Graham Norton wine brand gearing up for heavy investment

Invivo is on course to raise £3.5 million in an IPO that will allow it to significantly increase its investment in the fast-growing Graham Norton wine brand. The celebrity presenter is the chief winemaker for the range, which has grown UK sales by 230% in the past year (Nielsen, 12 months to March 2018).

It now accounts for 5% of the off-trade New Zealand category and it has extended into Australian Shiraz, rosé and Prosecco. Founders Rob Cameron and Tim Lightbourne have appointed former Accolade Wines chief executive Paul Schaafsma to handle UK distribution and grow its footprint.

Schaafsma reappeared at Broadland Wineries for a short stint in 2017, but now he has set up his own business, Benchmark Drinks. Employees include former Accolade colleagues Andy Cameron, Amy White and Ian Anderson, and it is about to launch a range of wines in conjunction with former England cricket captain Sir Ian Botham. Schaafsma was already a board member at Invivo, which has now switched its distribution from PLB to Benchmark Drinks.

Schaafsma tells DRN: “It’s the fastest growing New Zealand brand in the UK. In the last 12 months of EPOS data, it made up 5% of the New Zealand category. In a market where a lot of brands are in decline, this is a real success story. The average selling price is 90p above the New Zealand average. The average is £7.08, and this is £7.98, which is extraordinary when the average bottle price in the UK is under £6. We believe there’s a tremendous opportunity for further growth, and for retailers it’s creating an opportunity to trade up and take consumers away from just price. 

“The Graham Norton brand gets people in but the quality brings them back, and that’s really evident in the sales growth we have seen. Having a great brand like Graham Norton does a great job. Because Graham Norton is already a personality, there’s a confidence and a trust and that gets people in, and then it delivers.

“It’s positive to see that, in the UK, New Zealand is still growing at 13% and holding its price above £7. The market is always talking about trading people up and getting them to try different wines at a higher quality level, and New Zealand has done a great job. People ask if the Marlborough Sauvignon freight train is slowing down – it’s growing at 13%.

“If you think about the distribution that exists, to be 5% of New Zealand sales and only be in two of the major supermarkets, there’s so much opportunity for growth and distribution. When we are talking to potential customers around the brand we can say it’s selling well at a higher price point, and there aren’t many brands coming to the market with that kind of success, particularly if you want to trade consumers up.

“A lot of big brand owners are pulling investment back due to vintage pressures. We are coming in with a brand in growth, a high price point and investment, so it gives an extraordinary opportunity.”

Cameron and Lightbourne were at school together in Auckland in the 1980s and reconnected in London in the mid-2000s. Cameron was a winemaker working for Angela Muir MW and Lightbourne had been enjoying a marketing stint for L’Oreal, Danone and HP Sauce. They decided to join forces and launch Invivo Wines, buying grapes from New Zealand growers and selling to the trade. They eventually earned a listing with Majestic Wine and travelled to 130 branches in 2012-13, from Scotland to the south of England, to get staff enthused. 

“We knew that Graham Norton was a big fan of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” says Cameron. “We sent the wine to him and it did well, we got some great press out of it, and we thought, why not get him a little more involved? We went to the show in 2014. He said he would love to get to Marlborough, but it’s not really practical, so we thought maybe we can bring Marlborough to him. We got 10kg of grapes through customs in a chilly bin inside a massive suitcase. He trod on the wine, we collected buckets of the juice and took them back to New Zealand and that was his first blend.”

They created a Graham Norton brand with an initial run of 14,000 bottles, and it sold out really quickly in the New Zealand market, where Norton is hugely popular. They decided the idea could be scaled up, and began bringing samples to the UK for the TV personality to blend. “Graham was nervous at first, but in the end he was really good,” says Cameron, who takes on the role of deputy winemaker for the brand. “His palate is amazing. He has gone from strength to strength. He is a really fussy blender and he won’t stop until he gets it right.”

Lightbourne adds: “We really liked the idea of a prominent UK consumer having some input into what Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc should look like. We want wine to be fun. There are a lot of collaborations out there, but having him involved in the blending process is great. ”

The brand is now five years old and sold in 10 countries. The trade asked for a red wine after the success of the Sauvignon Blanc, but it would not be possible to hit the same price point with a Kiwi Pinot Noir. “The Musgrave guys wanted a red and we needed something at the same price point, so Graham said he loves an Australian Shiraz, rich, juicy, big and soft, something you could curl up by the fire with,” says Cameron.

The Prosecco was also born out of feedback from the trade. Norton gave it his approval on the condition it was not too sweet. “We are always having a look at other categories,” says Lightbourne.

“We did everything on a shoestring to get the brand to this point. We will now be able to invest more proactively. We were the first winery to crowdfund in 2015. In New Zealand legislation you can only raise NZ$2 million and we hit that in less than two weeks.

“We had been organically growing the company without much funding and we have tripled the business since 2015. Now we are raising NZ$6.5 million with an IPO to unlock investment in the brand. The business is at a point where we need to grow our staff and our systems again and really invest in promotional and activation activities. We are picking up listings in key markets around the world and we want to drive that.” 

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