Frazer Thompson is a man with big ambitions and the growing clout of Chapel Down wines suggests that he knows what he is doing. The MD of the English Wines Group, based in Tenterden in Kent, says the company has reached a point where the biggest problem it is facing is meeting the growing demand for wines such as Curious Grape.
“We are selling the amount we make, but we could sell it five or six times over if we could produce more wine,” says Thompson.
The rosy outlook couldn’t contrast more with the picture four years ago. Then, the company had a large amount of surplus stock, which mostly consisted of wines made from grapes that no-one had heard of, says Thompson. Much of the surplus was relabelled as Curious Grape and marketed to supermarkets at £5.99.
“Our objective was to shift this stock so we used attention-grabbing names and bold labels,” he says.
This period also highlighted the dangers of a major contract, when one of the key customers, British Airways, which was taking 30% of its stock, pulled out. “This taught us never to allow more than 15% of our stock to go to one customer,” says Thompson.
An investment programme allowed the company to replant more consumer-friendly grape varieties, such as Pinot Noir. “We needed to get more premium grape types and also more sparkling wine,” he says.
The company also moved pricing forward
- its wines now cost £6.99 upwards -- as well as revamp the vineyard to include a customer shop and bistro.
By 2004, growing success meant the company could reassess its accounts, and this in particular meant scrutinising the value of its multiple retail customers.
“We were never going to make money out of supermarkets and we had become so successful in stimulating demand that we were in danger of running out of stock,” says Thompson. “To deal with this we pulled out of both Tesco and Majestic. We didn’t need them and it released more stock.” With the profit it was generating from its premium restaurant and wine bar customers, it could afford to be fussy about which off-trade partners it worked with.
“We decided to stick to just two multiple retail partners, Sainsbury and Waitrose. These two were the most honest and supportive of new ideas. We felt that Waitrose understood its customers well and was more willing to give things a go, compared with most chains. Sainsbury has really got its act together recently and it believes in British produce.”
Thompson has now set a bold target to work towards meeting the demand he has created, and he says he wants to get 400ha planted over the next five years. “The objective is to produce three million bottles a year - half of which will be sparkling,” he says. The company currently produces and sells 450,000 bottles a year but this year’s record harvest will produce 500,000 bottles.
The wine has now all been rebranded as Chapel Down and the quality of its sparkling wines has been recognised at international competitions, where it has beaten Champagne producers to the winning title.
But Thompson has not let the company focus exclusively on wine and awareness is growing of its Curious Brew premium beer. “We went for the idea of using a secondary fermentation for beer as you do with Champagne, so we have a Curious Brew Brut, as well as a Porter and a single varietal.”
The company is in talks to find an off-trade partner for its beer but has had a good reception from top-end on-trade accounts.
Thompson’s ambitions don’t stop at wine and beer. He is considering an entry into cider, once beer is established.
“We want to be the UK’s leading producer of home-grown premium-crafted alcoholic beverages,” he says. And we can be pretty sure his ambitions won’t stop there.