Tips for NZ from top British buyer

While I didn't actually "hear it on the grape vine", John Stichbury's phone call telling me to be at his place at 8am on a Sunday morning if I wanted to meet someone interesting was close enough.

Steve Lewis, chief executive of Majestic Wine Warehouses Ltd in the UK, and his wife, Rosemarie, were the guests of John and Jo Stichbury of Jackson Estate Wines.

It was a cold, wet Sunday when I caught up with Steve, keen to learn more about this big and influential company that operates 200 stores in Britain and two in France.

The stores offer customers about 1000 different wines, priced between £5 - £1,000 (nearly NZ$10 to NZ$2000). The stores themselves are spacious, a massive 325 square metres and all outlets are on main arterial routes.

Numbers aside, customer service is what, Steve says, sets Majestic apart. All the staff are graduates who are highly educated in terms of product knowledge.

"The company was established in the 1980s, created to cater for customers in London who needed a specialist wine store. At the same time it was important to differentiate from the supermarket experience," Steve says.

Steve does a number of short and long-haul trips to different wine producing nations each year.

"I haven't been to New Zealand before but New Zealand wines now make up about 20 per cent of our still wine sales, so I'm here to visit existing suppliers," he says.

"I'm here to gain a better understanding of where New Zealand will be in five years time; Marlborough is certainly unique. It has come from nowhere to become a dominant force with average bottle prices sitting in the middle of our market."

Wine-purchasing trends in Britain tend to start in Majestic stores, slowly migrating to the supermarkets over about five years.

It was a relief to hear that Steve does not see New Zealand as a nation of complacent producers. He says it is clear we are looking at where we go to next.

"I travel around the world but in New Zealand I feel an openness, integrity and friendliness coupled with an understanding of the need to compete with international players like Chile and France."

Steve says that consumers get bored quickly and they also know when quality is falling away, yet New Zealand is constantly challenging with its wines and trying new things. When he began working at Majestic the big seller was a Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon, evidence that producers can go from major to minor players.

Steve started as a trainee manager at Majestic and worked his way up. That progression through the company gave him an excellent insight into the culture of the business and the mindset of the consumer.

"During the 1980s I used to spend time in France each year, a bit of a Francophile, because the standard of food and wine in the UK was poor, now it's possibly better than Paris."

Majestic has grown as the interest in good food and wine has grown and Steve's primary concern is in building a completely customer focused business and brand. He is constantly looking at doing things better than supermarkets and that means lots of ongoing staff training and courses.

"Our role is to do what the supermarkets can't," he says. "We also offer customers wine courses covering vineyards, what happens in the winery and tasting; we look at food and wine matching in terms of bringing together flavours that complement each other."

The British consumer is interested in trying different wine styles and our sauvignon blanc and pinot noir have hit a keynote.

"UK consumers have learnt that if they trade up they will get a better, more interesting wine. They increasingly seek finesse and fruit expression rather than simply turning the dial up with blockbuster wines. They understand complexity, finesse and provenance," Steve says.

British consumers are wine savvy, they want to explore sub-regional differences and they want wines they can have a conversation about. All of which points to the obvious - for Marlborough and indeed New Zealand to continue to be successful, the wines we export must have finesse, complexity and be food friendly.

"Our most engaged customers drink pinot noir," Steve says. "In the next five years one of two countries will be the go-to for pinot, New Zealand or Chile. There is currently an international explosion of new pinots with excellent flavours and complexity, so the race is on for the goal of being the go-to destination."

British consumers also tend to be Francophiles when it comes to wine, and they love white burgundy (chardonnay). These wines are becoming increasingly inaccessible at a reasonable price point, opening up an opportunity for other producers as a new generation of younger wine drinkers emerges without the experience of drinking burgundy.

The Languedoc and New World producers such as New Zealand are well placed to take advantage of this shift in consumer thinking, with the race on to produce a mid-priced chardonnay that is lightly oaked, lemony and food friendly. The trend in refined, elegant chardonnays is a good fit with what New Zealand is producing.

It is clear that New Zealand producers need to be on trend and keep an eye on the competition; meet the demand and then make sure the consumer knows that this is what we do and you should be buying it.

The Marlborough Express