Vitikit specialises in supplying equipment for making wine, cider, beer and spirits, together with sophisticated control equipment designed to improve results.
They say mother knows best, but in Julian Jenkins’ case it was his father-in-law who prompted him to set up the winemaking, cider and brewing equipment supply business that has since gone from strength to strength.
Julian was enjoying a successful career as a chartered surveyor working in commercial property when Chris Kempton, himself a business owner, said he should be working for himself – a comment that led to the launch of Vitikit.
The business, based near Exeter but supporting a customer base the length and breadth of the country, specialises in supplying equipment for making wine, cider, beer and spirits, together with sophisticated control equipment designed to improve results and make life easier for the winemaker or brewer.
Julian’s focus on personal service and the close relationships he has built up with leading companies including Sraml, renowned for the quality of its winemaking equipment, has ensured the company’s steady growth over the past nine years.
“Father-in-law suggested I should be ‘trading in something’, at which point I had to start thinking about what I knew, or what I was good at,” Julian recalled.
It wasn’t a difficult decision. He and his wife Kate already tended a one-acre commercial vineyard, now the stunning backdrop for Kate’s Froginwell Vineyard wedding, function and corporate events business, and Chris also had considerable experience of winemaking.
“I was also interested in brewing and in cider, something I had consumed a fair bit of while studying at Seale Hayne Agricultural College, attached to the University of Plymouth,” he laughed.
In an early display of the ‘hands-on’ approach that Julian still displays, he jumped into his car and drove around Europe, meeting suppliers, checking out the best equipment and setting up relationships with the people who would play a fundamental part in his new business.
Father-in-law Chris, who ran a successful agricultural spares business, provided advice and support but has never played a formal part in the business, which back in its early days in 2014 focused on smaller vineyards, cider makers and breweries.
“We started small – I can’t remember if I had a chair without a desk or a desk without a chair; it was one or the other – but we soon found customers were asking us if we could recommend and supply bigger and more sophisticated equipment,” Julian recalled.
“As a result of that growth, which happened within a couple of years or so, we now supply the whole range, from grape presses, elevators and destemmers through to tanks, filtration kit and bottling lines,” he said. “In a sense we have all grown together; the wine industry, our customers and our business.”
While the business has grown, many of the relationships have stood the test of time, with Enotechnica Pillan, which supplies a broad range of smaller winemaking equipment, German crossflow filtration specialists Romfil and stainless steel tank manufacturer Algor Group all heading up Vitikit’s list of top suppliers.
Another important supplier for Vitikit is Slovenian company Sraml, which Julian sees as a market leader in manufacturing equipment for wine, cider and juice making equipment. “The quality is unbeatable and the service we receive is first class,” he commented. “We rely on them for wine presses, elevators, destemmers, bottling equipment and more because we know our customers appreciate the quality of the product.”
Much of the equipment Vitikit supplies, such as crossflow filters from Romfil, work just as well for cider as for wine. There is a similar level of crossover in fermentation tanks and bottling equipment, allowing the company to supply the different markets. Increasingly it is also working with distillers making rum, whisky and gin.
Vitikit’s close relationship with Sraml also gives Julian access to Marko Benčina, an international award-winning winemaker who has a wealth of experience and knowledge and works for the Slovenian manufacturer.
“If we need advice about new equipment or a new technique that’s being talked about in the world of wine, I can put in a call to Marko and he is always happy to help. It’s a unique benefit based on our position as a Sraml supplier and it helps us provide a higher level of support to our customers,” said Julian.
The company was originally based in a small office near Exeter, but as it increasingly needed access to three-phase power to test and commission equipment, it moved back to a workshop at the Froginwell Vineyard, so named simply because on a pre-vineyard visit to the land Chris had spotted a frog in the well…
In late 2016 Julian employed Kieran Aylward, a beer and cider maker, to help with sales and the technical side of the business. “Kieran knew all about the equipment, both large and small, that outfits needed, even though most of it was out of reach of both of us in our own enterprises,” Julian explained.
Kieran, who also has a keen interest in engineering along with an impressive array of qualifications in brewing, helped drive further growth in sales and has played a big part in Vitikit’s move into selling equipment to breweries, an important part of its success today.
Another stroke of luck for Julian was meeting Joe Hopwood, an electrical engineering student at Exeter University. “He was simply too bright for words but luckily for us was working at the time for a sports retailer and came aboard because he thought we were more interesting!”
Wine and cider equipment is made in Europe, but at that time Vitikit was importing brewing equipment that was delivered from China. Julian, Kieran and Joe decided to import the kit without control panels because they felt such vital components should be manufactured and configured in this country.
“We took Joe on to provide part-time support developing the design and programming for our control panels, and he was simply brilliant at it,” Julian recalled. “We are still using the programming he developed now, although he’s moved on to a full-time post elsewhere. He was far too clever to stay working for us.”
The panels themselves are made by a local electrical engineering company called Shapter Electrical Services, which takes Joe’s basic programmes and tailors them to the individual needs of customers.
The final member of the Vitikit team is David Balde, who is based in Hungary and focuses on sales and on looking after administration as well as arranging the logistics around importing and exporting products, something that has been increasingly challenging since Brexit.
David also looks after the Vitikit website and social media. “He’s very well organised and a vital part of the business,” said Julian.
Vitikit is keen to see smaller vineyards and breweries benefit from the kind of high-tech control systems that until now have been out of reach of all but the biggest wineries, and is importing equipment that Julian sees as a “game changer” in this area.
The company is importing industry 4.0 control panels made by Australian company Fermecraft, which, its website announces, “creates automated brewing solutions for breweries, distilleries and wineries to make their processes easier, more time-efficient and more cost-effective”.
Julian explained: “The aim is to create a consistent product by looking after every aspect of cellar management via a dedicated control panel that can also be accessed remotely. It also stores the details of variables such as specific gravity, time and temperature etc in the ‘Fermecloud’, allowing the winemaker or brewer to access the data and ensure repeatability.
“Fermecraft’s original system was comprehensive enough to allow a brewhouse to run remotely, but now the company has created a smaller but equally sophisticated panel for cellar management that can do a similar job for wineries. It could be a real game changer and we are introducing it to our customer base. Being able to store the data electronically in the ‘Fermecloud’ is another big benefit.”
Vitikit is also importing a new entry level spectrometer, the Smartanalysis, designed by Italian company DNA Phone. Again, the data collected is stored in the ‘cloud’
“Smartanalysis is already proving popular and is allowing producers to carry out sophisticated analysis of variables such as acidity, sulphur, sugar levels, lactic acid, malic acid and pH in wines, beers and ciders,” pointed out Julian.
Vitikit also supplies consumables, and despite recent growth still has a close relationship with all its customers. “You can sometimes spend the best part of an hour helping to find a small replacement part for a customer that costs about a fiver, but that’s all part of the service,” he added. “It’s all about relationships, whether that’s with the suppliers or the customers.”
For more like this, sign up for the FREE Vineyard newsletter here and receive all the latest viticulture news, reviews and insight