works out in the various countries it mainly represents is fascinating. It is not simply shipping in pre-made wine, but is actively involved where it can in how the wine is being made and what it feels will be suitable for the UK.
For example it recently ran a sort of wine talent competition in order to select a new range of artisan producers from different regions of Australia.
Awin explains: “We have been able to bring in up to 16 new artisan producers which we found by hosting tastings across four different states. We were looking for family owned wineries that are producing no more than 10,000 cases a year and are committed to working in the UK and coming here for tastings.” To do so it worked with respected Australian wine consultants, Hazel and Mike Murphy, to find potential wineries across different states. It then held tastings and sessions in four different Australian states to select the wines and wineries it wanted to work with.
All the wines were shown as part of ABS’s Australia’s Best Kept Secrets roadshow tastings in London, Bristol and Manchester last September.
It also now means it can bring containers of these interesting, artisan producer wines over to the UK which can be made available to buyers across all channels, but are particularly suited to independent and wholesale buyers. The Fat Duck, for example, took on three wines. “Our independent customers can also now buy FOB direct from Australian producers,” adds Awin.
ABS does not work directly with the on-trade, but instead prefers to work with independent, regional and national wholesalers, and large breweries such as St Austell and Wadworth, to service the sector on its behalf.
Awin explains: “We are very much focused on the independent merchants sector and helping them tell the story of interesting wines. Last year we had our producers in the market for 278 hosting tastings and dinners.”
He adds: “It is why the London Wine Fair is so important for us. We also have a long standing relationship with high end grocers; and proud to be named as a preferred supplier.”
Its independent customers are also far more open to working with and selling UK bottled wine, particularly when the quality is as high as the wines that ABS is focused on producing.
It also works with Matthew Clark, particularly with a number of its German wines.
Working with the trade
ABS is keen to build its position not just as a wine supplier but very much a partner and a facilitator to help drive sales and help promote interesting wines. It is why it is so keen to get its producers and winemakers in to the market, to host dinners and show consumers their wines.
“The big threat to wine is that restaurants don’t have interesting wine lists. They don’t have sommeliers to help sell the wines. Restaurants is where people go to see interesting lists and if they are not there then we all have a problem. We need more sommeliers to be able to curate lists.”
It is why it also runs extensive programmes whereby it will send buyers out to its producers on its own buyer trips. “We are very proud of our Master of Riesling tastings where we are able to take trade customers out to Germany three times a year,” says Awin.
“We also do all we can to help support independent wine merchants to help them tell the stories of our wines.” It is why it has recently signed up with Bottlebooks, the new wine central information database service, so that all its wines can be listed and then easily downloaded by individual merchants to create bespoke lists and share information. “That information flow is very important.”