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Looking Ahead: James Hocking, founder, James Hocking Wine

Published:  29 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 James Hocking, founder, James Hocking Wine

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

I set up James Hocking Wine in early 2019, so don’t have a like for like comparison. However, the first half of 2018 at The Vineyard Cellars – where I was wine director at the time – was very buoyant with a high demand for top end Californian wine.

The first half of 2019 has been extremely positive for us. The UK has lost none of its zest for high end California and I have opened a lot of new accounts with many enquiries from both private individuals and the trade.

What were the highs and lows for James Hocking Wine in the first six months of 2019?

In terms of lows, the exchange rate has been terrible, due to the continued political uncertainty. The dollar has dropped below 1.2 and by many accounts it will go lower; parity with the pound is a distinct possibility, before the situation improves. It is very likely I – and the rest of the trade – will need to review pricing again in the autumn.

The high for me was setting up James Hocking Wine. We haven’t done any aggressive marketing but have had overwhelming support from the trade and beyond, including customers who have followed me for many years and now to the new company.

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

The biggest challenges are the political uncertainty of Brexit, the speculation around a possible Corbyn government and the continued weakening of the pound. The high street retailers are facing an extremely tough time, which makes it harder for suppliers. We are fortunate, in that most of our trade is with high net worth individuals both directly and indirectly, and they seem to be more resilient to price changes and also more streetwise about currency fluctuations.

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?

Everyone is expecting the pound to crash on 1st November – deal or no deal – but I think we will see a gradual and continued weakening from now onwards before that happens, so that is my immediate concern.

In terms of logistics preparations, we don’t foresee the same shipping issues as many of our wine trade colleagues have, in that we don’t ship from Europe, so won’t be needing to stockpile. Anyone shipping from say, Chateauneuf du Pape or a Prosecco producer, is likely to have issues. Of course, we don’t know how Trump will behave when it comes to a trade deal with the US, but we are hoping for a positive outcome on this.

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?

Our next shipment – in time for the Christmas trading period – will be top end California wines. These will be small parcels of wines which we know there is demand for. We have just taken on the agency for Corra and Rewa – two of Napa’s finest Cabernet producers – and these are the sort of wines that offer something different and highly desirable, ideal for this time of year.

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

We want to be considered the UK’s best wine merchant for hard to get Californian wines. We will continue to specialise in quality, boutique producers making 100’s of cases, which represent the best from the region. We will continue to offer great by the glass Californian offerings too at more affordable price points.

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

Canned wine was tipped to be a key trend for 2019 and onwards. There have been a number of launches earlier this year, including Larkan, from Larkin - a high end Napa producer – which we are importing. I would like to see the category a little bigger with greater consumer buy-in moving forward. I think canned wine is currently at the point where screwcaps were 15 or 20 years ago.

I also think New World sparkling wine will increase their market share; a possible repercussion of Brexit, with Champagne and Prosecco sales likely to be affected. The likes of New Zealand’s Pelorus and Napa’s Schramsberg could see a positive impact on sales.