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Looking ahead: Nik Darlington, Graft Wines

Published:  02 September, 2019

As the first half of 2019 draws to a close, Harpers asked key trade figures to highlight the current challenges, ongoing trends and opportunities

We continue our series with insights from Nik Darlington, co-owner, Graft Wines 

How has the first half of 2019 been when compared to the same period in 2018?

Revenue is healthily up, though that growth tailed off somewhat in May and June. There was a marked blip following the Brexit that never happened and the frigid beginnings of summer didn’t help many of our customers either. Thankfully things have ticked back up again since.

What were the highs and lows for your own business in the first six months of 2019?

Planning for our merger with the Knotted Vine to create the new Graft Wine Company, has been a hugely positive experience. It’s a fantastic opportunity for both companies, and for me personally to work with someone of David’s calibre and experience.

We’ve achieved great things as Red Squirrel, the highlight of this year so far being named by Harper’s as the third best drinks supplier in the UK. I never imagined that was possible for what’s effectively a five-year-old business and a fitting coda to a pretty intense period. I am very confident this is just the launch pad to even greater things as the Graft Wine Company.

Watching the team here grow as professionals and people is always a big high for me and on an individual basis seeing people grasp opportunities and take responsibility, especially with everything going on behind the scenes, has been extremely heartwarming.

And in purely trading terms, we appointed Chris McDiarmid as our first Scottish account manager back in January and our sales in Scotland are up nearly 50% as a result.

My lowest point was the passing of Derek Smedley earlier this year. He was a friend, mentor and anchor in the trade for me for many years, and his encouragement and advice cannot be replaced.

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

One is immediate: a cliff-edge Brexit, and not necessarily in its effect on logistics but on the wider UK economy. Historians may look back on this as the most wanton act of self-harm imposed by a government since the Gold Standard. Being a largely discretionary, good-time trade, hospitality shall have to bear the brunt of the damage.

Another is existential, and concerns changing drinking habits. We need to be facing head-on the fact that people are consuming less alcohol, and accept this is actually a good thing. Look at how petrochemical giants are grasping the nettle and becoming the world’s biggest investors in research into green energy. In a similar vein, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re not part of the future.

Will you be preparing in any way for a second potential ‘no deal’ or some deal Brexit day on 31 October and, if so, how?

Yes as much as we can. I actually think there’s a silver lining to most things, and under Boris Johnson’s regime there’s an improved and genuine commitment to preparing for a messy Brexit. So in logistical terms, I believe we are in a better place than we might have been before.

And in retrospect we over-egged the pudding in terms of stockpiling in the first quarter of this year, which left us a bit exposed when the economy receded in the second quarter.

As alluded to above, my greatest concern is the impact on economic sentiment and ultimately people’s willingness to spend money.

Taking current trading conditions into account, what’s your strategy for meeting those challenges during the second half of the year, leading up to the crucial Christmas trading period?

Be lean, be nimble, and be prepared for anything. But above all else, look after one’s customers and be the best at what we do.

What will the focus be on with regard to your portfolio (and any updates) and why?

Our portfolio has grown by approx 30% in net terms by joining forces with the Knotted Vine. For the time being we have no major plans to update it further, we are all enjoying getting to grips with what I believe is now among the best wine portfolios to select from in the country.

For you, what are the most significant emerging trends in the drinks world?

I’ve said wine on tap in these interviews for the last couple of years! In a broader sense, an acceptance of different packaging styles and formats must accelerate. Lower or zero-alcohol drinks are also hugely significant. The London Craft Beer Festival this year had a section devoted to low or zero-strength beers; I’m not saying it was teeming but the fact it was there at all speaks volumes and the quality of product is getting higher and higher.

What innovations in the drinks world do you believe will have the most impact going forward?

Both of the above. For wine specifically, the innovations in packaging and how we serve wine, for example increasingly ‘fine’ wines out of a tap in increasingly high-end venues, will rapidly change perceptions on how we drink wine. The on-trade will be the drivers of this and that will feed into domestic consumption.

The lower / zero-alcohol piece seems to me inherently more challenging for wine than other drinks like beer or the flavoured ‘distillations’ moonlighting as spirits. They’re no less vital for the drinks world as a whole.