Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

On-trade secrets: Top tips for buying for the on-trade

Published:  21 August, 2019

What are the secrets to buying wine for the on-trade? Does it differ from buying for other sectors? And what are the current trends that buyers are embracing?

We quizzed a handful of UK buyers, bar and restaurant owners to get their views on these burning questions and more, with top tips aplenty spilling out along the way.

Thor Gudmundsson is the co-owner of Wine Rooms, a brace of Parisian-style wine bars in west London. He buys wine for the business and is full of advice, including a six-point plan.

1. Select your suppliers so that between them they cover a comprehensive range of countries, regions and styles

2. Keep the supplier list tight to benefit from volume discounts (for example above 60, 100, 150 or 300 bottles)

3. Be aware of customers’ price thresholds, look for quality at keen prices

4. Most customers do not necessarily get as excited about new esoteric regions and grapes as wine geeks

5. Balance the list: something for the geeks, something for the classicists, something for Joe public

6. Try hard to resist having the list 50%+ South African!

The third point here chimes with Liberty’s MD David Gleave MW, who’s desperate to offer his customers value right across the price spectrum. “Value exists at all price levels, and we try to remember that the higher the price, the more wine – rather than duty – the consumer will be drinking,” he says.

Gleave is also big on stories and offering a list which is brought to life by the vineyards, places and people behind the wines. “We are looking for a story, a narrative that will set the wine aside from the competition, and each wine must slip down a treat,” he adds.

Known as having one of the industry’s sharpest palates and for introducing the UK to a wealth of wines from off-the-beaten-track countries and regions, Hallgarten’s Head of Buying Steve Daniel has a very straight-forward approach to buying.

“The way we work is simple; rule one, find and buy amazing wine that offers quality and value-for-money. Rule two, find a home for it.”

He tries not to pigeonhole wines when he’s looking for new additions to the portfolio, and versatility is the key. “We look for producers that can provide range of wines and labels that would be suited to all areas of the market. The key elements are ensuring you have a wine to offer a customer that tastes great, looks great and is at a price point that will suit them.”

“It’s crucial not to see the on-trade as a specific market segment,” he adds. “When I look for wines, I look for wines that will work from high-end sommelier-led restaurants in London, to gastro pub chains up and down the country, to independent wine merchants."

For these sectors of the market Daniel aims to buy wines that are not overly oaked, overly sweet and are suited to the palates of the UK consumer. “A wine with layers of minerality, and is able to provide something unique and intriguing to a list are the key drivers I look for,” he says.

As well as the juice in the bottle, the label and closure is an important consideration when buying wine to pitch at the on-trade.

“Closures are hugely important,” says Gleave. “Ask anyone working front of house and they will agree that screwcaps are by far the easiest and most efficient in terms of service. In addition, screwcaps better protect the quality of the wine and are less susceptible to spoilage, so we have long favoured them over corks.”

Roger Jones from fine dining restaurant The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, which boasts an impressive wine list managed by Jones, is firmly in the screwcap camp. “Closure is a huge consideration. Customers ask for Stelvin for reassurance.”

Daniel agrees: “When it comes to closures, we are noticing more and more restaurants favouring screwcaps on all styles of wine. This is due mainly consistency of product being served, but also to aid front-of-house teams during service. However, this again isn’t the rule for the whole trade - traditional Italian restaurants still only demand cork. Gastro-pubs love screwcaps.”

Wine Rooms uses Enomatic machines so closure is less of an issue. “Because of Enomatics and 40+ wines by the glass we can probably deal with more screwcaps without those wines looking cheap,” says Gudmundsson.

For him labels are more important as they are prominently displayed in the Enomatic dispensers and offer customers a cue when deciding which wine to go for. “Our customers are more likely to be influenced (positively or negatively) by labels because of how the wines are displayed,” he adds.

In restaurants labels are less in-your-face as not seen by the customer until the wine arrives but still ‘vitally important’ according to Gleave. “They may not prompt the initial purchase, but the reaction of the customer when the label is first presented helps shape the perception they will form,” he says. “In addition, it will help them remember the wine when they return to the restaurant.”

At Hallgarten Daniel works closely with suppliers to ensure that the label works for the UK market and in some cases for the specific market segment. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to designing a perfect label,” he says. “Dependent on the segment of the on-trade being targeted, a different label may be required to help portray the venue’s brand image, which is why it is vital producers work with importers to design a label that suits the appropriate market.”

Looking at current trends in the on-trade, Gudmundsson says that natural wines are big for his business as are skin-contact whites (“we prefer that description to orange”). Wine Rooms are also championing marginal varieties such as Cinsault, Mencia and Assyrtiko but the classics are still leading the way.

“We’ve found a greater acceptance and range of light reds, less tannic, often chill-worthy and not just Gamay,” he adds.