“Brand recognition, especially for California, is key. It’s not just about branding though; they’re all great wines and Orin Swift, in particular, has a great story to it.” Adam Kirkbride, wine buyer at the Secret Bottle Shop in Hereford, explains why he is so focused on Californian wines and has chosen to work so closely with the team at E&J Gallo to list a range of its premium producers and is one of the few operators in the country to list the full Orin Swift range of iconic wines.
Premium Californian wines are in demand across both the premium on and off-trades and Adam Kirkbride is well placed to know being wine buyer for both Saxtys, that runs its own restaurant and bar business and its wine merchants and online business, The Secret Bottle Shop.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into wine and the drinks industry?
Back in 2001 we purchased Saxtys and have been running very successful restaurant and late-night bar for many years. One of our biggest successes was turning a balcony and office area in the nightclub section into a Champagne Bar back in 2003, which was known to sell over 100 bottles of Champagne over a weekend. We have an excellent reputation for the quality of the drinks that we sell.
Why did you want to open up a separate retail business to your restaurant and bar business?
We started our e-commerce in 2009 largely to fulfil the requests of customers to the restaurant who wanted to buy wines and Champagne from our lists to drink at home or order for events and parties. We went live with the website in 2010. The business steadily grew year-on-year and in 2016 the opportunity came up to purchase an office block next door to Saxtys. We immediately decided to put in a retail space on the ground floor so that customers could come in and buy in-person. There was an obvious gap in the market locally for this retail space as the range of our portfolio back then was vast.
How did you go about deciding what sort of retail business to run – in terms of the offer, the range, pricing, your retail philosophy and strategy?
Firstly, we wanted to focus on an efficient online ordering service for wines and spirits. At the time, there weren’t many wine and spirits retailers with a strong online offering. We’re very proud of the look and feel of our website, the extensive choice, and our speed of service. In terms of the range, focusing on the premium side of the market and gifts was an obvious choice. There aren’t enough retailers that make gifts such a significant part of their offering, and there is no point in focusing on entry-level wines and spirits as we simply cannot compete with supermarkets on that side. We are dedicated to making sure we have something for everyone and offering a consistently warm, friendly service both in store and over the phone. Nobody should walk into a shop and be made to feel uncomfortable.
What does your US range look like and California in particular?
Pretty extensive, with around 75 different wines from the US of which around 90% are Californian. With Californian wines, there is just such a wide range of styles, not limited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. When you consider the fact that California is not far off double the size of the UK, spanning 10 degrees latitude and with a wide range of elevations and coastal influences, that’s already a lot of scope for variety.
The E&J Gallo fine wine portfolio demonstrates the incredible diversity of California – we have award-winning wines steeped in history in Napa Cabernet Specialist Louis M. Martini, big blends from the iconic Orin Swift and cool climate grand cru Chardonnay from Talbott Vineyards’ Sleepy Hollow.
What styles, regions and price points have you got in your California range?
We have a quite a wide range of styles. Ten different grape varieties, not including blends, from countless AVAs from as large as Central Coast to more specific AVAs like Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. As far as price point is concerned, it’s certainly a region in which we focus more on fine wine, with bottles priced up to £500, but we have a number of options from £8 to £20.
What do you think California offers you that you can’t get anywhere else?
By virtue of having full flexibility in terms of both legislation and climatic variation, quite a lot. The obvious answer is Zinfandel, by which I mean both the heady reds and the sweeter rosés made from this grape. Sure, Primitivo is by and large the same grape, but Zinfandel is not something you find in many other world winemaking regions. “8 Years in the Desert” for example is a great expression of Zinfandel, but delivered in Orin Swift’s inimitably bold style.
I also think that while there is a wide range of styles of Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir within California, nowhere else seems to embrace the buttery or more fruit-driven styles as they do here. The Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from J Vineyards and Talbott Vineyards are a great example of this.
What changes have you seen in California wine in recent years that make it such an interesting category?
There seems to be a lot of experimentation with alternative grape varieties, particularly Rhône grapes like Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier. We’ve introduced a few wines of these styles to our range, with more to come ahead of the Christmas period. The Orin Swift Machete for example – a blend of Petite Sirah, Grenache and Syrah – is a fantastic example of a Californian alternative to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and has been hugely popular. The fact that each bottle in the case of 12 has a slightly different label ads that little extra bit of theatre too.
How do you decide what new wine or producer to take on?
Various factors come into it. Primarily, it comes down to filling a gap in the range. On the one hand you could argue that with over 50 wines from California already, where are the gaps? But when you consider the breadth of styles and price points available, it’s important to be open minded. If I taste something that completely blows me away and I think offers exceptional value at its respective price point, then why not share that with our customers? In other cases, it may be that that particular producer has a strong following. Or it could be a combination of the two, in which case that’s a win-win.
How are you working with E&J Gallo Winery and its range of premium wines?
E&J Gallo work with some wineries that have a particularly strong consumer following, especially Orin Swift. We are one of the few UK retailers to list all the Orin Swift wines, and we also take the Talbott Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay and Louis M Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet. E&J Gallo has been great at helping us enhance the consumer experience by providing smart branded gift boxes for us and our customers, and a display stand for the Orin Swift wines.
Why did you list those wines in particular?
For starters, these are wineries with a strong consumer following, but whose wines are not necessarily that widely available. Brand recognition, especially for California, is key. It’s not just about branding though; they’re all great wines and Orin Swift, in particular, has a great story to it. These are your quintessential, unashamedly bold California wines, with even bolder labels. You can’t miss them; they occupy a unique place in the range and they spark conversation.
Are there advantages of working with a major wine business like E& J Gallo Winery?
Of course. They have a big reach and plenty of means with which to market their wines. All we need to do is help them with their UK distribution to make it easier for customers to order their wines in the UK and have it delivered 24 hours later. They’ve also been very helpful in terms of providing POS to create added value for their brands as and when we need it.
What’s next for the retail business overall?
On the immediate horizon is to keep our fingers crossed for another strong Christmas. Obviously, we are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, but, so far, we’re on track for another good year. These are factors that are completely out of our control though, so we’re more focussed on improving how we engage with our customers. We are working on bringing back events – we held an Orin Swift tasting at the end of September – and we just need to mix up our marketing and social media to better understand what our customers respond best to.
Anything else to say?
It’s the cliché of all clichés, but, keep calm and carry on.
- You can find our more about the Secret Bottle Shop at its website here.
- E&J Gallo Winery is a partner supplier to The Buyer. Find out more here.