What was the first English/Welsh wine you tasted?

Sorry to be so predictable, but it was Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvee, to celebrate moving to London nearly 10 years ago.

How many English/Welsh wines do Waitrose now stock and are you planning to grow this range over the next 12 months? 

Waitrose and Partners is proud to stock the largest range of English and Welsh wines of any multiple retailer, with 101 wines from 48 producers based in more than 20 counties, from Derbyshire to Cornwall. We already have a comprehensive range, but I have five new wines launching this May/June and there is opportunity to introduce further new lines in store this year.

What is your favourite part of finding new English/Welsh wine suppliers?

Despite its meteoric rise in popularity, the English and Welsh wine industry is still very much emerging. This gives me the opportunity to work with truly brand new producers who have never been on shelves before. It’s one of the most exciting parts of my job and a huge privilege too.

What is the most challenging part of finding new suppliers?

Waitrose and Partners has a high level of expectation around technical standards to ensure transparency in product safety. Sometimes new producers are not set up to manage this, but we provide a self assessment questionnaire to give all prospective producers a sense of what is needed to supply Waitrose. For most retailers of our size, the biggest challenge would probably be in finding sufficient volume, but luckily due to our local and regional focus, we don’t have that problem.

When it comes to new listings, how much decision making comes down to figures and sales forecasts? 

How the wines are forecast to perform is important, but before I get to the commercials it’s looking for wines which address a gap in the range – in terms of county or region represented, or a particular wine type or style. Most importantly, they have to inspire me with their quality, packaging and story.

What is your favourite grape variety and why?

Chenin Blanc. It is an absolutely thrilling variety and has so many expressions and styles. I am also responsible for buying wines from South Africa and the Loire which might explain my love affair with Chenin.

How does the regional store focus benefit smaller producers? 

Our local and regional focus means that a producer can supply Waitrose even if their volumes are quite small. We are hugely lucky to work with Davenport Vineyards, for example, but Will’s volume is such that at present he only supplies the one local Waitrose store in Crowborough. Similarly, we work with the lovely team behind Black Dog Hill Vineyard and list the wine on Waitrose Cellar only. If and when capacity grows, then we can review distribution. This approach is a great route to market and in fact 70% of our range is listed in 20 local stores or fewer.

What is the most memorable wine you have tasted? 

This is always one of the hardest questions to answer as a wine lover, but I think I’ve got to say one I was partially involved in making. In 2017 I worked as part of the Rustenberg harvest in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Tasting their Chardonnay 2017 when I had pressed the grapes, and filled the barrels, was quite a moment. 

Should producers be focusing on developing the reputation of still wines? 

I think still wines are a really exciting development area for England and Wales, especially following the stunning 2018 vintage. Still wine currently accounts for about a quarter of our English and Welsh wine sales, but that’s following a couple of tough frosted vintages, so we’re sure this will grow in 2019. Still wines give customers the opportunity to enjoy English and Welsh wines for everyday occasions rather than just for celebrations.

How would you describe English / Welsh wine as a category to someone who has never come across it before? 

Dynamic, evolving, diverse, exciting, making huge leaps in terms of quality, daring, and bold.

Shelf appeal (packaging) or stories and accolades? 

In a supermarket the shelf appeal is critical, as a lot of purchasing decisions are made based on the look of the bottle. In our shops, we have a very wide range of wines from all over the world, the wine needs to stand out on the shelf to catch our customers’ attention.

How is Waitrose supporting the growth of the UK’s wine industry? 

We have supported the UK wine industry since the very early years. As well as stocking such a large and diverse range in local stores, we make 90% of this range available to our customers up and down the country via our specialist website Waitrose Cellar. In 2009 we planted our own vineyard Leckford Estate farm in Hampshire, so that we can make wonderful wine (produced at Ridgeview Estate) and to better understand the challenges of vineyard management that producers face.

How can producers engage with retailers to help increase sales of English & Welsh wines?

In-store tastings from our local and regional wine producers are a really effective way to drive sales. Squerryes, for example, do this superbly and arrange tastings directly with the seven Waitrose stores that they are listed in. You’d be surprised at how many more bottles per store they are able to sell than some of the big names. It just goes to show this level of personal contact is something our customers really welcome.

We are different and unique in the supermarket world in that we have WSET-trained beers, wines and spirits specialists in many of our stores who are able to engage with customers directly. This gives our English and Welsh producers an excellent opportunity to directly influence the people who interact with our customers, by organising vineyard visits for their local specialists or by coming into store to talk to them and the management team.

How can producers better position themselves in a competitive market?

Realistic pricing is key, especially on still wines. We have carved out an excellent, premium position on sparkling which works well, but on stills the competition is fierce. While production costs are more expensive in the UK, the wine still needs to offer value for money against gloabl counterparts. Packaging is also really important. I love that some English and Welsh producers are pioneering more modern, impactful label designs and these really stand out on shelf.

In store or online? 

In store still accounts for the vast majority of our wine sales but online is growing all the time, especially as we have a dedicated specialist wine website, Waitrose Cellar. Interestingly for English and Welsh wines, we sell a greater percentage online than for wine as a whole – which indicates that our customers are actively using Waitrose Cellar to gain much wider access to English and Welsh wine than their local store provides alone.

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

I can sum this up with a quote from Roald Dahl, which very much reflects my own entry into the wine industry three years ago: “If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.” 

Corks or screwcaps? 

There is a place for both and Waitrose customers buy into both of course. To tempt new customers into buying English and Welsh wines for the first time, screwcaps on still wines can make the product appear to be more accessible.

If you weren’t working in wine what would you be doing?

Working in a vineyard… Although my pruning skills need improvement. If that doesn’t count, I would either be working in horticulture (I previously bought plants), or lecturing in English Literature.