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David Gleave MW: 20 years of Liberty Wines

Published:  14 June, 2017

The year is 1997.

John Major is still PM, the Spice Girls are in the charts, and Liberty Wine’s list of producers is at 40 – 60% of whom are from Italy.

The importer and distributor showed it is still sticking close to its roots at its 20th anniversary celebration in London yesterday, where it showed a strong hand in bringing quality Italian wines to the UK.

After 20 years in the business, Italy is still its top specialist area, but much else besides has changed.

The industry is not the same as it was when David Gleave MW, then fresh from his days with Enotria and Coe, began his business.

Looking back, changes extend beyond who was in the charts and at No. 10, including the quality and competitiveness in the wine business.

“Back then, all you had to do was to make good wine, as there wasn’t a huge amount of it much around,” Gleave told Harpers. “As a producer, your work finished when your product left the winery. Now, that’s when it starts.”

The same is true for Liberty.

As a wholesaler that has always strived to combine a top-notch global selection of quality producers with some of the best service in the business, it has carved a reputation for excellence in connecting the trade with producers wanting their wine to reach consumers in the UK.

Whether it’s the on- or off-trade, anywhere they can help, they will.

They have to: such is the nature of the market.

“If we don’t do it someone else will,” says Gleave. “[As a supplier] we have to be another part of [our customers'] businesses.”

Liberty well understands the needs of the on-trade.

Recent in-house statistics showed that the UK’s licensed premises saw a volume drop of two million nine-litre cases from 19.9mn to 17.7mn between April 2014 to February 2017.

Over all, value has dropped slightly, but continues to counteract the impact of falling volume sales.

One of the ways Liberty is aiming to help its customers capitalise on the premiumisation trend is through training, by putting members of staff through WSET courses and also through their Liberty Academy, which launched two years ago.

As Gleave says: “The wine market is shrinking. The average price of a wine bottle selling in the on-trade is £15.50. People are buying less but spending more. In order to get people to do that in the on-trade, you have to train.”

For indies, the service has to be equally tailored.

“Small steps” is Liberty's approach for the on-trade and independents, where one-size-fits-all no longer works.

“During the Christmas season, our guys are out every night week doing tastings for their customers,” says Gleave. “It used to be that sales people would do a tasting for whoever decided to turn up. Now, we are the ones who have to adapt.”

Celebrating the past and planning for the future was part of the ethos of yesterday’s tasting where each producer was asked to choose two wines: one which best represents them and their winery, and another which sums up where they’re headed.

While ‘uncertainty’ seems to be 2017’s buzzword, for Gleave, the one certainty for the trade is around increasing consolidation.

“The days of buying from between eight and ten different suppliers are gone. The reality remains that if you want a good wine selection, you have to go to specialists. We’re very strong in Italy, Australia, and South America. Our French portfolio is getting better. I know some people would happily give their business to one supplier. But putting two or three together is becoming more realistic.”

The tasting yesterday also showed Liberty’s increasing interest in Portugal, buoyed in particular by their partnership with Sogrape in the UK.

“It’s exciting because Portugal reminds me of Italy,” Gleave says of the distribution agreement which was finalised last year. “There are so many native grapes varieties and areas with their own specific terroir. Portugal is very regional and has tremendous potential.”

Sogrape’s Sandeman Port forms part of Gleave's optimism, in particular, tawny port, which was the fastest growing port style in the UK last year according to WSTA figures.

“Port has been button holed into the idea of vintage. People think that it’s got to be big and gutsy. But aged port, in particular, tawny, is bringing real diversity to the category. Aged tawnies are lighter, paler, with softer tannins. There’s a huge opening for tawny," Gleave concludes.