The Buyer
How and why Californian wine still has it all to play for

How and why Californian wine still has it all to play for

It is now 10 months since Justin Knock MW and Damien Jackman, better known for running the successful Philglas & Swiggott London wine merchants, were appointed as the new face for and ambassadors in the UK for the California Wine Institute. As they prepare for their first major generic tasting on September 27 they look at the opportunities for Californian wine in the UK and set out their vision for how they want to achieve some of those.

Richard Siddle
7th September 2017by Richard Siddle
posted in People,People: Supplier,

On the face of it California really does have everything. The climate, the image, the vibe, and, most of all, an increasing number of wines that are now being made in a style ideal for the UK market. The challenge for Justin Knock MW and Damien Jackman is making first the trade aware of them and then the UK wine drinker.

How have you found taking on responsibility for heading up Californian wine in the UK and what has the trade response been?

California is a great region to work with – we’re loving everything to do with the Golden State.The people we’ve met and begun working with both in the US and here in the UK have been brilliant and incredibly positive about setting out on this journey together. The California Wine Institute head office has been very pro-active about supporting the UK market – the third largest in the world – and we can all see the huge potential for California to become a major force in both the mass-market and for fine wine collectors.

Our first task has been to meet with as many of the UK importers as we can, large and small, and understand more about their strategies and brands. We have been to California several times this year, primarily taking key buyers from the on and off-trade, as well as media, to experience California’s world class hospitality and the outstanding quality of the wine and food. Connecting with the people and the place is integral to what we plan to do with California in this market.

What do you see as the big opportunities for Californian wine generally in the UK?

Beast is one of a number of new restaurants that have opened up in London that have such a strong Californian wine list

There is a real thirst for premium California amongst fine wine collectors and we see no slowing in the demand for classic Napa Cabernets, but now also for the great Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from places like Sonoma and Santa Barbara. We also see great promise for all that California has to offer in the regional cities of the UK away from London. Although London remains the focal point for UK trade activities, there is enormous interest in Californian wines and lifestyle across the length and breadth of the UK and we are planning activity in as many regional areas as we can over the next 12 months.

What are the biggest challenges and issues that California faces generally in the UK?

It would be tempting to say pricing but I think this is an issue facing all producer countries in the current economic climate in Britain. One of the more interesting areas that needs focus is distribution which I think is still only beginning to be tapped. There are a terrific handful of importers dedicated to California, but in many other portfolios California plays a minor role.

There are more than 3,500 wines in California and in my experience, it’s only been in the past five to eight years that there has been a more open-minded approach to exports by more than a few dozen producers. When you see how good the wines are, the quality of the lifestyle, the thoughtfulness of the producers and their commitments to sustainability – all the things that drive California – then I think you see a complex, diverse, high quality region with scale, impressive financial backing and the determination to become an export-oriented powerhouse.

What specific challenges do you have in the UK? 

Currency is the number one challenge in the mass-market, but less so at the premium end. There is a better than even chance that total wine consumption in the UK continues the decline that began in 2010. Everyone fighting for a share of a smaller market is always a challenge.

Any particular areas of the on-trade where you think California is really performing well?

Pitt Cue with its big emphasis on smoked meats has capitalised on trends in the quality fast food and casual sectors to bring in to relaxed premium dining

Two areas are the burgeoning gourmet fast food scene, and the growing interest in farm-to-table eating, both of which have been deeply connected with the evolution of Californian cuisine and could be said to have started there. People are increasingly interested in great quality and tasting food but without the formality of white table cloth dining. California is equally comfortable doing both.

What key styles of Californian wine do you think are best suited for the on-trade?

Zinfandel and red blends as mentioned earlier. Premium Napa Cabernet is so enjoyable and tastes so luxurious that it’s a natural for top end steak restaurants and fine dining. Similarly, the coastal Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Chardonnays deliver beguiling complexity and freshness with trademark perfectly ripe fruit. The small range of great quality California sparkling wines offer a good alternative to Champagne. But for the dedicated sommelier world there is no end of crazy field blends, and old vine wines to succour the most curious of minds.

What price points are working the best in the on-trade?

That really depends on your geographic location, target market and margin policy. California can do top to bottom as well as anyone.

Can we look specifically at where the big gaps are in the on-trade?

More diverse offerings in the multiple sectors. California has a lot of vineyard area and a surprising amount of heritage vineyard. I’m amazed that Zinfandel and blends are not more widely popular. They can be wines of great pleasure, with richness of flavour and great acidity that work perfectly with informal dining – and it’s a style of wine that California owns.

You have your tasting coming up on September 27 , what can we expect there?

College Garden at Westminster Abbey will provide the backdrop for the California tasting on September 27

Well, a stunning location to welcome California back to the trade – I hope the weather is kind because College Garden really is a magical place.

We’re going to have two brilliant seminars from Kelli White, sommelier and author of the epic tome, ‘Napa Valley Then and Now’, and Karen MacNeil, author of the Wine Bible, one of the most collected wine books in the US and Asia. We’re bringing some of the sights and sounds, and food elements of California to the tasting and I hope it will encourage people to spend more time there. We encourage attendees to come with an open mind and as much time as they can spare. There will be more than 600 wines to taste and this will include those from a number of new wineries there looking for distribution.

You are also buyers and wine merchants in your own right, so any advice on how to get the best out of the day as a buyer? 

A style or variety focus is a good way to break it down. Know what price points you are looking for – we made sure that they are easily available in the catalogue as I find nothing more frustrating as a buyer than tasting a wine but not being able to quickly reference the price. You want the conversation across the table to be about other things.

While everyone will be drawn to the illustrious names and famous Cabs, Pinots and Chardonnays we would really advise looking for the more unusual. There are a load of old vineyards with things like Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Trousseau Gris, Green Hungarian, Mourvedre as well as newer plantings of Vermentino, Albarino and Aglianico that are well worth seeking out. The diversity is impressive and surprising.

What are your next steps for California in the UK? What can we look forward to in the year ahead?

Amelia Singer of ITV’s The Wine Show has been brought on to have an ambassador role for California

We’re thinking about all the things that California is globally known for – lifestyle, concern for sustainability, and the knowledge economy – and how that applies to wine, food and the media. For example, we’ve recently engaged Amelia Singer of ITV’s The Wine Show, as a California ambassador to produce some video content in situ and that will be ongoing. Our commercial background means we are not approaching this as might a typical government body. We ultimately want to see strong commercial outcomes for our Export Members and to add long term value to California wine exports. We’re taking a long-term approach on everything.

If anyone is travelling to California any tips on:

Best place for a sunset drink?

The beauty of facing west and being lined by the Pacific Coast means you can find countless locations for a very special sunset drink. There are so many to mention – the pier in Santa Barbara, countless rooftop bars in Los Angeles, bars or restaurants along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and anywhere along Highway 1 such as Big Sur is incredibly special.

Best place to eat?

If you’re in Napa, head to Press restaurant

For true wine lovers we always recommend Press in Napa Valley, just south of St Helena. Kelli White has amassed what must surely be the world’s great wine list of back vintage Napa wines. Served alongside impeccably grilled steaks and seafood, this is a classic California experience.

Just as classic is the brilliantly authentic Il Molino Central in Sonoma – this tiny Mexican cantina is the real deal and we dare you not to hold the plate to your face and lick the last morsel of guacamole from it like ‘one’ of us has been known to do. Also don’t forget that California is America’s salad, nut and fruit bowl, growing most of this produce for the entire US so load up on salads as big as your head that are layered with flavour and substance – you truly could live like a king just eating salads in California.

Finally, the roasted chicken at Zuni in San Francisco is justifiably famous in the global wine trade, as is their fantastic wine list. Order the chicken and a Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay and accept that some things in life are just meant to be.

Best place to stay?

There is no shortage here. You have two of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world bookending your wine travels – LA and San Francisco, so fly into one and out of the other. Towns like Santa Barbara just exude laid back California cool and will make you want to move there tomorrow. Napa and Sonoma are fantastic as the big wine valley towns, but also try their smaller, cuter cousins Yountville (near Napa) and Healdsburg (near Sonoma) for beautifully cute and quaint wine country towns. If you want to escape to the remote Sonoma Coast then Timber Cove just north of Jenner is jaw-droppingly good.

Best thing to do as a tourist?

Just get in your car and explore classic drives like along the Big Sur…

Drive and explore the countryside. Highway 1 between Moro Bay and Monterey is amazing, but also consider the Northern stretch of this iconic highway heading north from Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock filmed The Birds). All of the wine regions offer fantastic hospitality to tourists so you can’t miss.

What music have you got on in the car?

When you dig into iTunes and start to look for songs written about California the list becomes almost endless. The diverse geography from pacific surf coasts, to alpine forests and scorching deserts has acted as a powerful muse from artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, The Beach Boys, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, John Mayer, Razorlight and U2 to name but a few.