Independent numbers continue to grow

The Wine Merchant issue 65The number of specialist independent wine merchants in the UK has hit a new high.

There are now 855 shops operated by 624 businesses, according to the latest data compiled by The Wine Merchant, a net increase of 31 premises on the figure recorded in January 2017.

That figure is below the net growth of 40 shops seen in 2016, but encouraging news for an industry which is feeling the effects of the weaker pound and faltering confidence in much of the retail sector.

Twenty-three new wine merchants appeared last year, with the rest of the growth accounted for by existing businesses opening new branches. There were a number of closures, but these were easily outnumbered by the number of openings – and for once several indies were sold as going concerns.

Although last year’s Wine Merchant reader survey found that just 28% of independents sell wine for consumption on the premises, 13 of the 23 new entrants have some form of on-premise offer, which may offer clues about the future direction of the trade generally.

Just over half of the new shops – 16 – appeared in London, while three were opened in Wales.

Analysis in the January edition of The Wine Merchant.

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Twelve unsettling wine commercials

You don’t see many TV ads for wine these days, and these examples may partly explain why.

Premier Estates Taste the Bush (2015)
An ad so bad it got banned. Whether that was deserved more for its feeble humour or the general inappropriateness is a moot point. We detect the paw-prints here of a couple of male 20-year-old interns whose brains short-circuited when they made the bush/pubic hair connection. Chortle!

Orson Welles likes Paul Masson California Champagne (Outtake)
Never work with children, animals or ageing film icons. It appears that a lubricated Orson Welles has been unwittingly parachuted onto the set of Abigail’s Party. He emits a fabulous Shakespearian wail, Brian Blessed-style, before scratching his nose and falling asleep. Cut. Take 21.

Bolla Valpolicella (1978)
Straight from the Mills & Boon school of wine commercials. When a lone “soft” woman is drinking wine made for “people who are in love” and catches the eye of a “full-bodied” moustachioed man who is also drinking wine made for “people who are in love”, it’s obvious: they fall in love. Who needs Tinder?

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Now everybody’s a gin distiller

Adnams plans to give more of its customers the chance to make their own gin in-store as it embarks on a retail expansion programme.

The service is already available at its branch in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, which is fitted with seven mini stills. Customers pay £95 to distil their own spirit and add a choice of botanicals in a process that takes two and a half hours and results in a bespoke bottle of gin.

Retail chief Neil Griffin says people are given gin and tonics to enjoy while they wait. He adds: “We’re quite keen on this customisation and personalisation trend that’s coming through.The Wine Merchant issue 63

“We give people a selection of botanicals and talk them through what each one of them potentially does. They put four or five of them into the pot still and distil it down, and you get the liquid at the end. We label it up with the name of your choice.

“It’s going really well. Customers are enjoying the experience and it’s climbing the Trip Advisor rankings in East Anglia.”

The concept is likely to be rolled out to future Adnams Cellar & Kitchen branches that are currently being scouted, though not in the pop-up that has just opened in the centre of Cambridge and will trade until the New Year.

Adnams spokesman Josh Wicks says Cambridge is a city that the company is “obviously keen to get into”. He adds: “The pop-up gives us flexibility and a bit of a foothold, and then we’ll look for something more permanent.

“It’s a busy and competitive place, but you don’t want to shy away from those places – you want to be in there.”

This article appears in the October edition of The Wine Merchant.

‘Sommeliers are the rock gods, independent merchants merely session musicians’

Our regular columnist Adeline Mangevine is tired of being put in her place …

It’s a quiet Monday afternoon and I’m “catching up” on Instagram. As I scroll through picture after picture of unicorn wines consumed over the weekend by people I don’t know, something grabs my eye. It’s a post by one of my suppliers of a group of four fresh-faced sommeliers from Michelin-starred joints standing in a vineyard on Santorini. “Awesome start to the trip!!” says the caption. “Time to taste some Assyrtiko!!!”

I am more than a little annoyed – and not just by the overuse of the exclamation mark.

I probably shift more of this producer’s Assyrtiko in a week than do all four somms combined in a month. I’ve championed it and built up a loyal following. Yet I have never been invited to visit the place where it is created. Why? Because independent wine merchants are not rock stars. We’re the uncredited session musicians. We don’t get showered in glory when we commit to buy six bottles of an obscure, skin-contact Spanish mountain wine that will impress other members of the wine trade (but will move slower than a snail wearing lead weights). We don’t get hard-to-come-by wines reserved for us (unpaid) for months on end. A suburban shop is just not as sexy as saying your wine is listed by hot new London joint The Bathing Pool or super-cool country retreat Doghouse Manor.

Yet collectively, we independent wine merchants are worth hundreds of millions. We are the alternative to supplier-squeezing multiples; we’ll take risks on unknown grapes, wines and regions; we are the people who convince consumers week in, week out to part with their hard-earned cash on a white that isn’t a Sauvignon Blanc and a red that is more than £10. But often, it feels like we’re the office juniors of the industry.

If somms are the rock gods, then wine writers are the movie stars. They’re always complaining about how few parts are available to them (for parts, read column inches) – but then act as if the nation stops in its tracks to read what they write.

Suppliers and producers swoon like fans when a well-known writer glides to their table at a tasting in the hope that these critics might write a glowing sentence about one of their wines. They’ll drop everything, including any merchant who might be tasting their wares. Instantly, we are reduced to being unpaid extras, holding empty glasses aloft.

I will be kinder to wine writers who are also MWs – and MWs in general. Same goes for Master Sommeliers. They’ve had to pass all those big, nasty exams to get to a level of expertise. I am happy to play house doctor to their consultant surgeon.

As for the buyers from the multiples and behemoth distributors, I see them as government ministers. Lots of attention is paid to what they say and do, much of it irrelevant to a major part of the industry: independent wine merchants.

This article appears in the June edition of The Wine Merchant.

Top 100 Trophy winners revealed

Diversity is theme of this year’s Wine Merchant Top 100, as the judges in the fifth edition of the annual competition for independent-only wines gives places and trophies to an unprecedented range of suppliers, countries and styles.

A total of 14 countries share the spoils, including first-ever appearances from Croatia and Slovenia and a strong showing from Greece, which provides a trio of high-scoring whites including the Best White Trophy for Ktima Gerovassiliou Malgaousia, Macedonia 2016, imported by the 2017 competition’s leading supplier, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines.

France is well out in front, however, providing a quarter of the Top 100, and trophies for Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Champagne NV (Best Sparkling Trophy; Hatch Mansfield) and Les Domaines Paul Mas Côte Mas Frisante NV (Best Value Sparkling Trophy).

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Spain is second with 13 Top 100 places plus three trophies: Best Value Red Trophy, Familia Castaño Hecula Monastrell, Yecla 2015 (£9.99, Liberty Wines); Best Fortified & Dessert Trophy, Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado NV (£35.55, Boutinot); and Best Value Fortified Trophy, Equipo Navazos I Think Manzanilla En Rama 2017 (£9.95, Alliance Wine).

The remaining trophies go to Argentina’s Sottano Judas, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, 2014 (£49.99, Vindependents), awarded Best Red Trophy, and Man Family Vineyards Free-Run Steen Chenin Blanc, Coastal 2016 (£6.59, Enotria & Coe), Best Value White Trophy.

Among suppliers, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines is comfortably the year’s star performer, with 19 entries in the Top 100, followed by Les Grands Chais de France (nine entries), and Enotria & Coe (seven).

The only competition for wines aimed exclusively at the UK’s independent wine merchants, The Wine Merchant Top 100 2017 was as ever judged by a diverse panel of 18 independents from around the country, chaired by David Williams, wine correspondent of The Observer.

“With almost 700 wines, this was the best year yet for entries, and the final list – including the 117 Highly Commended wines that just missed out on a place in the Top 100 – is a brilliant reflection of the quality and variety on offer in the UK’s independent trade,” says Williams.

• All winners will be revealed and showcased on The Wine Merchant’s stand at the London Wine Fair and featured in a supplement published with the magazine in July.