The contrast could not be more striking. One minute you are in charge of arguably the biggest football club in the world. The next you are standing in the peaceful calm of the Douro Valley plotting what to do next with a 300 year-old, 35-hectare wine property. But whilst Ed Woodward would not have wished to leave Manchester United as quickly as he did, he talks to Richard Siddle about the excitement of a new challenge. Being part of the team looking to make Quinta da Pedra Alta one of the Douro’s new rising stars.
As Ed Woodward plans his next major corporate move he has the time and space to help Quinta da Pedra Alta achieve its potential both in Portugal and around the world.
“It is utterly different. From a high level perspective you can’t compare the two things,” is how Ed Woodward sees his new role trying to revive the fortunes of an old Douro winery, versus his days looking to do the same, but for a world famous football club.
But scratch below the surface and if you regard the two as being in the “leisure sector” then there are aspects that are actually very similar, he adds.
“They’re both seasonal…and in the summer you re-set the table to zero, and in August and September we pick again,” he says. “There is a real parallel in terms of just start again, do another season,” he adds, where clearly some seasons and vintages are better than others. “Also, a bit like in football, you can tell whether you have got a good vintage coming, or not.”
There are very few wine producers out there with quite as many notches on the corporate business belt as Ed Woodward. Prior to Manchester United he was a senior member of JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions team. Experiences he is quickly adapting to the rigours of the wine industry and ups and downs of running a wine property.
“One of the things I learnt at United, was you get buffeted a lot by the press and by the fans. Everyone has an opinion, but you have got to focus on long term plans and it’s the same here [at the winery]. We got really buffeted with Covid, but sticking to the long term plan that we put in place was quite important. We did not have a knee jerk reaction.”
The day-to-day running of the winery and commercial side of the business he leaves very much to his new managerial team: João Pires, head winemaker; consultant winemaker and partner, Matt Gant, who has made his winemaking name in Australia with St Hallett and First Drop wines, and is a life-long, school boy friend of Woodward; and commercial director, Andy Brown, former chief executive of Hattingley Valley and national accounts director at Liberty Wines, who has known Pires and Gant since the late 2000s.
His role will be to listen, learn, guide, steer and advise as and when is needed. It’s also clearly a very welcome relief to the pressures, stress and, at times, painfully high profile of being in charge of Manchester United as it looked to regain past glories.
“I would never do more than a day a week, but because it is personal and fun, it is something I am really enjoying,” he says.
Journey into wine
Whilst clearly fine wines were very much part of the executive dining world of Manchester United, where Woodward would often be hosting some of the owners of the famous Bordeaux chateau on its list, wine was not an overriding passion for him growing up. Never mind the idea of actually owning his own vineyards.
Growing up, though, he saw a fair amount of wine being delivered to the family home as his father received his latest corporate gift from a client looking to gain favour with his executive role at the Ford Motor Company. Whereas, he says, they would have probably have done much better sending him a crate of beer.
He says his first memory of drinking wine came in Germany, when he was around 13 or 14, and enjoyed a glass of Riesling whilst on a family trip down the Mosel river.
But over the years, he and his wife, Isabelle, have enjoyed discovering and learning about wine as they have taken holidays in a number of wine regions around the world, from the Yarra and Hunter Valleys in Australia, Napa and Sonoma in California, regular trips to South Africa and the famous wine regions of Europe. In their 20s they even did some WSET training up to intermediate level.
“There was something about it I fell for. I have a physics degree and there is something really calming seeing the vines laid out. I felt something special about it,” says Woodward.
But it is that lifetime friendship with Gant that has brought Woodward to the slopes of the Douro Valley. Together they have been plotting since around 2005 the idea of buying and working on a winery project together.
“The journey of discovering wine had been amazing, but to really take the next step and discover everything about it, the viticulture and viniculture side of it, all the way through the process from product, branding, I thought that [owning a winery[ would be the ultimate step in learning about wine,” he explains.
It was, though, at the time when his career at Manchester United really started to take off, and any winery plans were put on the back burner. Then some 10 years later the lure of the vineyards came calling again and Woodward and Gant started to talk more seriously about where to look and potentially buy. Quickly Woodward realised that whilst owning somewhere in Australia or South Africa might be picture book perfect, it was far more practical and realistic to look in Europe.
All roads to the Douro
That’s when, quite quickly, all roads lead to the Duoro. “Matt knew if he could get me out there, there would be a significant chance [of me buying]. He always calls the Douro ‘The Grand Canyon’ and if you look at the typography and history of the place there is something quite special and different to other wine regions.”
Gant’s own wine career had also been on fast forward over those 10 years, winning Australia’s inaugural Young Gun of the Year in 2007. He has also had the chance to do a number of vintages in Europe, and, in particular, Portugal, where he first worked and got to know João Pires in 2007 in Alentejo at the Azamor winery. It was Pires who took Gant to the Douro and opened his eyes to the potential of Quinta da Pedra Alta where Pires has been working since 2009.
It was in 2016 that Woodward first went to the Douro to see Quinta da Pedra Altra for himself. He admits that whilst he was initially intrigued “by the raw, rugged nature of” the property he was also quite overwhelmed by how much work would be needed to restore it.
“It clearly needed a turnaround to get it back to the level it could be,” he says.
But he could also see the huge potential, particularly when coupled with Pires’ knowledge of the land, Gant’s expertise as a blender and his assurance this was the winery they had long been looking for.
“In Matt’s head, this was it. This was the full package and he got me over to try and tempt me,” says Woodward.
Ultimately it was Gant’s advice, support and guidance that made him take the final plunge. “I would have never bought a vineyard without Matt confirming that it was going to be a good one,” he adds.
It was also during that initial trip that Woodward had his first experience of the very different, collaborative, friendly nature of the wine world, compared to the cut throat Premier League he was used to running at Manchester United.
They were invited to a BBQ at nearby Quinta da Foz, primarily because the team there wanted to meet up with Gant.
“What blew me away was the fact there was 30 to 35 winemakers at this BBQ who were all talking and sharing what they were doing, and would run off and come back with more bottles and say ‘you have got to try this style, I think this is the future’. I was just blown away by how friendly and collaborative they all were.”
What also really struck him was the number of young interns that were there from different European countries who “weren’t on their phones taking pictures for Instagram,” but were all quietly listening and hanging on every word of these expert winemakers.
“That really resonated with me,” he says, particularly when thinking of his own two young children, who he imagined could also really learn and benefit from not just the collaborative and friendly approach to life and work that the wine sector clearly has, but it’s connection to nature, the land and the importance of hard work to children that are growing up in a “rarefied lifestyle”.
“As a family business what they could learn could be amazing,” he says. Particularly as it involves so many different facets from production, right through to distribution, marketing, PR and sales.
Since taking control of Quinta da Pedra Alta in July 2018, Woodward and his team have made the investments needed, both in the vineyards and the winery, to get the quality of wines up to the required level.
“We knew we needed to change a number of things from a Capex perspective to handle the grapes better,” he says.
Having the knowledge and expertise of João Pires heading up the winemaking has been crucial in that, he says. “It’s just fantastic for us that he has stayed. He loves the land so much and is so passionate about it and he really hoped we would buy it.”
Gant also brought Andy Brown into the business, who he has known and worked with for going on 18 years to their days at St Hallett in Australia. Then there is Woodward’s wife, Isabelle, who has spent much of her career working in luxury retail, heading up international sales at Mulberry, Estée Lauder and World Duty Free, who has played a key role in re-branding the business and its wines.
“We are a group of friends coming together with different skills, and are very much a collaborative in the way we all work with each other,” he explains, with each having their own vote over future plans.
Once they had the quality of wine they wanted, built on the philosophy of making fresh, approachable, contemporary wines with the structure and tannin for ageing, the next step was to develop a “product plan” that best reflected what the winery can do. The result is a ten-strong core range of seven still wines and a white port, a tawny, and vintage port plus additional test and experimental wines, including a rosé, introduced to see where they might take the range in the future.
The wines now carry a strong brand message built around the fact the property contains three of the granite markers – Marcos Pombalinos – that were awarded to the best land during the demarcation of the Port region in 1761. The three makers have been incorporated into the branding, labelling and messaging of the business.
“Our wines have a freshness and elegance to them, but, particularly the reds, have incredible endurance too,” he says.
Its price range stretches from £14 up £25 for the Reservas, white port is £18 and the tawny is £24 “and worth every single penny” and vintage port pushing £50 a bottle.
Woodward is really pleased with the reaction it has had so far from the trade to all its range, and the white and tawny port in particular. The team, he says, worked hard to tone down the sweetness on the quality of the white port to make it a drink you could just enjoy on its own, without tonic or a mixer. The tawny port, he believes, stands up to any of the competition, and where it has been able to use the reserves in the winery, that go back over 50 years, to help with the blends it is making. “It’s a 10-year tawny you can have cheese or a creme brûlée.”
It currently has all the controls it needs over its own estate fruit, which is enough to cope with its current sales and demand, but the scope is there to buy in grapes as and when it might need to in the years ahead.
It certainly has the capacity to grow from its current 180 tonnes of grapes with the capacity to produce 180,000 bottles, or 15,000 cases from its 35 hectares. It currently sits at around 40,000 and is still selling some of its grapes.
In keeping with other new producers and younger winemakers in the Douro the primary focus is on producing still wines, around 80% of its production, of which two thirds are made up of red wines, and 20% for port.
“If phase one was to stabilise the business and phase two is to invest to get to break even, and develop our sales channels, then the third phase will be where do we take the product mix next,” explains Woodward. But table and still wines will be very much the main focus of the Quinta long term, he adds.
Woodward is clearly aware of the personal profile he brings to the winery, but is very keen to stress this remains very much a Portuguese winery, producing Douro wines, using native grape varieties and employing local people.
Which is why its number one market to get right and focus on is Portugal and is working with a premium local distributor and hired a local sales person to do that.
“What we really want is to be viewed in the local market as a producer of quality wines,” he says, whilst at the same time admitting the Quinta’s reputation has dipped somewhat in the last 10 years of the previous owners through under investment.
“That’s part of the rebrand to tell that turnaround story.”
The UK will then be its most important export market and it has signed up with Bancroft Wines to achieve the right distribution in the premium independent and on-trade channels.
“We’re excited about Bancroft. They have got an almost entrepreneurial growth mentality about what they are trying to do. I like that a lot. I like the energy they show and if you look at their portfolio we sit quite nicely within that.”
He also likes “where they sit in the market as one of the challenger group of distributors”.
He also admits he is having to learn about how wine distributors work and that the same sort of incentive schemes for sales staff used in other business channels are not the way things are done in wine. But he is keen to work with Bancroft to find ways to achieve “the cut through” he is looking for with its sales staff as that is the way to deliver visibility and channel growth.
Independent wine merchants will are particularly important, says Woodward, in acting as “educators” for its wines, where you are “teaching a man to fish, rather than just giving them a fish”.
It is already, he adds, making good progress in the premium on-trade.
“If the people at Bancroft can buy into the narrative and communicate that in, I can see a great year of growth in the UK,” he adds and re-gain some of the momentum lost during Covid.
Andy Brown will also work closely with the Bancroft team to give any support they need, as well as his wider International role to build sales in other potential markets. As well as Portugal and the UK, Quinta da Pedra Alta is also making inroads into Canada, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Australia and Brazil. “But we don’t want to over stretch ourselves,” he adds.
Although Woodward and Quinta de Pedra Alta have come a long way in a short period of time, particularly with Covid in the way, he is still very new to the trade and the Douro region. In fact, he says, he has not had time, or the opportunity, to meet any of the major Port families and Douro producers, but looks forward to doing so in the months and years to come.
He has, though, got some good wine ties though through his previous football life. Most noticeably Steve Browett, chairman of Farr Vintners, who he knows well through his board level days at Crystal Palace.
His closest previous wine connection was with Concha y Toro, who Woodward and his commercial team actively targeted to be its official wine partner in 2010. A deal that saw its Casillero del Diablo wine brand, the devil in the cellar, being perfectly matched with the Red Devils on the pitch, is now into its twelfth year.
Woodward is very much on his home turf talking about how he helped rip up traditional sports sponsorship deals at Manchester United, by establishing a standalone commercial team that worked tirelessly to track down the right potential brand partners to work with the club across multiple sectors.
Effectively putting together “global sponsorship deals where you are replicating the IP of the club over multiple deals,” he says. “The scaleability is unbelievable.”
Manchester United now has over 300 brand partners and gone from a commercial department of two, to a separate business, run in London, that saw Woodward oversee a seven-fold increase in commercial revenue. An approach to sponsorship and partnerships that have been replicated by all the major clubs across Europe.
“Be it beer, soft drinks or fortified wine. We have a research team that targets everyone in the industry,” says Woodward. “We end up talking to a lot of people in that sector. All that dialogue is tracked and stored and all that information about what people are doing from a strategic perspective within a particular company is stored within the club.”
It is fascinating to hear him open up about what makes a good deal for both club and brand. “The rule of thumb is that for every pound spent on buying the rights, you have to spend one to two pounds on activation,” he says.
If a drinks company, he says, has the right marketing skills and know how to maximise the “toolbox of IP from the club then you can do something pretty special”. “That all comes down to the right people.”
He says he applied similar tactics and approach as investment bankers do when looking to put together major merger and acquisition deals. “If you put a structure around it. There is one winner of buying a company. There is one winner of being a global partner.”
It’s a bit early in the Quinta da Pedra Alta story to be looking for sports sponsorship rights, but if it did it would probably be Porto Football Club’s door that Woodward would be knocking on first for what he hopes will become one of Portugal and the Douro’s most exciting new wine properties.
In the meantime it is back to hunting down trophies, which Woodward looks like he could be picking up quicker with Quinta da Pedra Alta than Manchester United will be able to do.
- You can find out more about Quinta da Pedra Alta here.