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2021 Drinks Wholesaler Spotlight

Published:  16 June, 2021

We surveyed the trade asking how drinks suppliers have evolved their businesses in response to the pandemic. Andrew Catchpole rounds up the responses. 

Given the immense disruption of the past year and the often remarkable resilience shown by drinks-supplying businesses, we’ve morphed our annual 50 Best Wholesaler list into a Drinks Wholesaler Spotlight 2021, shining the light on the innovation, adaptation and support seen from companies across the sector. 

To do so, we invited wholesalers and the wider trade to let us know about the positive stories and achievements of UK-based drinks suppliers, both large and small – whether this be pivoting and reshaping of businesses, supporting clients and the trade, charitable activities or other notable responses to the pandemic-induced drinks landscape.

And, as befits a collective sense of ‘all in it together’, Drinks Wholesalers Spotlight 2021 is presented as an alphabetical listing, highlighting as many of the positive responses as we can, to celebrate this dynamic and hard-working sector.

The responses bring into sharp relief just how extraordinary the collective and individual adjustments to the past year have been. 

Tom Smith, head of marketing, Europe, Accolade Wines

Last year, we launched our World of Wine website ( for the on-trade. It is designed specifically to help train staff on the basics of wine to help them enhance the consumer experience in restaurants and bars. The site includes key information on our brands, tips on pairing food and wine and advice on selling more wine. 

We’ve found that technology can be a great asset for the on-trade and new ordering platforms such as apps can help to drive core offers and trade-up, for example turning a glass of wine into a bottle or one course of food into two. This period has also highlighted the importance of ensuring that outlets are serving our products in the best way, are not over complicated and allow for experimentation in order to enhance the unique on-trade experience. 

Delwyn Taylor, director, Alexander Hadleigh Wine Merchants

We introduced local home deliveries free of charge within a 25-mile radius the weekend that all restaurants were closed, [plus] online promotions, and sourced new wines. We are continuing with local home deliveries.

Philip Amps, director, Amps Wine Merchants

We have given our accounts extended credit while they have been closed, taken wine back, given credit and been in constant contact with all customers. We’ve encouraged a few to get back in the saddle and convinced them customers would come out again, which they have. We revamped wine lists to operate in the restricted conditions, basically working in partnership rather than treating them as just a customer. We’ve learnt that we must be more agile in our approach and to think always outside of the norm. 

Elizabeth Sprake, marketing manager, Borough Wines Sustainable Wine Solutions

We built a successful B2C ecommerce site in four days and converted our warehouse into a fulfilment centre, partnering with a third-party courier. We opened four pop-ups as a way for us to not only support our own business but also work with other like-minded businesses which had to close during the pandemic and create employment opportunities. 

We built our business on the concept of sustainability and doubled down on our commitment to this despite the challenges, devising as the dedicated wholesale face of Borough Wines. At the same time we introduced our Zero Waste Wine list, starting with a range of 25 sustainably produced wines shipped to us in bulk for bottling and kegging on our premises in North Greenwich. In April 2020 we also launched our Somm.Sessions series, engaging with out-of-work sommeliers to deliver online wine tastings. 

We developed the rebottling process, with this innovation helping us to develop our dedicated sampling service, culminating in becoming the sampling partner for the London Wine Fair Digital Edition, rebottling and delivering nearly 30,000 samples for attendees. We have also used this time to develop a B2B app to connect directly with our trade customers, bringing our communications into the digital age.

Chris Piper, chairman and director, Christopher Piper Wines 

We have developed our existing online trading platforms (our own shopping site and Vivino) so they have given us the cash flow to keep our head above the water. While the on-trade was open, we beefed up our west of England delivery fleet and moved people around in the company to support this. We closed our retail shop (this is still the case) and switched all our local retail business through our home deliveries and click-and-collect from our warehouses. 

Daniel Lambert, MD, Daniel Lambert Wines 

We lost all our normal marketing tools during the past 12 months. So we have had to think again and introduced fortnightly offers with sizeable discounts, which were funded by both producers and ourselves. This activity saw a very sizeable increase in sales. As well as the promotional activities, we did run incentives for on-trade accounts during the summer of 2020 to help boost sales with tastings and holidays offered to the winners. The promos, with up to 30% off, will be something we keep doing as overall sales increased 550% and profitability was also increased. 

Matthew Desoutter, founder/director, Desoutter & James 

As a Spain-based specialist supplier of artisanal wines, we’ve put a bigger than usual focus on listening hard to what our clients want, both in terms of the wines but also the service. [This is] particularly important given the array of new challenges Brexit has brought, especially on the transport and logistics side of things. The challenges of the past 12-18 months have shown us the importance of adapting your own business, but also listening hard to customers so you have a proper understanding of how they have had to adapt to ensure you both get the most out of working together. 

Charles Wharton, director, Ellis Wharton Wines 

We have had to swing the business from being 85% trade based to massively increase our retail and internet sales, upped our social media profile and offered out a much more flexible home delivery service. We have become much more adaptable and flexible and the strength of our team in the business has never been more important.

Denis Kawiuk, marketing executive, EWGA Wines

We opened our range of wines for local home delivery via online and phone ordering, introduced a new wine subscription plan and carried out an installation of a new warehouse management system, which will make the service we offer even more efficient. Our team kept in touch with our customers to discover the effects of Covid-19 on
their businesses and where EWGA may help, rearranging events, rescheduling tastings and postponing orders for specific events. Furthermore, we distributed training resources on our website, the Learn with EWGA blog series. When hospitality venues were allowed to reopen, we supported them with QR versions of their wine lists and other Covid-safe materials. The biggest takeaway from this difficult period was the importance of communication. 

Nik Darlington, marketing director, Graft Wine Company

We realised very early on the potential for working with restaurant and bar customers on home delivery, and tailored wines and prices accordingly with a series of packages. This was not a money spinner, but it kept that relationship alive, provided purpose on both sides, and generated goodwill coming out the other side. We also quickly recognised that many independent merchants were not properly set up for the explosion in distance selling, so we stepped in and became a fulfilment partner to enable them to increase their delivery coverage and level of service.

We also recognised the importance of digital communications, both in terms of working with our trade customers and also connecting with their customers. We became a go-to supplier for organising virtual wine tastings and have conducted nearly 100 in the past 12 months. This online activity took a much bigger shape in the autumn when we hosted the UK’s first fully digital portfolio tasting, engagement with which was on a par with past physical portfolio tastings. We engaged Bottlebooks to work with us in creating a dedicated online event portal with rich multimedia on wines and producers, the first of its kind.

Our digital strategy also involved a significant enhancement in functionality of our industry-leading smartphone app, which we provide to clients as a ‘Graft rep in your pocket’, complete with tech sheets, key data, imagery and video explanations of most of our wines. The most important learning is about incorporating digital technology into how we work internally and externally. 

Ben Jackson, PR & communications manager, Hallgarten Wines

Our main, defining initiative during the past year was 100,000 Glasses for Hospitality. Our supplier partners have been fantastically generous in supporting the project. We timed this so that once Eat Out to Help Out (EOHO) had finished there was another wave of support for the beleaguered hospitality industry. Operators used their free glasses of wine to help promote their wine offering and drive footfall through incentivising and rewarding their guests. Close to 400 hotel, restaurant and bar operators applied for the initiative, with successful participating sites each receiving a credit for 250 glasses of wine. 

In the first quarter of 2021 we introduced the Hallgarten Customer Ordering app, which enables our customers to order their wine at a time and place convenient to them. This freedom has already been met with a fantastic reception. Flexibility, both internally and externally of the business, has been paramount to the success of the past year.

Matthew Hennings, MD, Hennings Wine Merchants 

We had previously invested significantly in our website and took the decision to close all our retail stores at the end of March and operate online. I didn’t want to take any risk with public-facing staff in our shops. 

We were able to deal with significant demand, from both existing customers and new customers online. During the initial lockdown we managed to work with some of our village pub and restaurant customers to allow them to turn their establishments into a ‘village store’ deli and retail wines at a sensible price, with small, regular deliveries to keep them trading and income trickling in. We also managed to finish off a WSET Level 3 course online for some of our trade customers and arrange Covid-safe tastings to enable them to take the exams. 

Good communication with your customers is
vital, we did our best to keep them abreast of the situation and tried to be as positive as we could during such initial uncertainty. Going forward, the key is keeping things simple, [with] excellent customer service, great value, a great range. Don’t over complicate it and focus on our strengths across the whole business.

Matt Tipping, CEO, Jeroboams Trade

The diversity in our broader business model allowed us to offer practical support to our on-trade customers very quickly, whether that be financial support for restaurants that were closed or supporting initiatives to feed NHS workers, which we did in partnership with D&D restaurants and Alexander & Bjorck caterers. 

We connected our private and shop customers directly to our on-trade customers via direct communication, blogs, email offers and through our social channels. We worked with the agency side of our business to connect our winemakers via Zoom and supported on-trade customer requirements for Zoom tastings to support the new at-home dining experiences.

We redirected our on-trade team to support their accounts to develop ways to help them both financially (holding debt and long repayment models) and, crucially, to support their own new ventures.  When restaurants started to launch their ‘at-home’ dining and other initiatives, Jeroboams had the ability to connect them to our private customers via targeted communication. 

Technology has played a big part in connecting our teams and producers, which will certainly carry on in future. Communication is key. 

John Critchley, commercial director, Morgenrot

We kept the majority of the sales team active during the lockdowns, partly to support those accounts which transitioned to retail sales from on-trade focus, and partly to be there for when business started to move. This really paid off as it set us apart from many competitors and meant we were in constant contact with our account base. We also pivoted from on-trade to retail. Launching a direct-to-consumer retail site was something we had considered before, but never decided to do. This was an absolute necessity during lockdown.

Corinne O’Connor, operations & marketing coordinator, Propeller

Propeller was created as a result of the challenges of the past 12 months – a new, cost-effective way for producers to access the UK indie retail and regional wholesale sectors, without having to jump through the hoops of finding an agent first. The importing and distribution on the UK side is streamlined and things are made easy for producers who’ve never been in the UK market before. 

We focus on building relationships and operating as a marketing and sales launchpad, with the hope of building equity in many forms for the producers we represent. Producers receive back the margin made on their products sold and they can then invest that money back into their business. Part of our service is they receive real-time updates on who’s buying their wine and at what frequency, so the producers are continually up to speed with how they’re doing. 

Henry Strachey, owner, Quixotica

As I had no restaurants to sell to I changed the nature of my website to target private customers, with some degree of success. As a very small importer, by doing this it enabled me to survive. I have tried to concentrate on what I am good at, which is Spanish wine, continuing to find and sell the best wines possible.

Jonny Wren, director, Songbird Wines

We expanded the private customer side of the business, first by sending newsletter emails to existing clients and requesting they forwarded to anyone they thought would be interested. My website was already set up to become an online shop but I never had time to enter all the products. I managed to get this done in the first lockdown. I’ve expanded the portfolio by way over 100 products – with the expanded private client side it means I have another channel to sell wines that do not take off with the on-trade.

Richard Chamberlain, owner and director, The Craft Drink Co

As a business, we have strived to maintain ‘business as usual’ for our trade customers, maintaining a full supply service to customers that have maintained their trade during the pandemic, continuing to expand our catalogue of drinks and to develop the support we offer to our customers. We have used technology more, to maintain contact with our suppliers and customers, and anticipate that we will continue with extensive use of VC communications going forward.  

Carol Harle, co-owner, The Spirit of Masham Distillery

We were the first distillery in England to apply for a license to make hand sanitiser and the first to produce it. At first it was an initiative to help our local doctors, paramedics and fire fighters who were unable to find any due to the sudden supply shortage. 

We introduced free local deliveries of wine and gin throughout all of the lockdowns and we are still carrying out the deliveries. We are a husband and wife team and have worked incredibly long hours during the pandemic. We do not currently have any staff and so have to do everything ourselves. Everyone needs to be able to diversify and be comfortable with this. Change can be good. 

Matt Ellis, marketing manager, Top Selection Wines & Spirits

Top Selection accelerated existing plans to pivot into a multi-channel wine business. While the initial reaction was ‘survival’, with 50% of our customers shut overnight, we were fortunate that we could adapt to face the challenges ahead. This saw us focus on significantly increasing a presence nationally in the independent off-trade, private client and D2C channels, while maintaining relationships and building closer ties with on-trade and wholesale customers. 

In April 2020, Top Selection launched a new D2C online brand, 9 Elms Wines, which has developed into a sustainable and successful business in its
own right.

Even though it was an incredibly challenging period, Top Selection invested throughout to support the strategic transformation, including staff, technology and partners. This was critical to being able to pivot the business into a position of strength. As with many, we embraced Zoom and virtual tastings early on, concentrating on quality over quantity and using them in particular to connect our team, winemakers and customers, particularly the sommelier community. The educational and relationship-building opportunities this offered was very successful.