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Looking ahead: James Hocking, director of wine, The Vineyard Cellars

Published:  30 August, 2017

With the autumn tasting season soon upon us, as the trade prepares for the run up to the all-important Christmas trading period, Harpers is running a web series asking leading voices in the trade what trends and challenges they’re expecting to face in the latter half of 2017.

We continue with James Hocking, director of wine, The Vineyard Cellars

How has the first half of 2017 been compared to the same period in 2016?

In terms of sales, we are well ahead of where we were this time last year.  We are having a strong year with Californian wine. In May, which was when we held the Golden State Tasting and released the latest vintages of Peter Michael Winery, we saw a significant increase in high end sales and more trade interest. This time last year, Brexit had only recently become a reality, and whilst the uncertainty is still with us, it seems to be having less impact.

What, currently, are the biggest challenges for the trade?

Being a Californian specialist, we have the uncertainty of Trump, alongside that of Brexit.  Sales haven’t been noticeably adversely affected so far – in fact the opposite – but we could be seeing Californian wineries start to put prices up in the near future, and this could be a worry. However, we have completed our main purchases this year and have no need to buy more stock so can use the remainder of this year to be more streamlined.

Taking current trading conditions into account, what’s your strategy for the meeting those challenges during the second half of the year?

We have a ‘leaner and fitter’ approach to the rest of the year, with plenty of stock in situ. In general, we are not particularly motivated by seasonal buying habits and Christmas is not usually our busiest period. Our ‘blueprint’ customer has a high net worth, often with a cellar and reacts to specific winery releases and offers. Of course, we sell to the trade too and September and October will see us busy with our independent and smart wine shops, with October and November busier for us with the restaurant side of our business.

We will be showing 50 wines at the forthcoming California Wine Annual Tasting on 27 September, including a selection of our top cuvées from Peter Michael Winery, Rudd and Melville, amongst others. This tasting is very important for us as it’s a great opportunity to meet those unable to make our May tasting, and to show wines released since then. It is also well-timed to take advantage of Christmas opportunities.

And where do the opportunities lie?

There seems to be an insatiable demand for the best Californian wines.  Some customers have doubled their sales with us this year and in some cases, we are unable to meet the demand for our top wineries.

Specifically, what will the focus be on with regard to your portfolio?

Our focus remains high end; the first things that sell for us are our top wines. We sold out of Scarecrow, which retails at up to £800 a bottle, in a matter of days after the Golden State Tasting. There is a level of customer out there that is just not that price sensitive. The most challenging wines for us to sell are the unknown, but very good wines retailing around £40 a bottle.

Any trends that you anticipate?

For us, the continued demand for high end Californian wine.  We are also seeing demand for wineries in less known regions. For example, we took on Melville Winery from Santa Barbara – our first winery from this region – in the spring and sold out in weeks. We are also seeing the increased interest in California in general, as a result of the efforts of the team at the Californian Wine Institute.

Which channels are likely to perform best and which be under the greatest stress and why?

We have seen strong growth from the independent wine merchants and brokers. The restaurant sector has been harder, but is still buoyant.

How optimistic are you – will business for the drinks trade be better or worse between now and 1 Jan 2018 compared with last year?

If the last few months are anything to go by, we should be optimistic.  Uncertainty over Trump and Brexit is likely to remain but from our point of view, the fact that we are leaner and fitter than ever and for the short term at least, protected from currency fluctuations, is very much in our favour.

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