It’s like a magic wand has been waved across the Californian wine industry. If you had held a debate with buyers, importers and sommeliers even five years ago about the opportunities for California in the premium on-trade then it would have been all about the reasons why they are not looking to bring those wines into the UK. Now it is a completely different story. Which was very much the tone of the recent debate hosted by The Buyer and California Wine Institute with key figures from across the importer, buyer, sommelier scene in the premium on-trade.
More and more importers, sommeliers and restaurateurs are waking up to the opportunities that California now offers the premium on-trade with its quality, value and diverse wines.
The premise for The Buyer’s California debate was straightforward enough:
- To bring together leading buyers and players who are importing Californian wine into the UK.
- To find out what it is about California that most appeals to them.
- To drill down into the actual wine styles that are of most interest and are working the best on wine lists in the UK.
- To look at what value for money Californian wines offer UK buyers, and which regions, grape varieties and styles are the ones most in demand.
- To give buyers and importers the chance to talk and share ideas amongst each other about what they see as the biggest opportunities and challenges about working with Californian wines in the UK.
Which is, essentially, what this report is all about. Opening up the bonnet – or should that be the hood – of the Californian wine industry and seeing what parts of it work best for the premium on-trade in the UK.
The first conclusion to make was just how much there was to talk about. Arguably if we had held a similar event five to seven years ago it would have been much harder to find such a line up of buyers who how are seriously involved in buying wine from California to take part.
Just that recently the perception of Californian wine within the UK market was very different. Too often quickly dismissed for producing over priced, over extracted wines that were simply too big, too alcoholic and too expensive for the UK market. Even at the premium end of the on-trade.
California simply was not on the radar on importers and distributors looking to find both good value for money and exclusive, interesting wines for their lists. Particularly not in the premium on-trade. A similar debate held then would have been all about the barriers, the problems, the issues of working with California.
It was the classic donut market. Wines for the mainstream at one end and fine wine at the other – and nothing, or very little, in between.
A whole new story
Fast forward to 2019 and it is a whole different ball game. California is fashionable again. And then some.
Not just because we want to pick up a surf board and hang out on a Californian beach – but that certainly helps. It’s very much a story about how more Californian winemakers and producers have collectively woken up to a different style of winemaking. One where the focus is more on the vineyard and working with the soils and vines, rather than concentrating all their efforts on the winery and production process.
It has resulted in a vast range of different styles of Californian wine, that are flying off shelves and wine lists across the US, and, thanks to the efforts of small group of specialist importers, starting to make a real difference in the UK too.
That is what this debate was all about and, crucially, we had a number of the leading players that have helped drive those changes in the UK premium on-trade there to share their views.
Like Rory Benham, sales director at The Wine Treasury: “It has become an incredibly important market for us…There has become quite a connection between us and those making the wine. It has been a lot of fun along the way as well.”
California has helped turn Roberson Wine’s business on its head, said wine buyer, Keith Kirkpatrick. So much so that it now has 30 different agencies and California makes up 50% of its agency sales.
“In 2013 we saw an opportunity in the London on-trade for California, particularly for smaller, more boutique producers,” explained Kirkpatrick.
Roberson’s awakening to Californian could not have been better timed as it coincided with a serious of bad vintages in the Old World, particularly in Burgundy, which had made up so much of its sales at that time.
“Allocations were getting smaller, prices were going up and it was getting harder for us to get the quantity of wine at the price we wanted to list consistently for 12 months in a restaurant,” said Kirkpatrick.
“Then here we had these great wines from California, albeit from completely unknown producers, but we could pretty much buy as much as we wanted to.”
Similarly the much respected Les Caves de Pyrene, which specialises in finding esoteric, mostly minimum intervention wines for the on-trade, has also seen the light and transformed its Californian list in the last five years. “There had been a gaping void in our list,” admitted sales and marketing director, Doug Wregg, who said it had prioritised other parts of the New World before going to California.
“We have now picked up nine agencies from California and are just digesting what works and how they stock up against wines from other countries,” he added.
California is also helping to attract and support new players in the market. Richard Ellison, for example, moved from a successful career in finance three years ago to set up his own wine import business, Wanderlust Wine, that serves both the trade, restaurants and consumers.
As the name suggests it has set its stall out to look for wines from off the beaten track. Which, in turn, has seen Ellison return time and again to California as it just has so many of the “organic, sustainable, interesting and exciting wines” that he is looking for. “California was one of the important regions when I opened the business and has been a key differentiator for me.”
Doug Wregg, marketing director at Les Caves de Pyrene.
Maggie Macpherson, New World wine buyer for Enotria&Coe (now Jeroboams)
Sylwester Piasecki, assistant head sommelier for Zuma
Kelvin McCabe, group head sommelier, Adam Handling
Rory Benham, head of sales, The Wine Treasury
Keith Kirkpatrick, wine buyer, Roberson Wine
Chuck Cramer, European sales manager, Terlato Wines
Richard Ellison, founder, Wanderlust Wine
Lenart Cernelic, wine manager, M Restaurants
Stuart McCloskey, founder, The Vinorium
Damien Jackman, trade director UK and Ireland, California Wine Institute
Justine McGovern, trade director UK and Ireland, California Wine Institute
- If you would like any information on sourcing and bringing wines into the UK from California you can contact Justine McGovern of the Wine Institute in the UK on firstname.lastname@example.org.