Michael Palij MW has been like a caged tiger for the last year chomping at the bit to get out and visit the producers across Europe that have grown to become personal friends during their time working together through Winetraders, the wine importer and distribution business he set up in 1997. The company is most associated with Italy, and Palij is widely respected as a leading voice on the country’s wine, but, as he explains to Richard Siddle, Winetraders is now taking its footprint around the world.
Winetraders has been able to use increased demand for its wines in the last year to expand its range and build on its expertise in Italian and classic European wines.
You are never quite sure when you start a conversation with any business leader in the wine industry how they are going to respond to being asked how the last year has gone for them. Covid-19 has polarised the drinks and wine sector like nothing that has come before it with big winners, and major losers on either side of the divide. But I did not have to wait long to find out which way the coin had fallen for Michel Palij MW and Winetraders’ business.
“We’ve had a really good year,” he says, quickly. “We have pivoted, kept our range fresh and done very well as a result.”
Key to that success was not having “all its eggs in one basket,” he stresses, and being able to get a consumer website up and running “straight away” after the initial lockdown in March 2020.
Prior to Covid-19, 60% of Winetraders’ business was working ex-cellars with major customers, such as Waitrose and Majestic, who would pick up wine directly from producers that Winetraders would introduce them to. “Our job was to put the two sides together,” says Palij.
The other 40% of the company’s work came through duty paid stock, where it was “bringing wine in, to wholesale out” of which 40% was going into the on-trade.
When the pandemic hit it was a case of adapting its model so that it could supply wines to whatever channel needed it most, be it direct, via wholesale or through its DTC site. It means Winetraders has been able to tread that fine balance between supplying and working with Majestic, Waitrose, The Wine Society and Laithwaites and still have a strong network and loyal support from independent wine merchants.
Whoever they work with all have one thing in common: “They are all looking at £10 plus wines, that’s where the great value for money in wine is and those are the customers best placed to look for it,” explains Palij.
Such has been the demand in the last year it has been able to widen its range and move into countries where it was not previously strong – like Chile, Australia, Portugal and even Peru. “When there is so much change happening it is a moment of real opportunity,” says Palij.
Palij’s career in wine started out in 1989, like so many others at Oddbins, where he managed a number of different key stores. In 1994 he decided to go it alone and has been working independently ever since.
It was also when he first started to put down his wine roots in Italy. “I recognised the potential there was in Italy,” he recalls. “It was an amazing time to be there. It was a real moment of change in the country. I can remember, for example, the excitement of just being in Piedmonte for the first time.”
That specialism in Italy has grown, year-by-year, ever since and Palij is just as excited about what is happening in the country and across all the regions as he was 25 plus years ago.
Palij says he is proud of the hard work he has done in Italy to uncover and discover wines and producers right across the country that had not been seen in the UK before. “We have been able to introduce so many new grape varieties from Italy to the UK,” he adds. “We have done that pioneering work.”
“We have seen the southern regions of Italy come of age recently. There are, for example, just fabulous wines coming out of Sicily and Sardinia.”
From Italy, Winetraders then sets its sights on Spain with Carlos Read, who joined the team from Moreno in 2013. Germany followed in 2014 on the back of what Palij calls one of the “worst harvests in Germany” when he was able to identify the producers that were still able to make quality wine and bring them into the portfolio.
The fact its range has only recently expanded out of Europe and into Australia and Chile is reflective of how focused and also demanding Palij and his team are about which new producers they take on.
“Our selection process is critical,” he says and any producer it brings in has to be able to compete and offer “exceptional value for money”.
He says they are willing to get “dirt under finger nails” in order to find the right producers to work with. Partners that can help them “leave the world a better place than we found it”. “We want to find people who are unaware of just how amazing they are,” he says. “We can help bring those people to market.”
He adds: “That is when I am my happiest. Finding men and women that have a vision. That are ahead of the curve. There is always a commercial element in who we work with, but hopefully we can have a positive impact on them as well.”
It is an approach he is now taking to finding off the beaten track wines from Australia and Chile. Like Kerri Thompson of KT Wines in the Clare Valley. “I have been going to Australia for over 10 years as I helped teach the WSET Diploma programme there for the Sydney Wine Academy,” he says.
He also feels the time is right for him to bring in the highly experienced and respected, Beth Willard, as buying director to help “take the business forward”. Part of her role will be to explore how they can work even closer with their existing producers by developing new wines and relationships with their customers.
“It is the first time we have had a dedicated member of the team to help with buying,” says Palij, “but feel we are in a position of strength to make that move. It will hopefully make us more competitive.”
One of Willard’s initial tasks will be to work with both customers and producers to navigate Winetraders through the extra costs and delays involved in shipping wine in from the EU following Brexit.
Palij is confident, however, that despite the extra costs producers will still want to trade in the UK and will do what they can to make sure they don’t lose their existing customer base.
The demand for their wines is certainly there, particularly from a wider range of regions, primarily in Italy and Spain.
But he is certainly not going to get distracted by looking to list wines from countries where he does not have a history, or the same level of understanding and reputation as other importers. Which is why France is a notable absentee from its portfolio.
“We don’t want to be seen as another me too importer,” he explains. “If you are going to buy our wine there has to be a reason for us to list it. We have to have been there so we can tell the producer’s story. Otherwise you end up being like a carpet salesman with just a list of wines.
“I have spent my whole life in wine learning about Italy – and still have so much to learn. Creating a portfolio with a long list of wines is not the way we work.”
He would much prefer to drive around a region like Gavi and just drop in on a producer he likes the look of and taste their wines, than go to Vinitaly and work his way through a generic Gavi tasting.
It’s why he has found the last year particularly hard not being able to travel to see his producers. “I miss my friends. I would normally go to Italy 20 times a year,” he says.
But equally he can’t see himself going back to his old way of working and will look to cut back on the travelling and use zoom meetings more. “I had not zoomed before and it is a highly efficient way of working. That said you do miss the relationship side of things.”
Looking to the future, Palij says the wine industry as a whole needs to wake up to the fact its core audience is getting smaller, and older. It needs to find more innovative and imaginative ways to make wine appealing to a wider, more diverse and younger audience.
“It’s part of what I was saying before about leaving the world in a better place,” he explains “and open up wine to people who would not normally think about drinking it.”
It leaves Palij in a philosophical mood about what role he and Winetraders can play in helping promote and support the wider wine industry. “I have been thinking during this interview what that support really looks like. I think it is a combination of doing what we love to do, but in a way that champions diversity and inclusion in the broadest sense bearing in mind how intimidating wine can be.”
- If you would like to find out more about Winetraders then click here.