If you are a wine buyer for a leading importer, restaurant group, or independent merchant then there are times of the year when you are no doubt spoilt for choice with invitations to go and visit different regions and countries. But which are ones are going to be the most useful, effective and important to your buying needs? It’s what made the recent California Wine Institute event for leading UK and Irish buyers so different. And relevant. Rather than take a group of buyers on a bus around a select group of producers, the Institute brought the producers to the buyers for a series of back to back tastings hosted in the same venue. It meant the busy buyers were able to see over 100 wineries across five days of intensive tasting and take a deep dive into the kind of wines being made across the state. What’s more the producers did not currently have distribution in the UK or Ireland, or both, and had to have wines, with volume, that could the hit the main commercial to mid premium price points. The Buyer’s Richard Siddle, who helped to identify and recruit some of the buyers invited, was also there to get an insider’s take on how it all came together.
It was the first time the California Wine Institute had hosted an event of this kind. Five days of back to back tastings and meetings between producers seeking UK and Irish distribution with leading wine buyers. It proved such a success it is now looking to repeat it for leading buyers around the world.
If you drill right down into how so many producers end up on the lists of their importers and then, ultimately, their customers, then so much of it comes down to luck, and being in the right place at the right time to meet each other in the first place. Like the wine professional version of finding a the right partner in your personal life. But then there is so much you can do to make sure Lady Luck is shining you. You’re not, for example, going to meet the right person, or business, if you don’t put yourself out there, in the right places, to be found.
Which is very much what the recent California Buying Trip, including key players from the UK and Ireland, organised by the California Wine Institute was all about. Buyers and producers willing to make the effort, take the time and be prepared to do the hard graft in order to potentially find the right company to work with.
It was, perhaps surprisingly, the first time the California Wine Institute had attempted on this scale before. Yes, it has brought countless numbers of influential buyers from all corners of the world UK And Ireland to California to see the region and meet its producers on buying trips before. But not like this.
In the past the format has usually seen buyers? Sommeliers, retailers and dedia being driven around this vast state, where they get the chance to see some of the different AVAs and terroirs for themselves. Trips that usually only allow for four to five producers to be seen on any given day.
This buyers’ trip was very different. In three crucial ways: the wines the producers were showing were not currently available in either the UK or Irish markets, or both; the wines had to be focused around the main commercial price points; and the producers had enough scale to be able build a serious export business.
But then there was a fourth dimension to this trip. Rather than the visiting buyers spend time travelling around California in order to meet the buyers, they stayed mostly in one place, and the producers came to them. It meant so many more interested wineries could take part in the projects providing the buyers had enough energy to see them.
Honore Comfort, vice president for international marketing at the California Wine Institute, said the trip was a great opportunity for California producers and international buyers “to grow their businesses together”. The first of what it hoped will become a new series of dedicated buying events with target importers from its key export markets, and part of a strategy that has seen the value of exported wine increase by 60% over the last 10 years.
“We are a land of dreamers, immigrants, big-thinkers and scene makers,” said Comfort, who hoped that this new approach would help both sides, the producers, and buyers, better understand each others needs.
So over the course of four days, over 100 producers had the chance to meet and show 250 over 500 wines to the buyers through a series of formal back to back tastings held at the Carneros Resort on the borders of Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
It gave the buyers from the UK and Ireland, covering mainly the premium on-trade, independent merchants and specialist wine multiples, the chance to see a hugely diverse number of producers and taste what was potentially a real reflection of the styles of wines being made right across California.
In turn the buyers invited on the trip had to be: open to the idea of bringing a serious quantity of wine back to the UK and Ireland; had the purchasing power to make decisions there and then on what they might want to buy; were happy to meet, taste and hold meetings with the interested producers throughout the week.
The trip saw a wide range of UK companies represented including national operators such as: Hallgarten & Novum Wines, and its highly respected and influential head buyer, Steve Daniels; Liz Donnelly, senior buyer for Alliance Wine; Ellis Wines’ head wine buyer, Matthew Cooper; and Robin Copestick, managing director of Freixenet Copestick in the UK
Representing independent and regional merchants included Kieron Galliard of SH Jones, Carl Davies, Daniel Lambert Wines, Matthew Hennings, Hennings Wine, Julian Campbell, Justerini & Brooks and Martin Tickle, Jeroboams. Mark Quick, wine buyer for Hawksmoor, was there looking for opportunities to buy direct into the restaurant group.
For Damien Jackman and Justine McGovern, the UK and Ireland managers and joint directors of California Wine Institute, it was an important latest step for them in being able to act as a true trade partner in helping to get the right wines into this market.
As Jackman explained: “The potential value of bringing a single buyer to California, let alone a group of this size is so significant. From spending just five focused days together in Carneros, we have the potential for thousands of cases of new California wine brands to reach our shores.”
Justine McGovern added: “This trip started out as a ‘what if…..’ and then moved on to become a reality. Damien and I are beyond excited that we managed to pull this off. This initiative was logistically challenging, but nothing great comes easy. The quality of our guests and their positive approach was a joy and we look forward to working with our new friends further to support their Californian portfolios”
Probably the most experienced buyer on the trip in terms of knowing, understanding and buying Californian wine, was Steve Daniel at Hallgarten & Novum Wines. He first started buying from California in the early days of Oddbins in the early 90s and can even claim responsibility for first brining Frog’s Leap to the UK.
“California in those days was on a journey, but did not realise what it had,” he said. “There were so many bargains to be had here. Great wines at stupid, basement prices.”
In fact he compares the dynamic independent producer scene taking place in South Africa now, to the California he first visited.
Clearly things have changed a lot since those glory days. Particularly the pricing, which is now, ironically, one of California’s biggest issues in the export market. “Now people call a $30 wine their value offer,” added Daniel.
For Matthew Hennings, managing director of independent wholesaler and merchants, Hennings Wine, it was a chance to re-acquaint himself with a region he knew he needed to get “a greater understanding and knowledge” of. He admitted his experience of California was “fairly limited” which is why he wanted to go. “We have a small but efficient range that I am hoping to build upon. I didn’t have any preconceptions re style and quality of wines, however, pricing has previously been an issue,” he explained.
By contrast California is a well travelled path for Robin Copestick, who with Copestick Murray, has run the Cornerstone wine business in the state for some years. Now the new Freixienet Copestick business has the Californian sparkling wine brand and winery, Gloria Ferrer, as part of its range.
“California is a fantastic place with great wines and great people,” he said. “Historically it has been difficult to do meaningful business at the mid to premium ends of the market. This has always been mainly because Californian wineries can achieve much better pricing in their domestic market.”
His reasons for going on this trip, other than the chance to visit Gloria Ferrer, was to “find some really good mid to premium wines that would excite our UK and Irish consumers – something a little different to the norm”.
Kieron Galliard at SH Jones felt “UK consumers have been missing out” for a while about what California can really offer. “Selling wine is all about selling stories and we have [collectively] been bad at selling Californian stories,” he added. “California should be the rock start of seriously cool winemaking.”
Showcasing the new California
It was certainly a great opportunity to showcase to the buyers what California has become in recent years, particularly those who had either not visited before, or had not been for some years.
A chance to see what California is no longer about. Which might have come as a disappointment to anyone who went in search of the big 90 plus Parker point wines that had made the state internationally famous over the last 30 plus years.
But just as Robert Parker, arguably the most famous wine critic of them all, is hanging up his pen and spittoon, so are so many of the producers who were committed to making the big oak driven, concentrated, extracted, heavy alcoholic wines that he, the Wine Advocate and the Californian wine industry have helped to make world famous.
The new California is all about the polar opposites of those wines. In a nutshell it’s all about making wines that are lighter, fresher, and easier to drink. Be it picking grapes earlier, speeding up fermenting and ageing times, and only using wood, like a chef might use salt and pepper, to balance, texturise and season the wine.
Wines where you notice the fruit, the freshness and the acidity before anything else. Yes, they may still be closer to 14% and 15% abvs than the 12%-14% levels that those styles of wine might reach in other parts of the world. But this, after all, is still the Sunshine State.
These, though, are the kinds of wines that buyers all over the world, on paper at least, should be interested in. The challenge for California is making them aware they even exist. Which, again, is what the California Buying Trip looked to achieve.
What the buyers thought
The buyers were agreed the trip provided a unique opportunity to not only re-acquaint themselves with the changing styles of Californian wine, but crucially spend quality time with a whole range of producers who are serious about exporting to the UK.
That was the key to what made the week such a success. Regardless of anyone actually buying one litre of wine. It was the platform, the environment in which open, frank conversations could be had. If a producer’s wine was well off target for the UK market, there were buyers there with the skill and experience to explain why in a constructive, helpful way. If a wine was just off kilter, say, for the Irish market, there were equally senior buyers there to show how they might be tweaked in the future to make them so much more commercial.
With such a wide range of buyers and producers present the results were always going to be very different.
Each of the buyers have been asked to give detailed feedback to the California Wine Institute and the wineries involved. Advice and learnings that will be used to help shape agreed future buying trips from other countries and continents. Senior buyers from Europe are expected to take part in the next buying trip, with other events planned for different markets in due course.
It was fascinating to watch the two sides at play. The poker-faced buyers who gave so little away, to those that would have to be cajoled to leave the tasting and move on to the next one. The producers who had done their homework and knew exactly which buyer was best suited to their wines. To those who were looking to export for the first time and were, to be honest, making it up as they went along, not really sure what to expect.
But whether they were a producer or a buyer there was a common goal. To learn and to better understand what they could do to help each other. It might have been the first event of this type, but it certainly won’t be the last.
* In part 2 of our report on the California Buyers Trip we will look in detail at what the different buyers thoughts of the wines and their opportunities in the UK and Irish markets.