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Looking ahead: David Gleave MW, managing director, Liberty Wines

Published:  19 December, 2017

With the all-important Christmas trading period underway - and hopefully turning passion into profit for the UK’s wine and spirits operators - we at Harpers are looking ahead past New Year to see what’s in store for the trade in 2018.

We continue our series with insights from Liberty Wines founder and MD David Gleave MW.

What were the highs for you and your business in 2017?

Celebrating our 20th Anniversary allowed us to pause for a moment to take stock, then to look forward to the future. When we started Liberty Wines with a team of four, we had 40 producers, 60% of whom were Italian. Now the team has grown to 150 with over 330 producers from all corners of the world, but the customer-focused ethos and commitment to quality remains the same. Adapting to the challenges of the last 20 years has given us confidence that we will continue to thrive.

Adding breadth and depth to our Portuguese portfolio this year has also been a fascinating voyage of discovery. Indigenous varieties in the hands of the best producers who combine tradition with modern winemaking to produce world-class wines has always been a key part of our buying philosophy. The similarities with Italy in this regard make top Portuguese wines a perfect fit for our portfolio.

To be recognised as Merchant of the Year at the International Wine Challenge was another highlight, of course.

What were the most significant things that happened or issues and trends that occurred in 2017?

Small harvests around the world in 2017 will have a significant effect on the industry this year and next. This is especially true in Italy where the 2017 vintage is 28% - or 2 billion bottles – down on 2016. The introduction of new legislation regarding the move from IGT to DOC delle Venezie for Pinot Grigio will take a lot of poor quality Pinot Grigio out of the market. However, the lower yields will put additional pressure on volumes available. Our long-established grower relationships, established through the co-operatives, mean we are in a position to minimise the impact on our customers.

What trends do you predict for 2018?

We expect customers to place even more focus on training and development for their staff. Having educated staff is a no-brainer – any investment is easily recouped through increased sales and happier customers – but in 2018, staff recruitment and retention will be a challenge, especially for our top on-trade customers, so investment in benefits such as training will be crucial to building a lasting culture. Over the last few years, we’ve invested heavily in our education team and can now run tailored programs for our customers, from vocational front of house training to formal WSET qualifications.

What are the biggest challenges facing the trade in 2018?

The economic situation is inescapable. With inflation rising at a faster rate than wages, personal debt high and the housing market stagnant, it is likely the consumer will have less money to spend next year. When set against rising wine prices due to small harvests and weak exchange rates, many consumers are reluctant or unable to spend more. However, this is not unique to any one company. We feel strongly that the quality of our producers, the breadth of our portfolio, and the strength of our team mean we are in the best position possible to deal with these challenges.

What are likely to be the biggest opportunities for the trade in 2018?

Customer focus and business efficiency are essential to weathering the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities ahead. Funnily enough, given the difficult economic situation, we are seeing growth at the premium end of the market. Better informed and more selective consumers are choosing a wider range of higher priced wines in the on-trade. As volume shrinks, value is expanding.

Who are the people, companies or retailers to watch in 2018?

The new, specialist distribution companies entering the market, such as those at the recent ‘Out the Box’ Young Wine Importers tasting, are very healthy for the future of the trade. Rising stars challenge more established companies and provoke change for the better.

What, for you, would make for a perfect Christmas?

A stable exchange rate and a magnum of Barolo.

New Year's resolution?

Drink more of the Portuguese red Alfrocheiro – the most exciting variety I’ve discovered this year.