Ahead of ABS Wine Agencies portfolio tasting on September 7, The Buyer takes a behind the scenes look at how the ‘Kickstarter’ programme, launched by the California Wine Institute to introduce Californian producers to potentially the right UK importers, has resulted in ABS taking on the Hanna Winery in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, part of Terlato Wines, whose wines will be available to taste at the London tasting alongside the rest of its growing worldwide portfolio.
Hanna Wines is the latest premium Californian wine producer, and the first from Sonoma Country to join ABS Wine Agencies growing north American portfolio. Mike and Elliot Awin sit down with Chuck Cramer, Terlato Wine’s director of European sales and marketing, to look at how they hope to introduce Hanna’s wines to the UK – starting at its portfolio tasting on September 7 at London’s One Great George Street (click here to register).
Amongst the many things the wine industry missed during the almost two years of national and international Covid lockdowns was not being able to travel to visit and catch up with existing business partners, never mind having the chance to meet and potentially sign up new customers and producers to work with.
It’s therefore particularly gratifying to hear how the buying team at ABS Wine Agencies was able to take advantage of the new export and import ‘Kickstarter’ campaign from the California Wine Institute to not only travel to the region, but to help identify and set up meetings with potential producer partners in the state.
As Elliott Awin of ABS Wine Agencies explains: “Toby (de Haan), Lesley (Gray), Carl (Rostrup) and myself were able to go out in February as part of the Kickstarter campaign. We set up meetings and visits with five wineries that are not in the UK with the intention of finding the most suitable that also did not conflict with the producers we are already working with from California.
We gave the California Wine Institute a brief of what we were looking for and they were able to make some suggestions.”
That’s how the ABS team found itself in the Russian River in Sonoma County and paying what turned out to be a successful visit to the Hanna Winery.
Crucially ABS is already working with Terlato Wines, Hanna’s global distribution partner in the UK, with the recent partnerships with Rutherford Hill, The Federalist and Dueling Pistols. Hanna will be introduced to the UK trade for the first time at ABS’ portfolio tasting on September 7, where Chuck Cramer will be on hand to help pour the wines.
Ticks all the boxes
The Hanna Winery ticked all the boxes of offering something different, both in terms of taste, profile, quality and region – with the cool climate Russian River offering a point of difference to the rest of the ABS Californian range.
Awin admits they were “sceptical” that Hanna could tick as many boxes as it subsequently did and says they now could not be happier with what the winery offers its sales teams and customers, both in the premium on and off-trades.
“We were pleasantly surprised with what they have to offer,” he says. “We also had nothing previously from Sonoma in our range.”
Which now includes a Russian River Pinot Noir (retailing around £50), Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (both just under £30). The Pinot Noir, in particular, was important for the ABS team, says Awin.
Cramer says it was great to be part of the Kickstarter programme and personally introduce the ABS team to Hanna during their Californian visit.
The Hanna Winery was founded by Dr Elias Hanna, formerly a leading heart surgeon, who was looking from a break from his gruelling work and the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. It started out initially as 12 acres of rest and solitude for him and his family, but by 1985 it had become a business in its own right with vineyards, orchards and chickens.
Christine Hanna took over from her father in 1991 and it has now grown to own 250 acres across five areas of premium vineyards, offering grapes from diverse terroir, and an annual production of 50,000 cases of estate grown fruit. Hanna is able to enjoy cool climate Russian River Sauvignon Blanc, through to the warmer, sunnier Alexander Valley, up to the Moon Mountain appellation high in the Mayacamas all under the careful control of winemaker Jeff Hinchliffe.
It was somewhat of a surprise to ABS that Hanna was not already in the UK, other than via some direct parcels sent to Majestic Wine.
Awin says it is particularly exciting to be able to get its hands on some premium, high quality, cool climate Californian Sauvignon Blanc as Hanna is the 11th biggest Sauvignon Blanc producer in the region, and 23rd in the US as a whole.
“We like the balance between it having a small family feel, but with a profile of wine that means it can offer real value for money, which is spot on. That’s what made it stand out.”
The wines offer great quality at price points that can really work in the UK, he adds. Particularly the chance to get Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay at under £30. It was that price, quality ratio that won the day. “It’s also a family winery in a stunning location and they have the volume available for us to bring in.”
“It also helps balance out our Californian range and adds value and quality from the Sonoma valley,” says Awin of a portfolio that now includes wineries across Napa (Rutherford Hill, Peter Franus, Grgich, The Federalist) and Paso Robles (Hope Family, Dueling Pistols ), as well as producers from Washington State (Kevin White, Cascadia) and Oregon (Division Winemaking Co).
For Hanna and Terlato’s part, ABS offers the ideal platform to really make its case in the premium independent and restaurant sectors, says Chuck Cramer. “We have already had great success with ABS with some of our other wines at Rutherford Hill, the Federalist and Dueling Pistols. I am super confident we can do the same with Hanna. ABS has the prestige, the reputation, the know how and crucially the on the ground team that can really make things happen for producers looking to find their feet in the UK. It’s an exciting time,” says Cramer.
Elliot Awin believes Hanna is coming to the UK at the right time. “There is a real appetite in the trade for buyers to buy California. There is even now a new dedicated premium wine merchants Pacific Wines in London. We are also increased demand in the on-trade, although these tend to be driven more at the higher end price points.”
Awin sees California as having cemented its position as the “first go to place after the Old World for premium reds”. This is very much the case in the premium steak restaurants that continue to do so well in London and increasingly major cities in the UK which have such a focus on US and Californian wines.
He says that whilst the trade might gravitate more to Australia and South Africa in terms of what is new and different, “the public just loves the US” and they particularly love the “Californian lifestyle” are happy to spend a little more to buy into that.
“There is a real appetite in the on-trade for premium Californian wines that sit on a list at £100 plus.”
Again he singles out the work that the California Wine Institute has done to promote the region to wine lovers and those consumers that have the budget to enjoy its wines. “The Eureka event, for example, was so well executed and immersive elements to it were highly impressive.”
Mike Awin says another key difference in the California category is how much more its producers are willing to even consider exporting and working in the UK compared to previous years.
“There now seems to be much more of a willingness to export and understand the different markets and what they need. It also really helps having people like Chuck here in the market who are able to get those messages back to producers and most importantly convince them that there is a really vibrant market here for them,” he explains.
Yes, they can sell the majority of what they produce at the cellar door and at premium tastings, but there are also great opportunities to spread their brand and tell their stories in a fast moving market like the UK if they take the trouble to find the right partner to work with,.
“It is a case for us of finding the right company with the right mindset to really make a success of exporting,” ways Mike Awin. “It’s not easy but it can work.”
“That’s what makes ABS such an important partner to be with,” adds Cramer. “The fact it now has a Sonoma estate to work with is exciting too. I can now go out with the ABS Wines sales team with additional assets to sell and promote. Terlato’s UK offering with ABS Wines now includes gorgeous and premium Californian wines from Napa, the Russian River Valley, Lodi, Mendocino, Dry Creek Valley and Paso Robles. I’m confident that we have the right mix to meet the needs of restaurants, fine wine merchants and retailers in the UK.”
The immediate strategy for Hanna is to promote and position its wines in key independent wine merchants and premium restaurant accounts, says Elliot Awin. Wines that ABS believes are also ideal for regional wholesalers to work with their independent on and off-trade accounts where it can get its whites on restaurant lists for less than £60. Which is a great place for premium Sonoma to be, he adds.
ABS trade tasting
Buyers will have their first chance to taste the Hanna portfolio at ABS’s trade tasting on September 7 which is taking place a Number 1 George Street in London. They will be joined by wines and representatives from 48 producers that are coming over to take part in the event.
It will also include a special focus on premium cider following ABS recent partnership to join forces with the Cider is Wine body that represents cider producers looking to break into the premium independent on and off-trade sectors.
“One of the most important things for us at ABS is to help independent wine merchants bolster their ranges with wine that are right for their customers. We encourage them to come and cherry pick wines from our range so they are getting access to the best wines they can,” says Elliot Awin.
It’s why ABS has developed its own B2B e-commerce site to make it easier for customers to work with it over the year. A site that allows trade buyers to order online at wholesale prices, plus DPD delivery. The key, stresses Elliot Awin, is the site allows ABS to carry minimal stock of higher end wines to give customers as wide a choice as possible. It means customers can also just select one or two bottles at a time rather than having to commit to multiple cases of wines it could take months to sell. The new site will also be launched at the September 7 tasting.
“The site is not meant to replace their usual orders,” stresses Elliot Awin, “but is more about bolstering their collection so that they can take on more wines and try them out.”
He is also quite clear about the role ABS ultimately plays in the trade: “We want the relationship to be between our customers and our producers. We are there to facilitate that relationship. We act as the agency that helps make it happen and if we do our job well then it is a frictionless relationship.”
Mike Awin agrees: “A lot of regional wholesalers will have really good connections with producers, but they buy through us to get their wine. We are the place to go to get them.”
It’s a place that has helped ABS become the launch platform for producers from all over the world, be it Germany, Australia, Greece and now with California and North America.