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Friday Read: Talking hard Graft with Nik Darlington and David Knott

Published:  01 August, 2019

A similar philosophy has brought Red Squirrel and the Knotted Vine into a new chapter for both businesses. Jo Gilbert caught up with the trade’s latest power duo

So, Graft - great name by the way. Let’s hear how the merger came about.

ND: The two companies have always moved in similar circles and attended the same events. I think it was Out of the Box in 2014 that I first met David. Red Squirrel was fairly new at that point, and I wanted to get involved and learn from people like him. In the past two to three years we’ve joked on and off about working together. Then at the end of last year, we decided to go for it.

DK: For me, the Red Squirrel team had a better structure, whereas I’ve been doing things by myself for the most part. I’ve had admin and sales people dipping in and out, but it’s restricted our aspirations. Red Squirrel’s spread is lot broader. They’ve got a better history of being accessible in and out of London through a lot of promotional tastings and marketing.

ND: We’ve never had someone on the ground in London to the extent David has. He had reps in Farringdon and Shoreditch, whereas we liked getting out of London. That’s where we were seen as exotic and different – and there’s a lot of that in London already.

How’s it going to work day to day?

DK: Sales-wise, I’m going to stay within my stomping ground of London. I’ll also be looking after buying as a whole with Miranda Fong. And Nik will be looking after PR, marketing and out-of-London sales.

And the portfolio?

DK: It will stay between 300 and 400 wines. We’re in a really nice position in that we’re not playing catch-up with bigger portfolios or held to market trends. Our customers appreciate that our producers can be new and unknown, and I think people like the restraint in our portfolio. Something I really believe in is braveness. We’re being brave with our choices and hopefully that’s reflected in the glass.

ND: We’ve both found over the last few years that we have core set of wines and beyond that, interesting things that come and go. In South Africa, we had a producer which made 1,000 bottles last year and 40 litres the years before. These are the kind of producers we’re dealing with.

DK: I think sometimes there’s a nice message in that there isn’t an infinite supply. Every year lost as many wines as we’ve added, so we don’t have a sprawling list. The idea is to keep it lean and relevant.

ND: The intention is to have no duplication at all. One of the joys of working together is that we can combine costs which are always going to bear down more on small company of eight people.

Only eight? So you’re still going to be quite a small operation?

ND: I think there was the perception that we were bigger than we were. We can’t offer trips around world to all our customers, or have a sales rep in every city. But we both believe being small doesn’t have to be at the expense of customer service. We can turn up to turn up to tastings, offer delivery flexibility and answer emails on time. The mindset hasn’t changed, just that our ability to deliver on these things has improved.

When you look back on this moment, what do you hope you will have achieved?

ND: To put together a comprehensive portfolio that enables the team to give each wine the attention it deserves. The advantage for winemakers is they’re not going to get lost in a sea of producers.

DK: The whole reason I started the Knotted Vine was to bring in wines I love. The objective was always to offer the same level of service as a larger supplier, but wrapping it around small production and minimal intervention wines. It’s been an odd situation as a small business with a small portfolio to constantly come up against Alliance, Enotria and Liberty. They’re always the people you’re competing against. It’s quite flattering when people put us in the same group, but we’re not the same.

On an individual level, what will each of you bring to the partnership?

DK: We have a shared philosophy, but our experience in the wine trade is quite different. I’m not very good at marketing and promotion. The Knotted Vine has had a quitter existence, and I was always a bit envious of how Red Squirrel was able to harness their success and communicate to people. From the figures side, Red Squirrel has had a great presence outside London, and had found success by getting good people on board. My history has largely been buying. That’s what I love.

ND: My background in media, journalism and politics meant I was used to shouting from rafters about these things. Red Squirrel started out as an entirely consumer-focused business talking to the general public. Out was only three years in, in 2015, that we realised our main market was the trade.

But there’s no territorial aspects of what we like to do or what we’re are good at. We’re both quite self-aware about who is good at what, and I’d find it very difficult to find someone else in industry that I could say that about.