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Published:  23 July, 2008

Johnny Wheeler, Managing director, Lay & Wheeler International Wine Merchants Interview: Josie Butchart

Did you always intend to join the family business? We are the second or third oldest fine wine merchant in family ownership, which is a fairly unique situation, and I was encouraged to join the business by my father, who is still chairman. But I did one or two other things first: I went to Australia at a time when Australian wine was just taking off, and one of the jewels of my time there was getting to know the Henschkes and becoming their agent.

Is that why your Australian portfolio is so strong? Exactly. Traditionally we were very much Bordeaux and Burgundy folk. Old World. It is still very important to us, but I spent a lot of time in Australia developing our relationships and we were one of the first independent merchant shippers to take Australia - and subsequently New Zealand - seriously. We were also the first UK company to buy a share in a vineyard in New Zealand: we now jointly own the Clayvin Vineyard with the Fromm Winery and make 6,000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir each year.

What does vineyard ownership bring to your business? Firstly, as a private company we can do what we like! But also - I think I can say this only half jokingly - when you are the fifth generation in a family business, and you have the opportunity to acquire one of New Zealand's best vineyards, and you work with your father, it's a good thing to do, particularly if he's keen to spend a lot of time in New Zealand! He is often out there running things and I can get on with running the business here. It has worked very well. We've also learnt a lot about viticulture and winemaking and have become specialists in the New Zealand wine industry. It's been very popular with our producers because we've become more informed, as a company, about the skill and art of winemaking.

What is the next step for New Zealand wines in the UK market? I think New Zealand has fantastic potential as a quality-wine producing country, and also as a producer of significant quantities of mid-price wines. Above all, the wines are very elegant. My wife is French and all the French people I know think New Zealand is the star of the New World. Brand Australia has been developed but brand New Zealand is still very niche.

Will New Zealand ultimately out-perform Australia on quality? It will always be niche compared to Australia, but I think New Zealand, for white wines and Pinot Noir, will certainly be better than Australia, although Australia will continue to make great strides and outstanding red wines. Henschke never makes a bad wine: they produce amazing whites and sublime reds and are fantastic at Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. There is too much Australian Chardonnay about, though, and it is all too similar.

Are sales of Australian Chardonnay starting to drop? Yes. It is still popular but the market has been flooded and that's working against it.

What is taking the place of Aussie Chardonnay for your customers? France is fighting back and at that price point there is a lot of interest in the south of France and Languedoc-Roussillon. There's also an increasing interest in the crisp, fresh styles from the Loire Valley, as well as wines from Burgundy and the Mconnais. I think the New World has done a great job, but France's time will come again.

Do your customers realise that the Mconnais produces Chardonnay? Increasingly. We think that wine knowledge is improving all the time and we are very excited about this. In the last ten years there has been an enormous surge in interest in our market. I recognise that in the big world out there there is a big push for brands and the mass market, but generally our customers are becoming much more interested and discerning and are trading up and trying better wines.

What are your personal wine passions? Burgundy - I love both white and red. I'm passionate about New Zealand, and Champagne, always Champagne. My wife's family produce Champagne, so I am fortunate to have an excuse to open a bottle fairly often.

What are your long-term plans? The market has changed enormously and it is incredibly competitive - you have to move with the times. But in moving forward you mustn't throw the baby out with the bath water. You must find your point of difference. It's very important to be clear about your market and understand your customer well. We are working very hard at attracting new customers.