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Jerry Lockspieser: looking in the rear view mirror at 30 years in wine (part 2)

Published:  03 July, 2020

In my last post I reflected on the big societal trends that created the context I worked in as a wine entrepreneur over the last 30 years. I continue here with the big trends within the world of wine itself.

The world inside wine - the nation’s favourite drink

As reported by Harpers, a YouGov poll in 2019 found that more people had drunk wine than beer and spirits, albeit narrowly. When asked to name their favourite tipple, wine’s pre-eminence was confirmed, being even slightly further ahead of the other two.

The democratisation of wine as an everyday drink for the mass of the population that we are used to today contrasts markedly with the more restricted cultural and consumption patterns of the early 1990s. This change went hand in hand with, and was in large part caused by, the ‘Australianisation’ and ‘Americanisation’ of the consumer wine market. Fruity, easy drinking, reliably consistent wine styles, combined with varietal labelling and English language brand names, pushed aside the previously all conquering but stuffier, inconsistent, harder to drink Europeans. They too have since woken up and smelled the coffee.

The democratisation and commercialisation of wine was reflected in the wine buying of major retailers. In the early 1990s the wine department was regarded by many as a specialist subject, a world best inhabited by Masters of Wine, or at least those with a deep knowledge of wine and the wine trade. The consequence was seen in the ranges in store, with more than a smattering of wines chosen for their wine interest rather than their commercial appeal, and so too often doomed to languish unsold on the shelves.

By the turn of the millennium commercial considerations were dominant, with wine ranges based on data from consumer insight research and planograms as much as buyer predilections. The people in wine buying roles in large companies were different animals, tasked with KPIs based on commercial criteria. Profit margin, out of stocks, rate of sale and promotional support became the stuff of supplier meetings.

Wine’s journey of growth, driven by the easy drinking user-friendly style of the New World wines, has proved insufficient to keep the category buoyant. Volumes have declined in recent years as consumer attention and spending power elope to craft beer and craft gin, with Hard Seltzers threatening on the horizon.

Why has wine faltered? Perhaps in part because the taste and ease of other products is preferred, perhaps because people are drinking less alcohol, but also because wine has failed to move with the times, especially in its relationship to younger drinkers. Wine’s communication has moved on since 1990, belatedly waking up to the opportunities created by the new communications technology through social media, but all too often its engagement with drinkers resembles a power walker racing against a group of sprinters.

Retail consolidation

The first time I sold a whole container of wine to a single customer was around 1990 when August Barnett chose our sample of St Chinian as the best in their tasting. It was organic, as were all our French wines at the time, although I was told it was chosen on merit alone.

The retailer was one of many multiple retailers in the UK at the time, both booze specialists and grocers, providing ample buying points for suppliers to approach in search of wide distribution and sizeable orders. Augustus Barnett was eaten by Allied in 1993, owners of their competitor Victoria Wine, who in turn then merged with Threshers under the oddly named First Quench to create a national off licence behemoth, before that also fell. Large sized chains selling only (or primarily) booze were heading down or out at quite a pace – Peter Dominic, Unwins, Oddbins (more than once), Wine Rack and Bargain Booze, among previously buoyant names. Safeway left the supermarket arena, while the Tesco/Booker, Co-op/Nisa and the blocked Sainsbury/Asda link ups all show the drive to consolidation and fewer supplier selling points.

The mushrooming of independent retailers in the years pre Covid - often merging on and off trade business models, as well as on-line and in situ - gave great energy and flair to the wine sector, but not volume. The discounters, led by Aldi and Lidl, have taken wine share from the traditional grocers, but this feels like moving chairs around the deck. As a group the multiple grocers retain their dominance, for now at least.

Supply consolidation

Pre Covid, small and medium sized wholesale and agency suppliers still populated the UK wine market, but the trend here is also towards scale. Many of the larger agency players disappeared in this period - including Thierry’s, D&D and Stratford’s - while many smaller companies have been swallowed up or merged.

In 1990 the job of the agent or importer was to sift the wheat from the chaff. Most wines were unsuitable for the UK commercial market. Finding those that were added value for buyers, and often resulted in a listing. Now every wine is drinkable, even at the lowest prices. To succeed today means building successful brands that sell to consumers and make the required profit for retailer; or excelling at supplier added value, notably in supply chain logistics, innovation, quality control and exclusive or first-to-market opportunities.


At the beginning of this period wines from France, Italy, Spain, and Germany dominated the choice for UK consumers. By the end New World countries - and New World wine styles from Old World countries - were ruling the roost.

My January 2020 Harpers piece, ‘The winemakers that changed the world’, expressed the view that a fairly small number of ‘flying winemakers’, who had been trained in the winemaking philosophy and techniques of Australia, New Zealand and California, seeded a change in wine styles across the world that led to the international market we have today. I employed scores of these young men and women during the 1990s and 2000s and there is no doubt in my mind that the new approach to winemaking introduced by them, and many others like them, changed the style and taste of wines across the spectrum for the better.


I have no data on the profitability of wine producers, importers, and agents from early in this period, but my own experience, combined with anecdotal evidence, suggests it has become a lot harder to make money. In the early days information was much less transparent; today everyone knows the raw material and production costs of everything, digitally or otherwise. Back then good, commercially viable wines were relatively rare; today they are as common as muck. Back then the wine sector was considered a remote, almost unknowable zone, allowed special treatment; today it is expected to pay its way like soap powder or coffee. Back then suppliers could navigate some leverage with retailers; today the power is entirely on one foot.

Yet, well run businesses that adapt and embrace these issues can do well in UK wine today. They are relatively few because wine businesses are often not well run; tough trading again sorts the wheat from the chaff. To add to the challenge, Covid has punched on-trade-dependent suppliers in the face, while those in the off-trade are reportedly faring well. In my experience, it was ever thus.


At the beginning of this period, when I asked friends if they thought my idea for starting a business to import organic wines would work, they told me I was mad. There was a reason they were not found in the shops, they said - it is because no one wants to buy them. Happily, for me that proved wrong.

By the mid 1990s we were supplying Safeway with a host of organics, including an own label organic red from the south of France and a boldly-labelled vegan red and white, selling 30 different organic wines to Tesco and a significant number to many other multiple retailers, and delivering to 500 independents across the UK. This mini boom lasted throughout the 1990s, before fading with the increasing commercialisation of the wine sector and the lure of bigger profits from larger, conventional brands.

Roll on to 2020 and organic wines are back across all sectors of the market, along with their turbo-charged cousins biodynamic wines, and a squall of undefined ‘natural’ wines. These represent the sustainable choice for consumers, but we know now, 30 years on, that the sustainability issue is a much, much deeper one than the resurgence of organic products. The climate emergency and Covid-19 ring bells in our ears like never before.

The period from 1990 to 2020 has been one of globalisation, communication, discovery, change and finally, awareness. It has seen a shift from working in the wine business to working in the business of wine. In the process of moving from wine applied to business, to business applied to wine, the professionalism of our sector has dramatically improved, the quality of wines transformed, and the consumer offer greatly enlarged and upgraded.

But yes, some of the charm and poetry has gone.

Jerry Lockspeiser donates his fee for this column to ActionAid, an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty around the world.