“How did you get into wine?” is a question that I am frequently asked. “I sort-of fell into it at university” is my answer – not from a literal point of view (though Somerfield did have some rather palatable plonk for £1.99 a bottle in those days) but because I realised that I was far too undisciplined to be a chef, far too lazy to be a lawyer and far too scatterbrained to teach history, which I was studying at the time.
Another major part of my vinous apprenticeship was a fabulous period working in Leeds with the ASDA Wine team, headed at that time by the wonderful Nick D-M and a very bright chap called Justin King who has since gone on to become CEO of Sainsbury’s. (Told you he was bright.)
Being the romantic fool that I am, I chucked in a perfectly good, safe career as a fast-track ASDA graduate to go to New Zealand and pick grapes in the brisk air and warm sunshine of a glorious Marlborough autumn.
Nick and I have remained friends through our respective careers in wine; he was my mentor at ASDA, we worked together at another wine company after that, and we have continued to spend many hours discussing and tasting this-and-that together. And then, two months ago, came the revelation. Nick’s having a break from wine and getting into gin.
“Yes, dear boy, gin!” he enthuses. “And I’ve never been so excited. In fact, I’m STOKED!” This table helps explain why.
Make no mistake: this is not a blueprint for wine trade peeps to saunter off, abandon the barrel and get into gin. But there’s a point here: those of us who are fortunate enough to work in wine – for many, a field that is perceived to be super-cool – do so in an environment that is increasingly unforgiving.
The supermarkets control the base consumption habits of the nation, and they compete primarily on one thing: price. They know that cheap offers on the shelves equals more feet through the door; simple as that. It doesn’t matter that duty is now nearly £21 a case, VAT is 20% and the pound is weak versus so many currencies – wine must be available, at all times, at price points that become harder to hit each year.
There is no stand-out brand in wine; just shelves full of confusion; different bottles of all types, sizes and colours, and you need to be a mini-genius to know one from the next. In wine, there’s no Gordon’s or Tanqueray to polarise opinion and provide familiarity on the shelf.
And, when somebody finally wants to order your wine, you need to have made it, and have it in stock. With gin, it’s far easier – you can make as much as you want; the question is, how much?
Wine as we know it is under threat. I know I’m biased, but here at Virgin Wines, responsible, sustainable sourcing forms the cornerstone of what we do. Of course we’re sticklers for a hot deal like the next man, but we’re working with personalities, special people, smaller producers – people with whom we can build a relationship built on something far more significant than hitting a price.
We look forward to tasting Nick’s gin as soon as the first bottles roll off the line – who knows, we might even sell some one day? (Stranger things have happened.) In the meantime, we’ll do our best to bring you the best that the wine world has to offer, in a way that helps to secure the future of this wonderful industry that we all love so much.