“We have had an exciting 12 months and been able to launch a whole number of concepts into the market,” is how David Rowledge, owner of Alchemy Wines, looks back at what he says has undoubtedly been the busiest and arguably the most rewarding year of his career in the wine and drinks industry, which has culminated in the community.co charity drinks range and a new wine brand with former England cricketer Phil Tufnell.
David Rowledge, founder of Alchemy Wines, is a born entrepreneur who has grasped as many opportunities as he could in what has been a year like no other for the wine, beer, and spirits industries.
David Rowledge has simply not stopped over the last 18 months of lockdowns, trade restrictions and supply chains woes that has pushed him and his Alchemy Wines business into a wide range of new business opportunities that even he would not have imagined doing prior to March 2020. He certainly would not have imagined hosting a lunch this week in London with former England cricketer, turned A Question of Sport Captain, Phil Tufnell, when they, perhaps not so formally, introduce his new range of wines – Tuffers’ Tipple – that the two have been working on for the last few months.
But just spending an hour with Rowledge over Zoom and you are whizzed here, there and everywhere as he Willy Wonka-style keeps showing you new bottles, drinks formats and concepts he is working on. Ideas that may or may not go any further than his desk, but when he gets it right Rowledge is able to sell in his new product ideas not just to the UK, but to multiple markets around the world.
In fact, the UK remains a small part of his business – only 3% of its volumes in 2020. He might be based in Ipswich but his heart and soul is rushing around the world doing deals and opening up markets – albeit it virtually via zoom and Teams – to the 19 countries he operates in.
Strong supporting cast
It’s hard to believe that Alchemy Wines is essentially a one man band with Rowledge co-ordinating everything from his UK base. But he has a long, strong and loyal supporting cast made up of wine growers, producers, winemakers, importers and distributors around the world. The strength of that supporting cast came to the fore when the world effectively went into lockdown in spring 2020.
“The first lockdown was the big shock when we could not initially bottle anything in Italy and France. That was a real worry at the time,” says Rowledge.
The initial priority was to do what he could to support existing customers and to be always looking ahead to see what support would be the most important to them. “It means I can go into any negotiation on the front foot,” he says.
He says is particularly thankful to his distributors in the Middle East who moved quickly to switch the volumes he relied on from hotels and the on-trade and into the mainstream retail sector.
“I have long historical relationships with these guys and they were pretty unique and innovative in what they did to keep business moving. But you have to roll with the punches. But you pivot. You change. You take on the challenges that are thrown at you. My attitude is to always say yes until barriers come up that make you say no.”
As he has been effectively confined to barracks since March 2020, Rowledge has switched his attention to the UK market far more than he normally would. Which has been good news for the benefactors of arguably his most important drinks launch in the last year, community.co, a brand he has developed to sit across wine, beers, spirits, soft drinks and water. All with the common goal of raising money for the NHSCT and the two main drinks and retail charities, The Drinks Trust and Grocery Aid.
In just over a year community.co has gone from being a rough concept drawn on Rowledge’s desk to developing products and distributing them into key channels of the trade.
He is understandably proud of just how far community.co has come in such a short period of time. The fact the brand that was a different proposition pre-Covid now has listings with major operators such as Virgin Wines – which has taken on the sparkling and beer brands – and is doing business around the world, would have been unheard of in normal times.
“It is all about building up funds to give back to charity,” he says. Which is why it is a concept that “can work anywhere in the world”.
Virgin, he says, have been huge supporters of community.co and it was through their support that he has been able to expand the range into beers and hopefully cider and water.
He says he is still trying to find a major multiple to back and take on community.co but appreciates it all takes time to build up the support.
Phil Tufnell launch
It is through community.co that Rowledge first got to know the former English cricketer and now Test Match Special commentator, Phil Tufnell, who The Buyer interviewed last July about him becoming the brand ambassador for the community.co range.
Tufnell said then it was a “no brainer” to get behind such a kind spirited brand. “When David approached me about community.co I thought ‘what a fantastic idea’. So when you are out buying your bottle of water, or can of beer, or your bottle of wine, you are giving something back to the community. I just thought that was fabulous and I am delighted to be part of it. I mean why wouldn’t you?”
He also said in that Buyer interview that he and Rowledge were playing around with the idea of him introducing his own wine range. An idea he was keen to make happen: “I do enjoy a glass of wine, and having toured Australia, South Africa and New Zealand as a cricketer it kind of goes hand in hand with the playing. To have the opportunity to do that with David would be very exciting.”
(Click below to see Phil Tufnell chatting to Virgin Wines’ buying director Andrew Baker about his new Tuffers’ Tipple wine range)
Twelve months on and the Tuffers Tipple range is all set to be introduced into the market with an exclusive initial deal with Virgin Wines. Two of the initial six wines represent something significant in Tufnell’s playing career and he hopes they will appeal to all Virgin Wines’ customers whether they are cricket fans or not.
For example, two of the wines, a Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc (both £18.99), are made by Franklin Tate in Margaret River where Tufnell remembers visiting on a rest day during the 1991 England Ashes tour. A producer that Rowledge just happens to have worked with for years.
The rest of the range includes an gently Oaked Tempranillo (£12.99), a Châteauneuf style GSM blend from the south of France (£12.99), a Bacchus English wine (£15.99) and a Gascogny Sauvignon Blanc (£11.99).
The cricket connection means there is scope for the range to be expanded into other wine producing and cricket loving countries like New Zealand, India, South Africa and England. Alchemy will also be working with its international distributors to introduce Tufnell’s wines to wine lovers in those countries too.
Rowledge is already plotting the next steps for the brand and can see it expanding into different areas, like pre-mixed cocktails.
“We are looking at how we can take it to the next level which is why we are so pleased to be working with Virgin Wines. It is the first time they are working with a celebrity wine as well.”
Promoting old vines
The other big initiative that Rowledge has been at the centre of in the last year has been the interest in and demand for old vines. It is an area that he has been keen to support and develop commercially for some time and has been exploring where he could source wine for a historical vines range of wines. He has, for example, just developed a range of old vine wines from Georgia that he is looking to introduce to the market.
“Lots of these winemakers I have known for a long time and it has been a case of talking to them about the old vines they have and what we could do together with them,” he explains.
“We are looking to source old vine parcels from around the world. Particularly where you have a larger vineyard area where you have smaller old vine plots within it. It is a case of trying to identify where they are so they are not lost. I want to be able to support the people who have supported me over the years with this old vine series.”
The issue, he adds, might actually come down to managing availability as there are likely to be only limited supplies of each old vine wine in the series. But it would also be a nice problem to have. “Trader Joes in the US, for example, is interested in some 100 year old Tempranillo and we have had some interest in China for some 50 year old Carignan.”
He was able to bring together a number of MWs and consultants to host a tasting of wines made from old vines last summer to discuss what more could be done to promote them. Part of that answer were the two recent Old Vine Conferences organised by Sarah Abbott MW, who was one of the guests at Rowledge’s initial tasting. “I was blown away by what they were able to achieve with those conferences in such a short period of time,” he says.
He sees his project as being more the commercial arm of what the Old Vine Conference is doing from an educational and awareness point of view.
“We are giving a new life to these old vines, but doing it in a way that is commercially viable too. We need to get that balance right and provide a platform where we can tell their stories too. But their provenance needs to be squeaky clean too and we are in the process of mapping these old vines and giving them their own GPS.”
Finding the time to be able to keep on top of all his various projects around the world is a topic he returns to again and again, which is not surprising considering he wakes up doing deals in Japan and China and goes to bed talking to the US.
It means he is well tuned in to what wines might work in which countries. Take his Glamping Wine brand that he developed with the Japanese market in mind as he knew just how big the whole concept of ‘glamping’ is amongst a certain consumer base. The wine is produced in a 1.5litre pouch and he says he has a 40 foot container on the water right now sailing to Japan.
“I need the bandwidth to get the coverage I need with the brands we develop. But I also need to have ideas with traction,” he admits.
Rowledge says it is also easier and quicker to introduce new ideas overseas where operators are far more open, in particular, to new packaging formats like cardboard bottles or pouches for its Glamping brand and other alternative ideas.
“If you do a presentation to the Scandinavian market and start with a bottle, they are not interested,” he says.
The last year has actually helped him to build and forge even closer relationships with his international partners.
“Take my New York distributor. Before I would just talk to him about our products and our plans. Now we talk about our normal lives, our families and we have got to know each other as people. The relationship has grown as a result. We have found a way to get through this together and in a better way,” he explains.
“A lot of the hard work over the years has been about building those relationships and treating people the way you would want to be treated. It’s funny how many people move around the trade and you may not work with each other for 10 years and then you connect again 10 years later. Or winemakers you go back to for different projects. That’s key to how I work. Having a global perspective has become even more relevant in the last year.”
He says he is particularly grateful to his Spanish partner, Bodegas Fernando Crasto, south of Madrid, who was able to keep supplies coming all through the initial lockdowns. “They said we were the only customer they have that actually doubled their volumes during lockdown,” says Rowledge. “Having that sort of relationship has been absolutely crucial. We are now seeing their wines under my various brands all over the world.”
He says is particularly excited about a new joint venture he is doing with his New York partner to create a new brand – Moving Parts – that involves using steampunk artwork, and holographic paper which allows you to see different shapes and images as you move the bottle around. Hence Moving Parts.
Interestingly he is now doing some work with Beyond Wines, set up by Alex Green and Matthew Johnson last summer, and looking at how he can help them introduce their wines to more international markets.
“Hopefully we can work with them on getting some UK contracts for my international brands. They are so much closer to the market here than I am. It has been great working with them and we knew within five minutes of talking to each other that we could do business together.”
Whilst Rowldege has been able to crack on and do business pretty much as usual in the last year, he is craving the time when he get out in front of people again. “That’s what I enjoy the most. You can try and replicate it over Zoom but it is not as easy.”
Once he can travel freely again he expects to be seeing more than his fair share of airports. “It is going to be full on, going out to see the producers we work with and all the people we have started doing business.”
Rowledge is also working hard to make sure he is securing and moving his wine supplies to keep pace and on top of the various harvests around the world.
“With the spread of growers and winemakers we work with then we should be OK, but we are always changing where we source certain wines from. There is a lot of Sauvignon Blanc, for example, coming from Chile and Argentina at the moment to make up for shortages from New Zealand. We are all hit by the shortages and changes but you have to make sure you don’t run out of your key wine building material. Then there are the issues with glass producers and the potential shortages of bottles as well. It’s all swings and roundabouts.”
The key is Rowledge knows which swings and roundabouts to get on and which ones to avoid.
- You can find out more about how Alchemy Wines works at its website here.