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Commercial wine brands can work in independents

Published:  22 May, 2012

Commercial brands do have a place in independent merchants - but only if the quality stacks up and prices are competitive.

That's the view of a panel of independent merchants, speaking at the LIWF conference yesterday, in a session chaired by writer and producer Robert Joseph.

"We're open to listing wines that we think justify their place - I'm not about to denigrate brands," said Hal Wilson, managing director of Cambridge Wine Merchants.

But he added that he was keen to make suppliers and producers understand that "we're not just here to be sold to at a high price", rather that it wants a level playing field with supermarkets. Cambridge Wine Merchants runs four retail outlets, and a further four under franchise.

Julia Jenkins, who runs Flagship Wines, said: "I tend to avoid overlap and diverge completely from supermarkets. But if it's good I'd stock it - the key point for me is that it's got to be competitive. If it's £2 cheaper in a Waitrose down the road then all my wines look expensive to the customer."

Wilson said that independent wine retailers are now "in a new landscape" and that he would like to think "there's room for more progressive merchants to grow" their estates. But he said that keeping the infrastructure light was key, given this is a "low margin business", as well as "encouraging branch managers to be entrepreneurial".

Charlie Young of Vinoteca, which runs three sites, said the independent model was "scaleable - but it is hard work".

Paul Schaafsma, European general manager at Australian Vintage, said the firm manages to work with both independents and supermarkets by having two different ranges. "Our Nepenthe and Tempus Two is for on-trade and indies - not supermarkets." However when it comes to developing new products, Schaafsma said having "critical mass" was important.

Wilson said that the increase in independent buying groups "can grow decent volumes too".

Plantagenet's Tony Cloke said using major retailers was no the only way to create a brand. He said his firm built its business in the UK over 20 years, but had only started working with supermarkets in the last few "when they cam to us". In order to service both channels it offers different labels. "We're a small winery so it [brand building through independents] certainly can be done," he said.