Hawkins Bros. Fine English Wines’ James Hawkins reflects on his career as a wine merchant.
Favourite children’s book?
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are so horrible, the insects are so weird and wonderful, and the journey is quite fantastic.
What was the first English wine you tasted?
Nutbourne’s Nutty Brut, 2010 and I was blown away. I was hooked and I wanted more. The industry has doubled in size since I came into it 4 years ago. We’ve learnt how to make wine in challenging conditions and it’s great to see more sparkling producers making NV wines now.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Banana porridge. One banana zoomed up in milk and used to make the porridge, with half a teaspoon of peanut butter added at the end – delicious!
What is your favourite grape variety and why?
Chardonnay, particularly in a lean, crisp, appley English sparkling blanc de blancs.
Why did you choose to stock English wine exclusively?
The quality of English wine is so good now that it was an easy decision. We wanted to let everyone know just how good it really is. We always have at least one bottle open to taste and have frequent ‘meet the winemaker’ tastings in the courtyard at the shop.
What’s your favourite colour? Red, White or Rosé?
Orange is my favourite colour, like our logo, but for wine if pushed it would have to be red. I love the amazing range and variety of flavours and textures found in red wines. My current favourite is the Litmus’ Red Pinot, 2014 with its wonderful earthy spiciness.
What is your favourite part of finding new English wine suppliers?
Meeting new people and tasting the wines. English winemakers are a gifted, passionate, intelligent bunch. They have a lot of different ideas about how to make wine but they are all dedicated to making the best wine that they can and are rightly proud of the results.
What is the most memorable wine you have tasted?
For me it has to be our own Hawkins Bros Brut Reserve, 2013, a classic cuvée made for us at Greyfriars. It was a dream come true to have a wine made to our specification and proudly bearing our name.
What is the most challenging part of finding new English wine suppliers?
There are now so many great wines out there deciding which ones to choose is becoming harder. Despite our size we still manage to pack in wines from 33 different producers.
Shelf appeal or stories and accolades – what do you think helps sell more wine?
Having a label and look that stands out from the crowded shelf makes a big difference. If given a choice the customer always goes for the bottle that catches their eye. Wiston Estate’s colourful labels on black bottles and Hoffmann & Rathbone’s gold painted bacchanalian scene on their bottles are two great examples that always seem to get more attention. Award stickers on bottles can help too.
Corks or screwcaps?
Screw caps are now so good these days and consumers are so used to seeing them that it makes little difference. Although there is still the perception that better quality wines will have a cork.
How can engaging with merchants and retailers help increase sales of English wines?
Any news from vineyards is always helpful in telling their story, awards won, new releases, and sample bottles always make things easier. Having regular tastings at the shop is the best way to sell. Meeting and engaging with the winemakers, putting a face on the product, so the customer can make an informed decision – people buy what they try.
Who would you invite to a dinner party, dead or alive?
My friends and relatives who are no longer with us, it would be good to see them again.
What wine would you take to that dinner party?
All English wines, and definitely our Hawkins Bros Brut Reserve to show off. I think they would all be so proud and amazed.
How can engaging with the public help increase sales of English wines?
It’s all about giving each customer individual attention, listening to them and finding out what it is they want. We also host private and corporate tastings in our shop, in people’s houses and boardrooms. In the shop we have a table round which we can comfortably fit 14.
How do you approach English wine ‘virgins’?
I usually ask them what it is they like and try to find something similar to start off with. I also encourage them to taste whatever it is I have open at the time and that’s normally what they end up buying.
How can producers better position themselves in a competitive market?
We all know that we can’t make cheap wine in this country and the common perception is that English wines are expensive. So, anything a producer can do to add value to their product with eye-catching or innovative branding or getting their story across is good. There is however no substitute for meeting the customer and getting them to taste.
In store or online?
We have noticed a gradual increase in online sales as more people become knowledgeable about English wines, but for most consumers English wines are still relatively unknown and they really do need to have their fears and prejudices allayed by tasting. The proof of the wine is in the sipping!
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Learn about wine, plant some vines, and believe.