Paul Schaafsma likes being in the wine limelight. But in his new role as head of Benchmark Drinks he has had to get used to sharing the centre stage with a roll call of major international stars that know far more about how to get our attention. Here, in this extensive interview with Richard Siddle, he shares what it has been like setting up a new wine business from scratch and how he has made celebrity wine brands not only highly fashionable, but enormously successful with Kylie Minogue hitting number one again, this time for her rosé wine brand which is part of a range that has sold over 5 million bottles in just two years. He also takes on some of the major issues facing the wine industry, how wine suppliers need to start finding better solutions for the customers they work with and why being relevant to an ever changing and demanding consumer is what drives him and his team every day.
“Our strategy is quite simply all about the consumer and where the gaps and opportunities are.” Paul Schaafsma explains why, and how, Benchmark Drinks looks to keep ahead one step ahead of consumer demand.
It’s not surprising Paul Schaafsma is in a reflective mood. He’s recently back from a whirlwind trip of the United States with none other Pop Princess herself, Kylie Minogue, flitting between TV studios, chat shows and glamorous interviews with Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New York Times amongst others.
They were there looking to repeat some of the phenomenal success she has already had with her wine range, launched, distributed and managed by Schaafsma and his still relatively new wine business, Benchmark Drinks. Together they have seen the Kylie range become a £19m brand within two years of launch, with volumes up 314% in the last year (Nielsen). Her Prosecco rosé has become the UK’s number one Prosecco rosé brand in grocery retail after just 10 months and her wines have now sold 5 million bottles across 15 countries.
“It was a bit like being on tour with her,” says Schaafsma as he shares stories of driving around New York and Miami jumping from one appearance and publicity event after another.
It’s all a far cry from when Schaafsma first started Benchmark Drinks in February 2018 as a fledgling wine business looking to make its way in a competitive wine world against major branded powerhouses that he used to run, having latterly been chief executive of Accolade Wines up to only a year earlier.
No matter how much success you might have had in your career starting your own business for the first time is a daunting prospect, a leap of faith that you can some way replicate what you have done working under the auspices of someone else.
He admits the impact and success Benchmark Drinks has had over the last four years is way beyond what he could have hoped for and his original business plan has had to be ripped up and written again a few times.
“I suppose you find your strengths as you progress. The first two years were bloody hard work. You are trying to find your relevance, your niche in the market,” he says.
But having the experience of running major international wine businesses – Schaafsma was previously general manager for the UK and Europe for Australian Vintage as well as heading up Accolade Wines – certainly gave him the knowhow as to what was needed.
“The experiences you have had points you in the right direction and that has been really important for me,” he adds.
He had also built up a pretty impressive contacts book during those years having sold major successful brands into all the major supermarkets over the last 20 years.
“It means people in the industry can be honest with you. Senior individuals who won’t tell you things are great when they are not.”
If Benchmark Drinks has a niche, or a point of difference, it is working with and developing wine brands that have an immediate connection with consumers because of who makes them. In other words celebrity wine brands, not that you would want to describe them as such to the roster of stars that Benchmark Drinks now works with – Graham Norton, Sir Ian Botham, Gordon Ramsay, Gary Barlow, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kylie Minogue.
“We have been lucky with the brands we have been able to work with,” says Schaafsma, slightly overlooking the fact he helped create them in the first place – or at least sign up the right ‘stars’ to work with.
The notion of “celebrity wine brands” might get some in the chattering classes of the wine trade in a bit of a lather, but that’s not going to distract Schaafsma and his team.
You only have to walk through the duty free section of an airport to see what star power can do with a whole number of famous Hollywood actors, models and pop stars promoting perfumes, health and beauty products and spirits brands.
Why shouldn’t the wine category enjoy some of the same glamour? Particularly as Schaafsma quickly recognised what a huge opportunity there was in the wine sector to push personalities and household names that immediately resonate with the general public, rather than bamboozle them with complex wine terms, unknown grape varieties, appellations and wine regions.
“When we started Benchmark Drinks we knew we had to find the white space with retailers. That meant looking at the wine sector from a consumer’s point of view. What are consumers really looking for out of wine when you consider over 90% will never meet a winemaker, or go to a vineyard, in their lives. Their only experience of wine is going down a supermarket aisle. What can we do to make a wine that can make them feel as comfortable as possible? That’s where we felt a celebrity can help give them that trust, that familiarity, that comfort to pick a bottle of a shelf,” he explains.
If you can match that star appeal with a quality wine in its own right, that is made in a style that they want to drink “then you have got a potential winner” on your hands, he adds. It also, crucially, breaks away from the usual wine negotiation that is dominated by grape variety, price and volume.
Benchmark Drinks first came to the market after they struck a deal to take on the UK distribution responsibilities for comedian and chat show host Graham Norton’s Wines. That relationship started out when Schaafsma took on a non-executive director role on leaving Accolade Wines with Invivo Wines in New Zealand, that had already been working with Norton on developing his own wines.
Then came legendary English cricketer, Sir Ian Botham, with a range of initially Australian wines that he personally helped blend and shape thanks to his own personal relationships with wine producers across the country made during his long cricket career – most famously with Geoff Merrill who he had already made wines with along with the late fast bowler Bob Willis.
Botham’s personal commitment to making quality wines that he is willing to travel and spend the time helping to make and promote is very much the partnership that Schaafsma and Benchmark Drinks is looking for.
“Ian Botham is quite clear. Don’t call me a celebrity winemaker. I am a winemaker in my own right. He is passionate about it and sees it has his second career,” stresses Schaafsma.
In an interview with The Buyer in 2020 Botham said: “I’ll be honest with you, it’s probably better than scoring a hundred at Lord’s getting this right. Honestly it is. This is unchartered territory for me, so to walk into this and come away with these wines is special.”
The Kylie factor
It’s the same now with Kylie Minogue. Even with all her other commitments she is as focused on making her wine brand a global success as she is still getting to number one in the charts, says Schaafsma. Which includes sitting her wine exams, and swotting up on wine books, including apparently reading Elizabeth Gabay MW’s book on rosé – Rose: Understanding the rosé revolution – cover to cover.
“She really wants to be part of the wine industry and is very keen to be involved. She sees this as something she wants to do for the rest of her life. It’s not just a project, you can see that in the commitment and time she gives to the brand and travelling the world to promote it.”
Gordon Ramsay seeks as much perfection in his wines as he does all the Michelin star restaurants he has, he adds. Which means working with top Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini to produce wines “that are good enough to be served in his restaurants”. “The quality we are putting out is absolutely spot on. It has to be for someone of the calibre of Gordon Ramsay.”
Wines that Ramsay buys and drinks at home with his family, he adds. “It’s the same with Kylie. She wants to give a gift of her wine to friends as she is so proud of them.”
“A few years ago celebrity wine brands were not well thought of,” admits Schaafsma. “That’s why we won’t get involved unless the personality is completely committed and just as obsessed with the quality of the wine and the consumer as we are. We also won’t work with someone unless we can go out for dinner and have some fun with them and enjoy their company. That’s what we have with everyone we work with.”
These are also personalities and stars that appeal to difference audiences and age groups. Whilst Botham might appeal to 45 to 60 plus males, Kylie covers all demographic groups having produced a number one album for the last five decades. Her appeal stretches from 20 to 70 year olds, says Schaafsma.
There is also not an off the peg winning formula when it comes to working with stars and celebrities. Not all are guaranteed to succeed.
“We started off thinking these brands would work well with consumers, but we have learnt a lot over the last four years over what is really important and how you have to find the right person to work with. The more the celebrity and personality is part of people’s every day lives, the more chance they have to succeed.”
Gaps and opportunities
“Our strategy is quite simply all about the consumer and where the gaps and opportunities are for retailers,” he stresses.
Which is probably why he continues to get his calls returned from major supermarket wine buyers who don’t always hear “gaps, consumer and opportunities” in the pitches they receive from wine producers and brand owners.
It’s what has made Schaafsma always such an interesting, engaging and important figure in the wine industry. There are few wine business leaders that think and act like they are working in the consumer goods sector. How many use the word “consumer” in virtually every sentence they say?
How many are willing to spend any investment they have on the latest Nielsen, grocery and consumer trends sales data in order to keep ahead of what the market is doing.
“You have to start with the facts and then go from there. That is how you come up with NPD that is in line with where the consumer is going. I think we are recognised for that. Not all new ideas are right, but it is important to keep thinking and challenging ourselves. We need innovation in wine if we are going to keep the consumer satisfied and engaged.”
You also have to remember that Schaafsma has spent most of his career on the producer, supplier side of the fence. Managing millions of litres of wine and trying to find the right distributor and retail partner to work with to sell it. You can only have a successful wine brand if you have got enough wine to help build it up and scale it. For that you need very close relationships with key producers that can supply you with the right quality wine, at the right price.
Benchmark’s success is also down to the fact it is looking for “opportunities” for major producers that have wine they want to sell to the right kind of partner. Giving them an opportunity to link up with and make wine for Kylie Minogue, for example, is not something they get to hear every day.
“There is not enough distribution for all the wine brands that exist. They don’t have a route to market. If we can find producers who are looking for that route to market and can partner with our brands then we can find a way to work together,” explains Schaafsma.
He says he learnt so much from his time at Australian Vintage where Brian McGuigan, founder of McGuigan Wines was his mentor for 14 years.
“I can remember driving up to a bottle shop in Australia in the pouring rain at 8.30pm. I asked him why we going there at that time of night. He said if he can go in and talk to a customer for a couple of minutes, and share his story, then he has got them for life. That was his motto. The more people he could meet, the more people he could connect with. He knew that people did not really understand wine. They just needed a bit more confidence to enjoy it. That was his way of giving them that confidence.”
It’s not all about celebrity wines at Benchmark drinks. It has also seen the opportunity to bring back an old Australian wine brand, Mad Fish, that was in the market some 20 years ago.
“We have re-energised it and made it relevant for today’s wine consumer,” says Schaafsma.
In so doing it has helped its supermarket partners – currently Tesco, Waitrose and Morrisons – introduce a consumer friendly brand into the vital Australian category that has been crying out for new branded innovation. A brand that offers the crisp, clean, fresh wine styles that consumers are looking for with a strong environmental message.
“We recognised there was an opportunity in that space for a brand that could connect with the consumers. We needed to make it in the right style and the Margaret River in western Australia also brings that whole cool climate aspect to it.”
Benchmark Drinks now has a full-time team of 15 and is locking to recruit more to keep pace with its growth.
Schaafsma says he has looked to balance his team between strong, experienced managers as well as bring in graduates and those just starting out on their careers in wine. He’s a big advocate of team work and being all together to achieve its goals so keeps zooms and working from home to a minimum.
“I am also very fortunate to have John Ratcliffe (ex Accolade Wines) on the board who offers such fantastic experience and has been really helpful. I also have some other people I have known for over 20 years on the board who have been able to give me critical advice and support,” he says.
He hopes Benchmark Drinks is a combination of the entrepreneurial skills he learned working at McGuigan Wines and the more corporate world of Accolade Wines. “I have tried to bring those two together which hopefully makes us think differently. It all relates back to the consumer.”
Even with the initial success that Benchmark Drinks has had, Schaafsma is aware it is only at the beginning of its journey. “I don’t wake up thinking I have cracked it. You have to keep working hard. You are only as good as your last sale. We are really pleased with where we are, but we have only just started and have got a long way to go.”
The obvious question is does he wish he started his own business years ago?
“I honestly don’t think I had the experience to do it. This has come at the right time in my life. The planets have aligned and when you get the chance you have to run like hell to make it happen. But I have to say there were plenty of sleepless nights over those first two years. Ultimately you have to back yourself,” he says.
Bigger and better
He’s certainly got the fire and the passion to push Benchmark Drinks on to its next stage of growth. “We have to keep growing and we have to get to a size and scale that ensures we are relevant in the sector,” he adds.
The next four years will be critical in having the right people, culture and systems in place to make sure it achieves that growth. It is all about having the right level of distribution that the individual brands need in order to scale them up and grow.
“We need to be multi-channel and selling right across the board. We need to have our own export division and be able to manage and be as relevant to what is going on in Australia, in the US and across Europe as we are in the UK.”
Crucially, he says, Benchmarks Drinks is already profitable and it does not need to be “chasing volumes”. Instead it needs to be focused on what processes it needs to have in place that are going to help it source and manage enough wine to take its Kylie range, for example, well above its current 5m bottle sales.
“You have to plan further ahead where sourcing that kind of fruit.”
All of which will have to be achieved against the backdrop of inflation, rising costs and supply chain issues affecting the entire industry.
Again he comes back to the term “being relevant” as being the key to how it will navigate its way through the turbulent times ahead. Only then will you be able to work with retailers to take on the necessary price increases and costs.
“The consumer will stay with you up to a certain price brand. The key thing to know is where does that elasticity stretch to. Look at New Zealand Blanc. The price may have to go up £1.50 to £2 a bottle, but how do you ensure the consumer stays with you?”
It’s why any sensible wine supplier and brand builder needs to be looking at alternative sources of supply all the time, be it western Australia or South Africa. If you are not, you are being dangerously short sighted, he warns.
Schaafsma has never been scared to think his mind and over the years has used his senior position in the trade to rattle a few cages and look to get the sector to think and act differently.
It’s clear he remains distinctly unimpressed by what many in the wine industry are doing to tackle its big issues.
“There are not enough people influencing the agenda. They are just going through the motions. Passionate people need to step up and take on the mantle and shaping where this wine industry is going,” he says.
“We have the duty increases coming through in the new year and how are people going to respond to that? Too many businesses are burying their hands in the sand.”
Building a brand
Which is why it’s vital any wine supplier looks to “work in unison” with its retail partner rather than battle it out over price. “There is not too much negotiation to be had in the wine industry. You have a cost and a margin a retailer needs to make and a price point the consumer is happy to pay. That is what it is all about. You have all got the facts in front of you. You need to go into any meeting with a retailer with a solution, not a problem.”
One of its key new hires will be a sales director to look at its multi-channel approach and ensure its wines are working across major grocery retail and into cash and carries, independent grocers and into the on-trade and online.
“A brand is not a brand until you go into your average corner store and it’s there. Like you can with Jacob’s Creek. When you have got Kylie in every store and it is must stock, then you have got a brand. That’s why we have to scale up the business to resource and allow that to happen.”
The next big branded move for Benchmark Drinks will be both its challenge and opportunity to revive the fortunes of the McWilliam’s Australian wine brand in the UK – once one of the biggest names in the Australian category.
Schaafsma sees huge potential for the brand now that is under new ownership of local Australian producer, Calabria Family Wines. He sees McWilliam’s as being one of the “pioneer” Australian wine brands that can proudly sit alongside Penfolds, Hardys, Tulloch amongst others.
It has though, in his view, been a “bit neglected” in recent years which makes it an ideal candidate to breath new life into when it re-introduces it to the market with new wines and branding at the end of the year. A brand he believes can help drive new energy into what he terms the contemporary premium Australia wine category.
“So many Australian wines are sold between £5 and £6.50, but there is a custumer out there that is looking for quality stylish Australian wines with more bright fruits, freshness. A more elegant style.”
Which is very much what it has already looked to do with its Mad Fish Australian brand. Now it will have an opportunity to really push what Australia can do with fresh styles of red wine with McWilliam’s.
You can see the excitement in Schaafsma’s body language when he talks about the potential he thinks the brand has which will also give him another opportunity to get his teeth into a major Australian wine brand after his time and success at McGuigan and Hardys.
“As an Australian I am so passionate about this. It is an opportunity that means a lot and it is also a brand that can be relevant and adapted to what the consumer is looking for.”
Benchmark will be looking to introduce a varietal range, sourcing wine from key regions, that showcases what Australia can do best at around £9 shelf price promoted to £7
“We believe contemporary Australia can be a new category. No one is doing it that well now other than perhaps Bird in Hand. They are doing a fantastic job.”
He adds: “You don’t need to go out and find alternative varieties but find the right styles of wine at the right quality and with the right packaging that delivers what the consumers wants. The category is screaming out for this kind of wine at the moment between £7 to £9.”
Upwards and onwards
As we bring our chat to a close Schaafsma is already plotting and planning what it can do with its rather unique range of household names. Which makes for a slightly different sort of planning meeting with your ‘brand ambassador’.
He certainly would not have imagined being on speed dial with Kylie Minogue when he started Benchmark Drinks in 2018. Now she feels like part of his extended family.
“I am hugely motivated and passionate about the business we have already built up and we have got a really good team. I also know I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to working in this industry. If you love your job then you come to work to enjoy yourself. We are all very lucky.”
Didn’t someone sing a song about that?
- If you want to find out more about Benchmark Drinks then go to its website here.