If you are an experienced wine buyer, specialising in a particular country have you ever thought of making the most of your expertise by going it alone? It’s what James Hocking did when he moved on from The Vineyard Cellars, the business where he made his name, importing Californian wine for The Vineyard in Berkshire, at the beginning of 2019. Here he shares what’s its been like starting his own business and then having to deal with Covid-19.
James Hocking Wine has quickly become a must go to source for both trade and private clients looking for the best, and most exclusive, Californian wines in the UK.
There are few wine buyers in the UK with the knowledge and contacts in Californian wine than James Hocking. Not that he would find him claiming such a thing. That’s very much not Hocking’s style. In fact he admits he finds it hard enough doing PR, even though he knows he has to now that he has gone out on his own.
Given the choice Hocking is quite happy busying himself reading about, and sourcing the right kind of wines he knows are going to work for his very specific audience of wine buyers – and consumers – in the UK.
For all his media shyness Hocking is still one of the most well known, respected and connected figures in the UK when it comes to Californian wine. Not just with the most influential trade wine buyers, sommeliers and premium restaurant groups, but with a wide network of private customers that he has built up throughout his time working at the Vineyard Cellars.
If you are interested in premium, or ultra exclusive Californian wine then Hocking is your man.
Hocking has been caught up in the Covid-19 crisis just as much as any other small UK wine importer. But, like so many of his peers, he has also had to move quickly in order to keep the wine sales flowing. He admits the initial lockdown caught him as much by surprise as the vast majority of his customers across the premium on-trade. So much so that he did “next to nothing” in terms of business in March to April as all his restaurant clients were closed.
It meant switching his model over to direct to consumer, and make maximum use of what been a small part of the business before lockdown. It also allowed him to really concentrate on the strong private client network that he already had built up.
“Suddenly people who would normally be going out to The Cut or Goodman and drinking quality Californian wine there were open to buying it and drinking it at home,” he says.
The switch to home drinking has been to such an extent that Hocking says he enjoyed his “best revenue ever in July” followed by a “good August” too.
Now that a large number of his restaurant clients are now open too, then he is also finding sales are starting to come back there as well, but central London “remains dead”. But it is very much a changing picture, week by week, and it is likely his home sales will improve again now that the ‘Rule of Six’ has been introduced for all restaurants and pubs and a curfew of 10pm is set to come into place from September 24.
“It’s such a strange time for us all and we just don’t know what is going to change next,” he says. The issue he has with many of his restaurant customers is that they still have strong stocks from when they locked down in March and they are the kind of wines that are going to be the slowest to sell now.
Hocking has also been able to build up his profile and network across the strong independent wine merchant network over the last six months as well. Hedonism, the premium wine and spirits merchant in London has been his “biggest client for the last six months”.
Demand for older vintages
What the switch to DTC has really shown Hocking is how much demand there is out there for older vintage Californian wine, particularly amongst private clients, who are desperate to get their hands on 1980’s and 1990’s vintage wine. “Hedonism also takes a lot of those as well and is really excited by them,” he adds.
“There is an almost insatiable demand for high end, mature Californian wine. I am constantly on the look out for well stored, aged Napa wines going back to the mid 1990’s.”
As soon as he puts them on the market they are usually bought up within a matter of days.
Which means he is constantly on the look out for older wines to bring in from California, and admits he has been helped by the lockdowns there as wineries, that can usually sell old vintages at the cellar door, now have them readily available to export.
“It means I am going to be able to get my hands on some rare, never seen before in the UK wines which I am very excited about,” he adds.
Step by step
But he is also quick not to get too far ahead of himself: “Not everything in the garden is rosy – but then it could have been a lot worse. Mind you if we can survive this then we can survive anything.”
“Because I am a small business I can make decisions quickly, I can just take small parcels of wine and be a lot more fluid in how I work,” he adds. “There are not seven levels of command to go through first. I also now have the chance to sell exactly what I like and I am not affiliated to any wine company or winery.”
He says having long standing private clients has also been an advantage in that “they know me and what I can do for them”.
Hocking says he has also been helped by the fact London City Bond has a wine warehouse in Salisbury and Hocking also has a small facility in Andover close to where he lives and where a lot of his private customers are. “So they have been able to turn things round very quickly for us,” he adds.
“That is what we thrived on during lockdown. If you were in Hampshire and wanted to get your hands on six bottles of wine quickly then we would go out of our way to do that. We hope that by offering them great quality service they will remember that in the future. We are not the cheapest in the world, but we will take the time to hold you by the hand and give you as bespoke a service as you want,” he explains.
“We have also picked up a lot of new business in Hampshire who now see drinking in as their equivalent to a fine dining experience. It means they are happier spending more at home. Winchester, for example, is a well heeled part of the world. It’s not quite London, but it’s not that far enough.”
It’s also allowed him to really fine tune what is still a very young business and really take advantage of the great response he got, both from wineries and customers, the year before when setting up his own business for the first time.
So for Hocking that means concentrating on the £50 plus, Parker point-style Californian wine. “Medium priced California up to £40 has been slow to come back, but anything above £50 and you are flying. The biggest problem we have is restocking and getting access to those really high end wines. That’s the hardest thing.”
But Hocking certainly gives them a new route to a market that the top end Californian wineries want to be seen to be in.
Looking ahead and Hocking is determined to stick to California – and the US – and drill down even further to what he can offer from there, rather than try and branch out into other regions and countries. “California it is my stomping ground. I now know a fair bit about it, got great contacts and have created this niche market.”
That said he admits to “fiddling around” a bit with New York State and really respects the wines being made there. “I can’t see myself deviating outside of the US.”
By having so many private clients it means he can quickly determine what they might be interested in buying. Which means in the main the classic red varieties, and being very strong in Chardonnay.
“We are more classic than progressive in terms of our range,” he says. “We have got a few funky things, and listening to our customers we know they want quality Russian River Pinot and good solid California red wine with elegance and balance.”
What he loves about his private clients is that they are all so passionate about the region. He explains: “Every new private client I have they each have got a story about being in California, walking around San Francisco, going up to Napa, enjoying meals out. But they are also people who have visited the area and then struggled to find the wines they enjoyed at home.”
Much of Hocking’s private client work is going out and sourcing those specific wines for his clients. Even if it is just a case or two from a particular producer. “It is that level of personal service that I want to offer,” he says.
Looking ahead he is confident he has been through the worse and now has a business model that will allow him to continue to prosper. “Good specialist niche people like us will be ok as we are building a good loyal customer base. I do, though, fear for the larger merchants who are doing big supplies into the on-trade.”
As for the California regions he has got his eyes on the Lodi really stands out. Both in terms of the old vine Zinfandel wines that are being made there but also the level of experimentation with good success for the likes of Albarino and some Italian varieties.
“It’s where more of our more esoteric wines are coming from. Like Fiano. Its crisp, lively and just beautiful. We are looking at the on-trade for things like that. It also shows how California can be versatile and diverse. Lodi also has the good value pricing as well.”
But it will be his ranges of Russian River Pinot Noir and Sonoma Coast Chardonnays that will be paying the mortgage.
So hopefully fewer sleepless nights are in store for Hocking, particularly now he has the confidence he’s got the business model that can handle “whatever is thrown at us”.