Steven Spurrier and his famous Judgement of Paris certainly helped put Californian wines on the world map. But some 40 plus years later it is the work of James Hocking and the exclusively Californian wine merchants, The Vineyard Cellars, along with other Californian specialists, that ensures the modern California is being celebrated and promoted every day of the week. We caught up with Hocking to find out more about his love affair with Californian wine.
Whilst other countries appear to be turning away from the UK, Californian producers are only still waking up to the huge opportunities for their wines here, which is good news for James Hocking and The Vineyard Cellars.
There are many in the UK wine trade whose blood turned cold when the result of the EU referendum came in during the early hours of June 24 last year.
But for James Hocking, wine buying director of The Vineyard Cellars, it was even more of a look away moment for it meant virtually all of his wines had just got 15% more expensive. “We had to do a 15% price hike.”he recalls. Or should that be recoils.
For when it comes to specialist wine suppliers they don’t get much more exclusive than the Vineyard Cellars. There are some brave wholesalers who only work with one country, but few who take it down to one region.
That said California is an exception to the rule considering it overtook France to become the world’s sixth-largest economy in 2016 with a growth domestic product of $2.42 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund. Which when you consider India is the eighth-largest with $2.09 trillion is quite a piece of the pie.
That, though, was not very comforting to Hocking last June. Even though he can personally lay claim to being responsible for a fair few of the dollars being re-invested back at least in to the wineries and producers of California.
If California really is going to finally win over the hearts and minds of the great English wine buying public (and that means the trade as well as the consumer) then Hocking should be one of the first in the queue when it comes to handing out the medals. Alongside, of course, Sir Peter Michael, the power behind not only the Vineyard Cellars but The Vineyard hotel in Newbury and a highly respected Californian wine producer in his own right, with the Sir Peter Michael Winery, in Knights Valley in Sonoma.
Together they have been pushing, probing and promoting Californian fine wines in every possible nook, crack and corner of the UK on-trade. But it has not been as easy as some of California’s other exports.
Hard to grow
For all the power, pizzazz and persuasion of the Californian wine industry, the category outside of the major supermarket, Zinfandel and blush-driven brands, has remained stubbornly and frustratingly hard to really grow outside of its core, committed and, yes, slowly maturing, following.
For those that get California there is no looking back. For those that don’t, it is still the same issues of price, style, and alcohol levels that remain the major stumbling blocks.
Not that Hocking has lost any of the drive, or will that he has put in to Vineyard Cellars and Californian wines ever since he first tasted a Sir Peter Michael wine some 23 years ago. Prior to that he admits he was very snobbish about wine and only trusted the classics from the Old World.
From the outset
He has been with Vineyards Cellars close to its inception in 2000 working his way up from retail sales manager through to general manager and now wine director. All the while genuinely following his Californian dream.
Through that time the business has been able to develop and expand alongside the wine producing quality in California itself. When it first started out it was primarily focused on northern California and Napa and Sonoma. Now it covers the entire region, north to south, and represents some 35 prominent producers and a selection of fine and rare wines that includes labels you can’t even get in California itself.
But Hocking insists it is not all just about fine wine. Its DPD pricing list starts at around £6 and it has up to 40 wines priced between DPD £6 and £15.
Ideal for getting quality Californian wines on to wines by the glass lists and opening up new accounts. “That’s where the volume opportunity is. The chance to really grow,” he says. “If we only stick to ultra premium wines then we are not going to grow. Our target is to get wines between £25 and £100 on a list.”
He says California’s profile and the opportunity for its wines have clearly been helped by the big rise in the number of premium steak restaurants, and chains, over the last 10 years. A trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
In fact the high end steak restaurants such as Goodman, Smith & Wollensky, Hakwsmoor and M Restaurants are arguably better placed to prosper in the coming years than the Michelin-starred classic French restaurants, says Hocking.
He sees a very different market when it comes to steak and red wine between California and Argentina. They have certainly helped each other and given those restaurants a boost, but for Hocking the meat and Malbec offer is much more attractive to diners below 35 years age with steak and Napa Cab Sav more appealing to those aged 35 and upwards.
Alternative to the classics
California has also been helped, adds Hocking, by the trade’s adverse reaction to the higher prices coming out of Bordeaux and Burgundy on the back of a series of expensive en primeur campaigns. “If you look about say seven years ago and few fine wine merchants had a big Californian range, but that has changed a lot.”
He adds: “More people are interested in and talking about California which is good. More collectors are also looking for something new and different. They are also coming across Californian wines more in these higher end steak restaurants and then want to know more about them.”
There is also good growth coming from outside London and from regional wholesalers, and independent merchants. So much so that Hocking sees its mix of accounts moving to around 60% to 70% in London and the rest around the country, compared to what was once 90% in London.
All of which is helping fuel the interest in California amongst producers to first look outside of California and the rest of the US and take the opportunities in markets like the UK far more seriously.
Making more wines at better price points available for such a key market as the UK is vital to the long term success and growth of Californian wines, says Hocking. The state has always had the right wines, they just have not been available in the right volumes for export, he adds.
In fact such is the interest that it now has to balance how much it can cope with the increased demand from California.
“We are seeing more interest from California to export. We have to be careful, however, that we don’t take on too many producers and that we can work with the ones we can invest in their wines. We have to manage expectations more,” explains Hocking.
“London is still very much seen there as the melting pot for fine wine and lots of Californian producers think they should be in the top London accounts.”
He is particularly excited about working with the new UK team at the California Wine Institute, lead by Justin Knock MW and Damien Jackman, co-owners of Philglass & Swiggott wine merchants, who have set up Golden State Wines to help support overall Californian activity along with leading PR agency, R&R Teamwork. Particularly the interest in holding smaller, regional events and the ambition to take California more on the road around the country. “It’s great they are being so pro-active and looking for lots of new ideas,” he says.
The Vineyard Cellars is playing its part with a week of Golden State tastings next month which it is co-hosting with fellow Californian specialists, The Wine Treasury and with the support of the California Wine Institute.
The idea is to create a buzz around California for the second week in May. It will include a set piece London tasting at Avenue on St James’s Street on May 8 and trade dinner at Beast, which it is also running with Roberson Wine and Flint Wines, followed by further tastings and dinners in Hove, Brighton and at The Vineyard hotel in Newbury with the Wine Treasury.
Dedicated to California
Creating a buzz around California is what Hocking looks to do year round. “I would not want to do anything else. I really believe in California. I am just so rarely disappointed in any wine that I buy from there compared to buying wines say from Burgundy or across France which can still throw up a lot of disappointments. California is such a safer pair of hands.”
And getting safer all the time with new more European friendly-style wines, packed with acidity as well as fruit, better balanced from having being picked earlier. “They are really turning down the oak now too. Producers have listened to what their customers have been telling them. We just have to carry on working to turn those perceptions that California is still about high alcohol and over ripe wines,” says Hocking.
You can make a start at the Golden State tasting on May 8 or free up an afternoon and let James Hocking take you on a Californian dream all of your own.