Californian wine: Knock reveals plans to grow UK sales

The head of the new team appointed to promote Californian wines in the UK says it will aim to give the state a greater year-round trade presence beyond its annual generic tasting.

Justin Knock MW, a former winemaker in Australia, Spain and France, and who bought independent London wine merchant Philglas & Swiggot in 2014, said the new Golden State Wines UK organisation had been given “no targets” other than  “just grow the category”.

Knock said: “We’ll look to do more pieces of focused activity rather than one very large piece of activity.

“There’s no substitute for taking people to a place to get them to understand its wines. It will be important to get retailers and buyers out to California but I’d also like to see more people from the Californian industry come to the UK to get a focus on the market here.”

Knock is fronting Golden State Wines UK with Philglas & Swiggot business partner Damien Jackman, who was formerly on the European legal team at Treasury Wine Estates.

They will be supported on trade communications by specialist food and drink PR agency R&R Teamwork, while Spear Communications will organise the annual California wine tasting next autumn.

The new structure has been assembled after the shock disbanding in September of the Wines of California team of John McLaren and Venla Freeman, after 21 years representing the state in the UK market.

Knock said he expected to continue the previous team’s focus on premium wines but said the mainstream end of the market wouldn’t be ignored.

“There’s still a big opportunity between £10 and £20 and there’s a rich seam of wines to mine.

“Our most recent experience in retail helps us to understand the independent sector but I think one of the attractive things in our pitch was that we also have experience with mass market Californian brands.

“Whether you like that style of wine or not, brands like Blossom Hill have done well because they know what they are doing and the wines are perfectly pitched to their target market.”

At higher price points Knock said he thought California’s attraction was in its “confidence to assert the styles that it makes”.

He added: “California’s less responsive to changes in fashion and that’s a powerful thing in the minds of consumers.

“An example is Chardonnay where there’s been a move in the New World away from the rich powerful style, especially by Australia,

“For retailers that sometimes makes it difficult to find the old-style Montrachet-type wines. California has been the one place you can go to find those wines in the New World – and when they’re good, they’re exceptionally good.”

Knock said California would be his and Jackman’s number one priority in the future.

“We’ve run the retail business on a day-to-day business for two years and got things on track,” he said. “We’ll stay as directors but be less involved day-to-day. The day-to-day focus is on California, for sure.”

Knock said he didn’t see any conflict of interest between owning a retail business and fronting a pan-retail generic campaign.

“If anything that over-estimates the importance and size of this retail business,” he said.

“Having that knowledge of the pointy end of the trade will help us understand how we can grow California for everyone.” 

Linsey Gallagher, vice president of international marketing at the California Wine Institute in the US described the new set-up as a “dream tram”.

She added: “We have a strong brand in the UK with positive trends and we have ambitious plans to accelerate our sales.”

The institute said California wine sales were worth US$284 million (£229.2 million at current exchange rates) in the UK and that it aimed to hit US$400 million (£322.8 million) by 2020.

But Nielsen figures for the year to August 13 show US wine sales as a whole – of which California claims the lion’s share – falling faster than the market as a whole, down by 8% in both volume and value.

The US is the number three exporter of wine to the UK by volume but only number four by value.

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