The Buyer
Is now the time for smaller wine importers to shine?

Is now the time for smaller wine importers to shine?

Wine buyers have arguably never had more choice who they work with to help fill their lists. Whether they are a sommelier buying wine for an independent restaurant, or a major chain looking to refresh their offer there are now so many wine importers to go to. Harry Crowther should know in his role as UK wine buyer for online wine site, Good Pair Days. Here he celebrates that diversity and raises a glass to all the smaller importers, many of whom were at the recent SITT tasting, who are now giving him and his fellow buyers so many interesting wines to discover.

Harry Crowther
5th April 2022by Harry Crowther
posted in Opinion,

Such has been the rise in the number of smaller wine importers, it’s time for major distributors to start to more than just look over their shoulders, says Harry Crowther.

I need to be careful what I say here, and as I sit down to write this piece, I remind myself that the UK is home to the greatest wine supply chain in the world, with contributions from both Davids, Goliaths, and literally everything in between.

The Specialist Importers Trade Tasting, or SITT is a wine buyers’ playground. I don’t know how anyone else feels, but it feels like this tasting has seriously upped its game over the past few years. This is the perfect chance to seek out the David’s – if you like – and with them, some seriously exciting, sometimes off the cuff wines that once you’ve tasted, leave you wandering: “How have these guys not been on my radar?!”.

As post-pandemic trade tastings kicked off in explosive fashion last autumn, SITT was a highlight for me. The end of February this year marked SITT’s spring edition as wine buyers, sommeliers and journalists filled St Mary’s Church in Marylebone in search of gold, and there was plenty to go around.

The SITT tasting provides a platform and showcase for independent wine importers

Many of SITT’s ‘Independents’ are small scale operators, two- or three-man bands in some cases who champion some seriously exciting juice from every corner of the wine world. These guys have some sharp palates, and it was difficult to not be excited by at least a couple of wines per table – not that I visited them all, but from what I did taste, I believe this to be true.

Twice now I have walked out of SITT and thought to myself, “why aren’t some of these guys better known?”.

Now that’s perhaps quite arrogant of me, whether they are known to me or not isn’t a yardstick for industry exposure. For some, one assumes that the boutique nature of the portfolio comes with its limits. Working with smaller producers where quantity is low is restrictive only by volume, rarely quality. Having smaller teams, there also isn’t a reason to scale up to the levels of the Goliath wine suppliers, there are no marketing, or training and development salaries to account for.

Where am I going with this? I suppose it would be nicer to see a lot of these wines (and suppliers) in the on-trade and on the wine list at my local, if that is their set up. Some, of course, are solely focused on the off-trade, which suits me just fine these days.

Maybe it’s a wake-up call. To the larger on-trade groups who sign multi-million-pound wine supply contracts, I speak to you… there is so much out there.

Please, don’t get me wrong, we all need the big players sometimes. We rely on them for certain wines and certain price points. Whilst the quality is always consistent (perhaps too consistent), I can’t help but get a bit bored of seeing the same wine in two different pubs less than 200m away from each other. It’s, well… boring.


Restaurants and specialists wine retailers are looking for a wider choice of wines from a larger network of suppliers

One of the biggest reasons that you would sign a 30-site wine supply contract is the economics of it. Spend ‘X’ and we will give you ‘Y’ back. We’ll also throw in a bunch of training, pay for all of your menu re-prints and a plethora of other things that’ll help you reduce your business costs. Absolutely, it makes sense.

As average spends grow, and the UK consumer continues to look for new wine that will surprise and delight them, I can think of a pretty large handful of suppliers who are well placed to capitalise on this. I’m not trying to mis-sell myself here, in fact I’m not selling myself at all and I can’t offer a gateway into bigger business, but I do think that there just needs to be less of an in return for 100% of your wine list we’ll give you…” culture in this ever-changing UK wine landscape.

Obviously, it’s fine to have these larger agreements in place, but perhaps next time it might be worth negotiating for 90% of your listing. There will still be plenty of support on a healthy wine spend, but that 10% widens the net tenfold for esoterica. Here is an opportunity to really find out just how colourful the UK’s wine supply chain really is and if you get it right, your customers will appreciate that too.

The Net

Recent wine buying adventures have allowed me to cast my own personal net pretty wide, and work with new suppliers that I hadn’t worked with, or in some cases hadn’t even heard of. Working with large suppliers is great, there is a feeling of consolidation and consistency as well as relentless quality and value. For those reasons we should always want to work with them. But there really isn’t anything more exciting than finding a bit of gold at a tasting like SITT. It doesn’t even have to be anything from a boutique-y, small scale producer. It could be something as eye opening as a new potential house white made from Catarratto you can stick on your wine list for £20. Like I said, 10% opens up the antithesis of Pandora’s Box.

SITT in five wines

Here are five wines that for me, sum up SITT…

Rascallion ’45 RPM’ Cinsault Blend 2020, Western Cape, South Africa

Propeller | £11 RRP

New wave South Africa from former UK on-trade operator Ross Sleet and with Rianie Strydom at steering the winemaking ship, it’s hard to go wrong. Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvedre, this wine is light on its feet, low extraction and super chin-able. Balance and poise is the name of the game with this ultra-modern style red. Tangy acid meets macerated dark berries with a slither of leathery spice. Quite brilliant.

Raimund Prüm ‘Solitar’ Riesling 2020, Mosel, Germany

Delibo | RRP £14

Along with Propeller, I guess Delibo can also call themselves another off-trade specialist. Raimund Prüm’s ‘Solitar’ Riesling is in a word: terrific. Saskia Prüm now oversees operations at the winery and she is doing a good job. Bone-dry, the acid on this wine literally fizzes through the palate. Citrus laden, with notes of honey and a mineral, slate undertow, this is a wine to convert

Struggling Vines ‘Phinca Hapa’ Rioja, Spain

Moreno | RRP £25

Named after owner Melanie Hickman’s late dog, Hapa who sadly didn’t make the trip across the pond from the couple’s home in Hawaii. The Struggling Vines project looks to revive lost vineyards in Rioja Alavesa. This is a cracking single vineyard wine crafted under the new wave banner for the region. Lashings of dark cherry and blackcurrant dominate and interlace with leathery tobacco and mocha notes. Lots of energy and tention through the wine from top to bottom. Biodynamic.

Bodega Pablo Fallabrino ‘Alma Surfer’ Pet Nat 2020, Canelones, Uruguay

Condor Wines at the SITT tasting

Condor | RRP £15

From the ever-impressive Bodega Pablo Fallabrino comes another excellent wine. The Alma Surfer is a blend of Chardonnay and a host a Traminers, making this super aromatic. Notes of peach, with heady golden apple combine with a honeyed, golden syrup character. Deliciously smashable and would do insanely well by the glass! Oh, and the ‘Surfer’ is Pablo himself – the dude. Expect low intervention winemaking and experimental wines from this winemaker who also produces Arneis and Nebbiolo!

El Garbi ‘Blanco’ Garnacha Blanca 2020, Terra Alta, Spain

Vineyard Productions | RRP £18

From the exciting Terra Alta region where there continues to be some exciting projects at play. This wine is the brainchild of Liam Steevenson MW who has worked closely with a fifth-generation vigneron to craft the El Garbi Range. Raised in 500l French oak for nine months, this is a complex and textural white with an inviting stone fruit quality. Expect a chalky mineral accent and pinpoint acidity to cut through an intense, but beautifully weighted personality.