Over the last few years Pol Roger Portfolio has quietly, carefully, and diligently built up an impressive portfolio of premium Californian wine producers that means it now has one of the most comprehensive offers available in the UK. Richard Siddle sits down with Will Dennison, Pol Roger’s head of fine wine, to talk through its range, how it has selected the producers it is now working with and what potential it sees for Californian wine in the premium on-trade and specialist retail sectors.
Pol Roger Portfolio believes it has built up a portfolio of Californian producers that will in the coming years be regarded as some of the best talents in the region.
Pol Roger Portfolio is very much the sum of its parts. Whilst clearly Champagne is its hero category, its overall success lies in how it has been able to build up an impressive, diverse and wide ranging premium and fine wine portfolio that includes many of the most prestigious and sought after wine producers in the world.
A depth of range that has proved itself to be even more important over the last 18 months as shortages and pressures on supply have made premium wine merchants, buyers and sommeliers look further afield for new wines to offer their increasingly demanding customers.
It has also driven Pol Roger Portfolio on to go out and source new producers to bring into its range. Will Dennison, its head of fine wine, says it has been able to bring on five new agencies in the last 12 months – including two from California.
He says the pressure on the supply of Champagne, with Pol Roger stretching allocations between existing and new markets around the world, means it makes strong commercial sense for its agency business to spread its wings as far at it reasonably can, says Dennison.
“There are lots of fine agencies out there without a home, but it is all about finding the right fit,” he explains, with Pol Roger looking specifically for five star quality, family owned, independent producers to work with on an exclusive basis in the UK.
He says it can take between three to five years for any new agency to be signed up. It’s certainly not something you can rush into, he stresses. “These relationships take a long to time build up.”
But once they are on board, the opportunity is there to really get behind them and push them out to the right buyers, venues and merchants.
“We want to work with great brands that we can really push the envelope with,” he adds. “But we also want to work directly with their family members, to have a personal relationship with them.”
We have become known as niche Napa specialist…we get tapped up all the time …what fits ..are the wines good enough..are the people good to work with…overall ethos…”
Its eight strong Californian range includes producers who are already well known to the UK markets, and producers who have never sold their wines this side of the Atlantic before. Of its most recent partnerships both Bryant Estate and Cornell Vineyards are new to the UK. They join a range that already includes: Abreu; Robert Sinskey Vineyards; TOR; Staglin Family Vineyard; Gallica and Kinsman Eades.
Dennison says it is great to be not only working with a producer of the calibre of Bryant Estate but the fact it is able to access wines from the highly coveted Pritchard Hill area of Napa Valley. Bryant produces top end single estate and Cabernet Sauvignon blended wines from grapes grown up to 1,000 feet high up the northern slope of the hill.
“It is now one of those parts of Napa that everyone is now looking at. It is producing such top end structured, elegant wines.”
He admits he was pretty “insistent” in his pursuit of Bryant who had not felt the need to be in the UK before, and is very pleased to have them in the range.
Cornell Vineyards is situated on the Mayacamas range, on the western side of Spring Mountain and takes the Pol Roger Californian portfolio into Sonoma. It has been producing organic wine since 2014 and separates its winemaking into 20 vineyards blocks each with their own soil types.
Dennison says there is still a perception and education job to be done with some buyers and sommeliers who have not had the chance to see – and taste – the huge changes that have taken place in the state over the last 10 or so years. “The problem is people tend to generalise when it comes to California. They expect it to all taste the same and that it is full of wines with high alcohol and residual sugar. The reality is very different. In fact it is more like Burgundy such is the diversity and the focus of multi-generation winemakers that are making such individual quality wines.”
He adds: “The collective ranges of wines they are producing is amazing. They are America’s best kept secrets. They are the drier styles, with less than 0.5gm of residual sugar. They are structured, super elegant wines. They are not the high alcohol wines that people often think of.”
Wines he says that have helped Pol Roger Portfolio “become known as a niche Napa specialist”.
Having such a strong Californian portfolio allows Pol Roger Portfolio to introduce the wines to customers who are looking for more affordable and realistic alternatives to higher end Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.
“These wines are ideal for those looking for quality and diversity outside of Burgundy and Bordeaux,” says Dennison. The only frustration is that there is not enough mature and aged Californian wine available to be able to supply as well as getting enough allocations of current vintages.
This is why Pol Roger has started buying wine at special Californian and Napa auctions to bring something new and different to the market. It is, for example, bringing in a wine this month – Lot 23 “In Concert” – it bought at the 2022 Napa Valley Auction that has been made by four female winemakers – Rosemary Cakebread, Diana Snowden Seysses, Cathy Corison and Dawnine Dyer.
Pol Roger’s Californian range is a strategically important part for the business, accounting for around £1m of its overall £22m turnover. Each producer has their own distinct role to play, says Dennison, and offer “vastly different” winemaking styles.
But Napa and Sonoma Valleys are close knit communities and the success it is having with the producers it is working with certainly helps in conversations with others, he adds.
“Word spreads and producers know we only work with the best and that we take a very professional approach and will introduce their wines to the right people at the right price.”
One of the biggest challenges of working with Californian producers, says Dennison, is convincing them that the UK is an important market for them to be in. They are often won round by the success and enthusiasm of their Californian winemaking peers, he adds.
“Everyone knows everyone in the valley,” he adds.
The Pol Roger team can hopefully offer its California producers unique access to taste and explore all the other premium wines it has in its portfolio. “We are able to go out and give them a Champagne tasting of back vintages of Pol Roger and Winston Churchill.”
He adds: “Every time I go to Napa it is great to go and hang out with the winemakers. They are often the best nights. There is no agenda other than to enjoy each others companies, taste some exceptional wines. You can learn so much from events like that.”
Dennison is also quick to praise the role that the California Wine Institute, and its UK team in particular of Justine McGovern and Damien Jackman, plays in introducing it to potential partners and providing them with the generic and state information it is looking for.
“I would says the California Wine Institute are the best of what anyone does in their field. They really do the best job for us and give us the chance to taste and see amazing wines from across California. They take the trouble to get the bottles sent over and allows us to taste them. The List project is a great example of the kind of work they do.”
Best to come
Dennison says it is still open to taking on more Californian producers but it is also a balancing act as it wants to have the time to work with the producers it already has. “If we can fit in one or two or more then great. But we are not looking to take on any more producers for the sake of it. They have to be right for us and for them. They need to have the right ethos and quality of wine.”
What particularly excites Dennison about the Californian range it has built up is how much potential each of the producers have to grow and grow in the UK.
“We are at the foothills now and think over the next ten to 20 years we can build these wines up and up. If people know Napa they will know we have already recruited some of the greatest producers in the valley that will go on to become even more prestigious in the coming years. We have already got the Romanee Conti’s of the area. There is still so much untapped potential for Napa.”
- Pol Roger Portfolio is a partner supplier to The Buyer.