Richard Dennis has the kind of CV you wonder where he has managed to pack all his experiences into such a short period of time. A career that has seen him work on both sides of the trading fence – at Sainsbury’s and as a supplier and importer. He is now part of the Watermill Wines team that is working closely with major multiples and operators to source wines that can work primarily for their own label and exclusive ranges, as he explains to Richard Siddle.
The wine industry relies on the skills, know-how and networking power of businesses like Watermill Wines to bring producers, buyers and major retailers together. You can hear how it works with its partners as Richard Dennis is taking part in the One Step Beyond Rewriting The Rules of Trading webinar on March 15 (4pm-5.30pm).
Richard Dennis had quite the decision to make when he decided to join Watermill Wines last summer as its new commercial director. For he had been very much part of the startup team at Benchmark Drinks and been responsible for helping launch Kylie Minogue’s wines into the UK.
But he could also see the huge opportunities there were to use the brand, retailer and importer skills he had learnt, not just at Benchmark, but previously with Ehrmanns Wines and premium brand Della Vite, and apply them to what Watermill Wines was trying to build.
“I was confident I could come in with fresh ideas for the business,” says Dennis.
If you are not aware of Watermill Wines then you will know two of its senior management team, Lindsay Talas and Dominique Vrigneau from their days buying wine and running operations at Thierry’s Wines. Today, Watermill Wines is a team of 14 as a “UK-based technical wine agency specialising in off-trade sales”.
Some 10 years on, it is now working with most of the major supermarkets and become a key partner in sourcing and supplying wines, particularly in helping to develop and manage own label and bespoke ranges.
“Being known as a strong own label supplier has become our thing,” says Dennis and it has had its hand in a number of major lines from Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference, to Morrisons The Best, Waitrose’s Blueprint and Majestic’s Definition range.
Point of difference
In fact, well over half of its business now comes through own label projects and it is that expertise and knowledge that is giving Watermill Wines its edge and point of difference in the market, he says. “We are going through exciting times.”
A key part of that expertise – around 60% – lies in France and the huge network of contacts and producer partners that Watermill Wines works with.
But it is also looking to diversify and build its sourcing network across Europe and into the New World, particularly Argentina and Chile.
“We are also doing a lot more in Europe,” says Dennis, with strong ties in Germany and Austria. “We have got a brilliant new Sauvignon from the Mosel which is appealing to new-world Sauv drinkers. But as the climate changes around the world we are seeing forward thinking producers planting the right things and it is paying off for them.”
It has just started a new project with legendary Australian winemaker, David Honen, who is working on a new project in New Zealand.
“It is from a sought-after region of Marlborough where he is looking to source and dial-up the expression and concentration,” he explains. “We are always looking for and thinking of new things to do and he is always willing to explore different styles and ideas from a consumer point of view that is quite rare with winemakers.”
Watermill is now in a position, he says, where it can look to add more bespoke projects and work with specific producers and winemakers as well as its new product development work with the major supermarkets.
Dennis says his time at Sainsbury’s has proved invaluable in moving back to the supplier side. “That’s where I learnt the most about how the trade really works. I had previously always looked at things from a producer’s point of view,” he says. “I was really impressed by my time there. It is a very open minded place to work.”
He now hopes having worked on both sides he is well placed to second guess what the major multiple buyers are both looking for and need to help them do their jobs.
“There is a clearly a disconnect between what a producer thinks a retailer wants and what a retailer actually wants and how quickly things can fall apart. But I have also seen how effective it can be when both sides do come together well.”
10 year milestone
That’s why Watermill Wines wants to mark its 10 year milestone by shining the light on the work it does connecting producers with the right retailer partners and building businesses cases for both sides, he explains.
“That’s where our experience really comes to fruition – in bringing producers and retailers together on value-adding projects. We know that area very well and focus all our energies on that, and we do it very much as a team.”
Brands such as Terra Organica have been born out of the expertise that Watermills Wines has. A standalone brand focused on bringing good quality, affordable organic wines to the market. Where its job, it says, is to “scour the globe to find producers who share our passion for organic growing and winemaking”. It’s an approach that now sees a number of wines being listed and sold through major players including Ocado, Waitrose and Amazon.
A range of sustainably sourced organic wines that is also available, at a premium direct to consumer, covering good quality, good value wines from Italy, Spain and Argentina including a Prosecco.
“We thought the buyer and consumer were struggling to find the right quality level with organic wines and were often left disappointed by the taste and price. All these wines are sourced and benchmarked against the top wines from that area in terms of their style and expression. We are hoping to get new listings this year. If anything it was ahead of its time when it launched and it is only now we are seeing the growth in organic wines.”
That is where Watermills sourcing knowledge really comes to the fore, he adds. “We have the experience to know where to go and which producers to work with.”
Terra Organica will have its own stand at this month’s ProWein where it is exhibiting for the second time in the organics section in Hall 5 (A40-8). The brand will be unveiling a new addition to the range which is going to “reignite the interest in the range with something quite special”.
“Scalability is key and we need to source wines that we know we can grow. We now have producers approaching us to be part of it.”
Organic and sustainable farming has become even more relevant and important for producers if they are to comply with the Scope 3 requirements to work with major UK distributors, importers and retailers, adds Dennis. “These wines potentially offer a ready-made solution.”
“It one of the rare brands to be focused on organics. But it is what customers are increasingly looking for.”
It also knows by building scale for its Terra Organica wines it can be more commercially attractive as its supply costs go down and it can buy glass and order labels in bigger volumes and plan ahead more.
“The producer then knows its grapes are going to be bought at a certain price, the bottler knows it has a contract in place and the retailer has got security over its supply.”
Having spent 10 years getting to where it is, Watermills Wines is determined to keep moving and adapting to remain relevant to its producer and retailer customers. “Lockdown proved there are other markets in the world for producers to work with, and the UK is not as competitive as it once was,” he says.
It therefore needs to be constantly coming up with new ideas that work for both sides of the trading fence. “The weight of power is changing which is quite refreshing to see and it is helping to make things a bit more balanced.”
Particularly in a region such as Champagne where “growers have got the golden key at the moment,” says Dennis. “They control the volume and vineyards and have the jurisdiction who they work with. But then equally that is brilliant growth opportunity for us too. Dominique had the foresight to see this trend, and it aligned us to be invaluable to our chosen retail partner.”
It’s why brands and agencies are now very relevant to what Watermill wants to offer and hopefully it can provide access to the market, and listings that those brands and agencies have found hard to get before.
“Thanks to the close relationships we have with our customers we can offer instant opportunities for brands and wines. That is what we are focused on, that is where or experience is and as we don’t have many brands in our range they will get a lot of focus. It all comes down to connections, loyalty and trust and knowing who they can work with. That is where businesses like ours can really add value and make sense.”
- You can find out more about Watermill Wines at its website here.
- Richard Dennis will be explaining in more detail how they work and the solutions it is coming up with its retail partners as part of the ‘Rewriting the Rules of Trading’ One Step Beyond webinar taking place on March 15 4pm-5.30pm (GMT), hosted by The Buyer and Sophie Jump with the WSTA. Click here for more details and to register for free.