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Looking ahead: Simon Robinson, chairman of Wine GB and owner of Hattingley Valley

Published:  19 August, 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 Simon Robinson, chairman of Wine GB and owner of Hattingley Valley

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

It has been another very positive year so far – sales of finished wine increased significantly and in the vineyard we avoided any issues with frost or rain at flowering so we are currently anticipating another big harvest. From the perspective of the whole industry we think our experience at Hattingley is pretty reflective of what others are experiencing.

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

Our highs at HV included another successful event at Taste of London, which coincided with being selected as the sparkling wine to be offered by British Airways in their First Class cabins as part of their centenary celebrations. I am glad to say we have not so far had too many lows so far but maybe there is one on the way I don’t know about yet!

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

I would say probably 1) enhancing yield in the vineyards and above all trying to achieve consistency in yield; 2) ensuring there is sufficient winemaking capacity for the volume of grapes which will eventually emerge from the plantings of recent years 3) ensuring there is a market for all our finished wines either in the UK or overseas and 4) financing growth of the businesses by finding a source of stock finance – at present the banks do not really understand our needs or if they do have not managed to create useful financial products for us and 5) achieving a level of long term profitability – this is coming fast but quite a lot of businesses are still in the growth phase and continue to absorb capital.

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?

At Hattingley Valley, we have been prepared for no-deal for many months now and it is unlikely to be negative in its impact overall; indeed if anything it will probably be positive for us. Most of our exports (in common with the rest of the industry I believe) are to countries outside the EU anyway and if sterling falls as a result of no-deal, it will make champagne and other sparkling wines more expensive here in the UK and make our exports appear cheaper. The only real concern was the availability of labour but the government appears to have developed a scheme which mitigates that issue. We are probably more concerned by a bad deal emerging if it gave the EU too much control over what we can do here with regards to vineyard planting/maintenanceetc

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?

Basically “more of the same”. Current trading conditions for UK wine producers remain good and the harvest looks as if it will be a good one (although that can change of course!). But we will be promoting our wine through various channels and attending the usual festivals. To be honest, harvest timing (and thus demand on resources) always limits our options a bit compared to our overseas competitors but so far we look forward to the future with confidence. I always say that the English wine industry lives slightly in a parallel universe and that remains the case today

That said, obviously the latter half of the year is a critical trading time, which is why WineGB has moved its annual trade and press tasting to September 4th this year, allowing our producers to showcase their wines to the trade in the run up to the ever-important Christmas period, and early planning of their 2020 lists.

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

Continued growth in English wine – it is really now a given that any self-respecting bar, restaurant or hotel must include an English wine (indeed really now more than one) on its list and offer it by the glass as well. Lower alcohol wines and more interest in the environmental issues are also prevalent but English wine can hold its head pretty high in that respect I think.

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

If I knew the answer to this one I would patent it now!

More seriously, my real dream would be for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to adopt the cellar door relief scheme proposed by Wine GB. It would give a substantial boost to the creation of cellar door facilities and hence tourism in the UK and assist the growth of the smaller vineyards in particular. Best of all it would cost the Treasury very little (if anything) on a net basis as wine sales grew fast (so more VAT) and tourism revenues expanded (which would also inevitably boost the tax take through VAT, increased employment and thus income tax and NICs).

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

Long hot days – 25 degrees or more – every day until the end of October and no humidity nor much rain. And absolutely no hail! Ah well, one can dream…….