Simon Thorpe MW could not have chosen a better time to take the reins at WineGB as its new chief executive officer – other than the not so insignificant factor of being in the middle of a global pandemic. A quick look at any stat or fact about English wine and the numbers are all going up – and fast. Be it the number of total vineyards, vines being planted, or bottles being sold both in the UK and around the world, then WineGB is on a roll. So no pressure then. As this year’s English Wine Week celebrations and promotions are in full swing he sits down with Richard Siddle to set out the body’s main objectives and targets for an industry that is as diverse and varied as it has ever been, with tens of new wineries coming on board, joining the long list of trail brazing producers that have done so much to lay the foundations on which Thorpe and his team hope to build on.
Simon Thorpe MW is more than ready to move from the corporate wine business world, to one where his role is to shepherd and lead an overall industry both in the UK and around the world as head of WineGB.
There are those in business who keep their cards so close to their chest that you can meet them 10, 20 or 30 times and you don’t know them any better than you did on the first meeting. Simon Thorpe MW is not one of ‘those’. He is in fact the complete opposite, always willing to share his ideas, thoughts and views on the issues of the day, but also, crucially, seemingly far more interested in what you might have to say on any given subject.
So it is in a typically open, and self-deprecating style that he starts our conversation with: “I am learning lots of new things and having to think about a lot of new things” when it comes to taking on the chief executive officer role at WineGB.
An admission not many other ceos fresh into a job would be willing to share. But then Thorpe knows it is hardly surprising that someone who has come from the commercial, buying and selling side of the wine industry would have a lot to learn heading up essentially a generic body, come trade association representing the interests of a multitude of different sized members, and a long tail of stakeholders..
Thorpe started his new role at the end of October 2020 and has mostly been restricted to managing the operation from his home office.
“It’s been good in some ways, and bad in others,” he explains. “It has certainly allowed me to meet a lot more people over Zoom and have lots of face to face chats that way. But either way I’m loving it so far. In the past few weeks, it’s been possible to get out and about some more and it has been wonderful to meet colleagues, producers, all sorts of people in person!”
With so many stakeholders to consider, and different parts of the overall WineGB machine to keep on top of, then Thorpe has had a lot to consider. “It is about understanding the motivations,” says Thorpe, “and where and how members want us to help them. Where can we add value to their business?
Being in lockdown has also given him and the team time to do some strategic thinking that he probably would not have been able to do with the usual demands on travel and face to face meetings.
“We have been able to take stock and focus in on what are the really important areas that we should be focusing our priorities on,” he explains. “Which has been fantastic. We have now produced a set of key objectives and 5 Strategic Pillars which will guide WineGB’s activity for the coming years. It’s also hugely varied work, a lot of which I haven’t thought closely about for a long time, from viticulture, to corporate governance, sustainable winemaking, lobbying, exports and tourism.” He adds: “Our members are our customers, which is a very different dynamic to brand management.”
What has shone out bright and clear since he joined is how much “positivity” there is in the UK wine industry. “So many people want to build a good future for an industry that is still in its early days of development, particularly in terms of the structures, processes and work streams that we need to have in place,” he explains.
“It’s also when you see how brilliant this industry is as everyone is looking forward and thinking about their future strategy. There is a temptation to try to do all this as quickly as possible as this is such a growing sector and we have good wines now that are only going to get better.”
Why Thorpe? Why now?
Which very much gets to the rub of why Thorpe was chosen as WineGB’s chief executive at this point in its history. The recent success of the English wine sector, in particular, is there for all to see. Production has boomed over the last five years from just over 5m bottles produced in 2015 to 10.5m in 2019, peaking at 13.1 m in 2018.
2020 production was slightly down, by 17% on the previous year as a result of late frosts and low bunch weight. However, the planting of new vineyards continues apace, with more than 5,000 acres planted in the past five years, more than doubling the vineyard footprint in that time. Sales continue to grow, and even in the unique and extremely challenging environment of 2020 English and Welsh wine producers saw their sales increase by a highly encouraging 30%. The gap between production and sales was much closer in 2020, 8.7m bottles produced and 7.1m bottles sold.
What the sector needed was a professional from another area of the drinks industry to come in with new eyes and ability to assess what needs to be done.
“My real challenge is to be across everything, but to not get bogged down in so much of the detail,” said Thorpe. “It’s essential to concentrate on the big issues that will make a long term difference without ignoring the small ones.”
His background working at Constellation and other international wine businesses, most recently Negociants and Fells, has been very helpful in Thorpe’s first few months. “Information is power,” explains Thorpe. “If you can understand how things work, you are then more comfortable at trying to find and drive solutions or work out strategies. It has certainly made me feel more conformable.”
His role is to find the common themes and needs that everyone in the sector can get behind and those which will have the biggest positive impact in the long term, he says.
“We need to set out where the industry is going by 2025. “Clear simple, strategic guidance is really important. The best businesses I have worked for are the ones that have the greatest clarity of purpose. It’s hard to achieve when you are representing such a broad church of producers and interacting with such a large number of stakeholders,” he adds. “What we are really doing is articulating a lot of the excellent strategic thinking which has already taken place. It’s not as if we are creating something out of nothing”.
WineGB Strategic Pillars
Central to Thorpe and WineGB’s cunning plan going forward is set out in what it is calling its 5 Strategic Pillars. Here Thorpe explains what they are:
“As an industry we have worked hard to establish a reputation for the quality of the wines we produce. We must not be complacent, but must continually build on our solid base. In global terms we are still a small and very young producing nation, and we must encourage both growth but also excellence. That’s why we need to ensure we have the best possible skills and training for the ever-increasing number of people that make a living out of vineyards and wine production. We are working with Plumpton College, and others, to identify a skills framework which will look to ensure the correct level of capability is available to producers around the country, both from a production and commercial skills perspective.
“Equally it’s important for us to improve our vineyard and winery practices to create a world class industry. A new R&D working group under the stewardship of Alistair Nesbitt is already making good progress in this area,” he adds.
Thorpe also stresses the importance of its Wine GB Awards which, he says, “provides us with an opportunity to benchmark and communicate our excellence, but also, I think, for winemakers to learn and compare”. He adds: “It will be great if we are able to set up peer to peer tastings among the winemaking community at which honest and open discussions can take place about wine styles, latest trends and technologies.”
As chief executive the focus is clearly on Thorpe to set out his leadership plan, but also his style as a leader, as he explains: “I am a firm believer in aiming high. Although we are a young industry, we have the potential to be up there with the best in the world, renowned not only for our wines, but also for the way we go about our business. WineGB should be front and centre of the wine trade in the UK and we have many tools with which we can lead. Our sustainability, diversity and inclusion, communications and R&D programmes all allow us to shine as an industry and we will continue to build our reputation among trade and press. Equally, we have the ear of the politicians, and we must build on those diverse and complex relationships to convince those in power that we are a great industry worthy of their support.”
A key part of WineGB’s role is to promote and raise awareness of the industry’s wines and vineyards. All of which has come together in June with a month long period of events and activities with the WineGB Awards, Welsh Wine Week (June 4-13) and now English Wine Week that started on Jun 19 and runs through to June 27. This year we are primarily focusing on independent retailers and the press for EWW, but we are also planning tastings and activity later in the summer aimed at the on trade, which by all accounts is enjoying an unprecedented demand since re-opening. Also, we are in discussions with some of the larger supermarkets to support them in their aim to grow their English and Welsh wine sales.
It is then hosting its annual WineGB trade tasting on September 7 and is also planning “an industry celebratory event” at Vintners Hall in London in November.
“All the time, we are cajoling the press to write about our wines, and the recent coverage in national press and on social media has been extraordinary,” he says.
“As we grow as an industry it is vital that we expand our markets beyond just these shores,” stresses Thorpe. The bulk of sales will remain heavily focused on the UK, but Thorpe believes “we also have a great opportunity for sales overseas”. “There is a relatively small community of exporters thus far, but this will expand and become more important. Exporting benefits the whole of our industry: as the international travel trade reopens, we will see more visitors from overseas at our vineyards, and they will want to buy our wines when they return home. Equally there are strong markets for sizeable distribution and volume which will provide demand as our production volume grows.”
To help producers with their export plans WineGB is looking to hire a dedicated export project manager to to coordinate and drive the exporting community.
Sustainability and the role WineGB can have in helping its producers and wineries introduce more environmental measures is also key to its future strategy, which is being driven by the Sustainable Wines of Great Britain scheme which Thorpe says is already seeing “excellent” results. There are now 56 vineyards and 33 wineries signed up to the scheme, that have each passed a rigorous sustainability audit, and the first wines have been released with the SWGB logo.
Thorpe says a great deal of work is now going on to build the right “infrastructure” that will “facilitate growth of the scheme” in the years ahead. That includes a data repository to help build up information and the recruitment of Phoebe French as scheme manager, who will work closely with SWGB’s chair, Chris Foss, to support current and potential members of the scheme.
“We must look at how to bring sustainable good practice to as many of the vineyards and wineries as possible, and to stretch beyond the environment into a total holistic sustainability. This is another area where we can demonstrate leadership as an industry,” says Thorpe.
“The fifth area is perhaps the most current and front of mind,” says Thorpe. “Wine tourism in England and Wales has developed enormously over the past few years, but since lockdown restrictions have been relaxed, I have had very many conversations with members who say they are experiencing unprecedented demand.”
He adds: “Wine Tourism is now a very serious component of how people spend their spare time. As an industry we must look to ensure visitors have a great time, no matter the size or location of the place they visit. There are clusters and vineyard trails emerging and WineGB this year has produced a set of Best Practice Guidelines and a three-day conference to help guide our members. We will be coordinating, sharing excellence and experience, reaching out to national and international tourism organisations, and of course talking to the travel press to raise awareness of this exciting aspect of the industry.”
Making an impact
As we reach the end of our conversation it is inspiring to see just how much energy and enthusiasm Thorpe has for his role. He says himself he has been blown away by how far the sector has come from the days when he was at Waitrose looking to buy English wine in the early 2000s.
“There really could not be a more interesting job to do at this time,” he explains. “To be able to support an industry at this stage of its development by putting in place some of the things that need to happen strategically in order to get a common purpose is hugely exciting.”
“It’s something the industry has needed for a long time and that has been heightened by the pandemic. We need to have more opportunities for career progression and to promote more of the softer skills. So I am fully signed up as I know how I have benefited from mentors to myself in the past.”
He also says WineGB will be working with The Drinks Trust and other drinks bodies in playing its part in committing to a more diverse and inclusive drinks industry. “We need to be seen as a much more viable place for people from all backgrounds to develop a career.”
His big hope is the work he and his team are able to do through WineGB to help the domestic wine industry will, in turn, offer new work opportunities for a wider group of people.
As he says: “It’s a lovely feeling to be working in what is after all our own industry and to be able to have a real positive impact through the work you are doing. Hopefully any good decisions we take now will last a long time.”