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Looking ahead: Katy Keating, Lay & Wheeler

Published:  04 August, 2022

With the first half of 2022 already history, Harpers asked key trade figures to highlight the current challenges, ongoing trends and opportunities.

We continue our series with insights from Katy Keating, MD of Lay & Wheeler.

How ‘back to normal’ are you as a business?

We’re back to normal in that we can taste wine together, visit our producers, and meet private clients out at restaurants. In a people-led business, these interactions are like superfoods for our team – they give us strength!

For Lay & Wheeler, though, we have a new normal: a state of growth. This journey started well before the pandemic, in 2016, when we reset the business, and it accelerated in 2019 when we returned to independence under private ownership. When the Covid crisis hit, we had already started to invest in people and projects to grow, so our team was already in the mindset of change. Coming out of it, this growth remains our priority, so there’s no such thing as normal around here.

How, if at all, have drinking habits changed post-lockdown?

We focus on doing one thing really well: connecting the right people with the right wines, so we’re fortunate to understand firsthand what private clients are buying.

We’re seeing an increase in interest in wines at the most premium end of our portfolio – top Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne – especially those which might be considered “investment grade” (although we do not give investment advice ourselves). This includes top-tier whiskies, so we’ve been busy adding them to our range for the first time.

We’re also seeing a return to the classics at the other end of the spectrum – what we could call wines to drink on any night of the week. Our clients, who are so knowledgeable about wine and so engaged in what we are doing, seem to be more interested in turning to old favourites at the moment than taking more of a gamble on, say, an unusual white blend from the Côtes Catalanes in southern France.

How has the first half of 2022 been when compared to the same period in pre-pandemic 2019?

At a macro-level, we’re living in far more turbulent times in 2022 than 2019: not just the aftermath of the pandemic and Brexit but also the cost of living crisis, the prospect of a recession, the war in Ukraine, and the growing realities of climate change.

On a micro-level, 2022 is a more challenging year for our business, given the more complicated demand for the 2021 Bordeaux en primeur releases and the anticipated dip in volume for the 2021 Burgundy en primeur releases (which are critical drivers of revenue for Lay & Wheeler).

We’re running towards the fire, not away from it. These factors have been catalysts for us to do so much: to grow our talented buying team from 2 to 6 so that we can expand our range (for example, South Africa has grown 50% year on year for five years running), to design and begin building our very own warehouse, so we control our operation, and to invest in our technology to differentiate our levels of service.

What were the highs and lows for your own business in the first six months of 2022?

People are the most important part of our business, so our highest highs and lowest lows are always related to our team.

In the first half of 2022, we were fortunate to welcome 11 people to our team, or a 25% increase in headcount. It’s what they represent that’s so exciting. For example, Laura Ambrose joined as head of people in February (quite appropriately, on Valentine’s Day) to help us figure out how to best recruit, invest, and retain our people. We want to do this better than anyone in the industry. We’ve found our very own guardian angel!

That growth aside, it’s been challenging to recruit. It’s one of the reasons we opened an office in Mayfair so that we can connect with all three members of our Lay & Wheeler family more easily – producers, clients, and our own and future team.

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

Climate change. Consumers aren’t feeling the impacts as directly as the cost of living crisis or potential tax increases on alcohol, but they’re there. In a supply-constrained market, we’re all sensitive to disruptions to that supply, and climate change is the greatest driver. Wine is an agricultural product. There’s never a greater reminder of this than when, say, Chablis levels are down 40-90% in 2021, or one of our growers (Stodden) in Germany’s Ahr loses nearly all their wine to floods, or on a visit to Signorello Winery in Napa, no winery exists, because it burned down in the fires of 2017.

So it’s making our access to supply less and less predictable. In a century-old business like ours, where continuity is the order of the day, this is a challenge. So we are beginning to do our part with company-wide sustainability initiatives, and we will do more because unless everyone begins to make changes, it will only get worse.

What are your priorities and predictions business-wise for the second half of 2022?

There are two key milestones for Lay & Wheeler later this year.

First, we’re launching our own collection of nine wines sourced by Beth Pearce MW, Catherine Petrie MW, and Robbie Toothill. It’s a serious selection, at inviting prices, which we’ll build on in time. The Langhe Nebbiolo will be my house pour from October!

Second, we’re completing the design and build of our very own fine wine warehouse. It’ll be able to hold over 10 million bottles at capacity, both temperature and humidity-controlled, and we’ll be able to store everything from a single bottle to a case to a pallet. This is one of our key differentiators: that private clients can buy, store, resell and enjoy all of our wines by the single bottle.

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

We’re looking at our wine range in three parts.

We’ll continue to double down on our clients’ favourites: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Rhone, and Champagne. They’re pillars of our range.

We’ve been building our range of South African and Italian wines. Buyer Fiona Hayes recently joined to look after most of Italy for us, and Buyer Robbie Toothill is spending two weeks in South Africa this August.

Then, there are new frontiers for us. Buyer Beth Pearce MW and I led a scouting trip to Napa to see how we can build a classy, classic US wine range. Fiona is going to take a closer look at how we’re doing in Spain and Portugal. Beth’s got a love for New Zealand wines, as well as Australia, so expect some gems in our range soon from there, too. And, there are spirits - we launched our first full spirits range earlier this year so that everything is in place for Christmas.

For you, what are the most significant emerging trends in the wine & spirits worlds?

On the product front, it’s lovely to see UK consumers embracing regions beyond the classics - we just sold a significant volume of Greek Assyrtiko and Syrian Syrah – and we’re looking forward to offering a wider range of fine wines to our customers. It makes sense: as winemaking best practice is spread more widely worldwide, and techniques and equipment improve, high-quality and balanced wines can be made in more places, so we’re looking for them and bringing them to Lay & Wheeler.

If sustainability can play a part in adopting products beyond the classics, even better. We recently stocked our first bag-in-box rose, the latest vintage of which is 2021 Méditerranée Rosé, Figuière, which is a more sustainable (and frankly, convenient) way of packaging a familiar summer staple.

On the people front, we’re thrilled to celebrate a more diverse workforce than Lay & Wheeler has ever seen before – an even split across genders, representing seven countries, some first jobs and some 25 years into careers - and we hope this trend extends across the trade.

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

I have a simple philosophy at Lay & Wheeler: use technology to do what computers do best, to free up our people to do what they do best, such as build relationships or creative pursuits. Wherever we can use systems or software to enable our team to be better, we’re looking to innovate. If our team is doing what they love, we’ll be able to retain them, and to grow, profitably.

Lastly, if you could make one change in legislation/red tape/tax tomorrow, what would you choose?

Make sustainability everyone’s priority. Let’s look for carrots, not sticks – is there an incentive for consumers to recycle glass or recycle corks? Is there an incentive for businesses to use green energy or to reduce waste? Let’s do it.

Quick-fire questions:

France, Spain or Italy?

Italy – I lived in Piedmont in 2008, for nine months after university, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up in fine wine. A soft spot in my heart!

USA, OZ or South Africa?

USA – I’m just back from a week in Napa, and after meeting awe-inspiring people like Cathy Corison, Dawnine Dyer, and Annie Favia-Erickson, US wines are front of mind!

Cocktails or slow sipping spirit?


English fizz or Champagne?

Champagne, though with a serious admiration for Ian and Anna Kellett and what they’re building at Hambledon.

Go-to drink with the football?

An ice-cold beer.