In conversation… with James and Simon Hawkins

The specialist English wine shop, Hawkins Bros Fine English Wine was opened in December 2016, by brothers James and Simon Hawkins. Sales have been spectacular – as has the enthusiasm for buying English and buying local. So much so that the shop in the courtyard at Secrett’s Farm Shop, near Godalming in Surrey, is now bursting at its seams – so it is time to expand and open another three premises. 

What did you do before opening the shop?

We have always been involved with alcohol one way or another. Our parents owned and ran pubs, we have run several pubs together, and also worked in the hospitality sector. I particularly love the ‘showmanship’ and performance aspect of hospitality – a perfect skill for giving talks and tastings,” James smiled. 

James’ interest in English wine was first sparked by his neighbour who planted a vineyard in Sussex, and he was fascinated to watch it grow and develop. “The wines were made at Ridgeview and I was amazed.” Then another vineyard near me was planted – so English wine really was the zeitgeist. James then ran the Exceptional English Wine Company from 2013, so quickly realised the potential of a specialist English wine shop. 

What is different about Hawkins Bros Fine English Wine?

James and Simon focus on direct-to-consumer sales and have a wide selection of wines to choose from. They also sell a little in the trade, to local and London based restaurants. “We don’t want to be just another wine merchant, we like to get to know individual producers and they become our friends, so we are able to give our customers great advice as we are hand selling wines that we have a special relationship with. We always have a few bottles open to taste,” said James. 

“We have an online shop – fortunately. When lockdown hit, sales temporarily slumped – a worrying moment – but then the online sales suddenly took off. This year they increased by over 180%,” Simon exclaimed. “I have become very good at packing boxes, and Digby the dog tries his best to help,” James added. 

Own brand

Hawkins Bros now have their own brand – a range of award winning sparklings and stills. Grown and made locally, from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. “We approached Mike Wagstaff at Greyfriars Vineyard, who is very local to us, to ask if he would make our wines – and he said yes. We then wanted to add a Bacchus to the range, so approached Simon Woodhead at Stopham Vineyard – and he also said yes,” exclaimed James. “Our 2014 Brut Reserve vintage won a Gold Medal at the IEWA (Independent English Wine Awards) in 2019 and a Bronze at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2018 – and our Rosé Reserve sparkling won a Bronze at The International Wine Challenge 2018 – we were thrilled,” Simon commented. “In fact, the range is selling so well we are hoping to increase our production,” James added. 

Which wines are your best-sellers?

“Over the winter our best-selling wines have been all the reds. In 2018 more vineyards than usual made red still wines and we have had some fantastic Pinot Noirs. I really think there is a great future for Pinot Noir, its blends and red wines generally – and people no longer question the price – they understand. However, our challenge at the moment is rosé – we just can’t get enough.” 

“Our own brand sells well – which is a relief – but also Ambriel, Wiston, Greyfriars and Stopham are very popular,” James explained.

“I also think there is a great future for wine in cans as it opens up the market for the youngsters, the millennials. Cans are really popular with our younger customers as they suit their lifestyle and values – being recyclable and sustainable – and are cheaper than buying a bottle.” Simon added.

“Another interesting area is non-traditional fizz; they certainly have their place in the market. Customers need to know the difference – and as we hand sell, we can explain. We are waiting for some more frizzante from Albourne Estate – which was very popular – as was the Fitz charmat.

“We have witnessed such a massive increase in interest in English and Welsh wines from consumers – and the comments ‘isn’t it a joke, or isn’t it expensive’, are now outdated and just never happen anymore – people understand and are more knowledgeable about English wine,” explained James. “So many people say they have made a decision – since Brexit – to buy local and support British,” added James. 

How can producers help you sell their wines? 

“One of the most helpful ways to boost sales is to join us for tastings. Everyone likes to meet the winemaker or producer. The winemakers have been brilliant in lockdown joining us for online tastings and Instagram live events – these have been so successful, lots of fun, and a great way to talk about and promote the wines,” explained James.

“We do find that professionally designed labels and smart packaging are important – an attractive eye-catching bottle is the first to be picked up,” James added.

“We can’t wait to resume our Saturday winemaker tastings here at the shop. Hearing the vineyard and winemaking stories really helps people get involved and take ownership – they then want to buy the wine, take it to friends and explain all about it – and quite rightly show-off a bit,” Simon added.

Future plans?

“With such a dramatic growth in the industry, and new vineyard plantings we are being approached by more and more producers,” explained James. “But currently we just don’t have enough space, and this makes it very difficult. We can only stock about 40 vineyards, so try to have an evolving or rotating system. We select on taste, and try to keep local, within driving distance so that we can buy direct and collect by car. 

“So, it’s obvious we need to expand – and soon. With sales going so well we are now planning three new shops – all local – one within a delicatessen and two further concessions,” commented James.

Most recent imbibes?

“Well, we are tasting all the time, and have the choice of so many wonderful wines – and couldn’t possibly select a favourite – but the last one I sat down to drink was the delightful Chilworth rosé,” smiled James. “For me it was the wonderful Stopham Pinot Gris,” added Simon. 

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