From Chile to chilly St Austell

Related tags St austell brewery Chardonnay Cabernet sauvignon

Charles Wharton is exhausted. The wine and spirits manager for St Austell Brewery got back from Chile the night before, after a week-long wine buying...

Charles Wharton is exhausted. The wine and spirits manager for St Austell Brewery got back from Chile the night before, after a week-long wine buying trip. But he's happy.

The trip was a huge success, with an exciting new range of wines from Argentina practically in the bag, and this year's harvest from a producer in Chile successfully blended (under his watchful eye) and ready to go.

And he has another reason to be cheerful. The Cornish brewery has seen wine sales leap by 1.6 million litres in just one year ­ an increase of 7.1%, with wine sales now representing 20% of the company's £75m turnover.

The St Austell Brewery has always sold wine. In fact, the company's founder, Walter Hicks, began life as a wine merchant in 1851 (they still use his name on their labels). It's one of only 32 independent family-owned brewers in the UK and owns 156 pubs in Cornwall and Devon ­ 119 tenanted and 37 managed. It's also the South West's largest wholesale distributor of beer, wines and spirits.

Now, wet sales have been pretty flat this year by their own admission. Not wine, though. Like almost everywhere else in the country, wine sales are booming in Cornwall. Thanks must go, in part, to the likes of Rick Stein upping the ante in the food stakes. And (good) food-led operations need wine ­ lots of it.

Landlord John Milan at the brewery's Pandora Inn, Restronguet, boasts the highest volume of wine sales for its tenanted estates. In just one year he has seen an increase of 11%. "People are drinking more wine than ever before ­ and they've become more discerning," he reports.

According to Milan, Sauvignon Blanc now exceeds Chardonnay sales for the first time. "Chardonnay is so out now ­ unless it's Chablis, of course," he adds. While sales of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon are flying. "Customers are more concerned about grape variety these days, and an increasing percentage are asking us about the wine on the list," confirms Milan.

And selling wines by the glass accounts for much of the increase in volume at the Pandora, which offers seven different wines by the glass, with 250ml servings taking the lion's share.

Wharton encourages the use of bigger wine glasses ­ his favourite serving is 175ml poured in to a generous bowl. "So you can fully appreciate the wine's aromas," he adds. You'll even find port being poured into regular-sized wine glasses in a St Austell pub these days. "Though we still have a bit more work to do on eradicating the sherry schooner," he laughs.

So how has Wharton upped sales so significantly? "Actually, it's been a gradual process. If we had made too many dramatic changes people would have been put off. We've looked at the list country by country ­ taking the axe to some, the surgeon's knife to others," he reveals.

For example, the selection from Germany and Italy was revised entirely. "We're much more quality driven now. And yes, customers did notice that the wines were a little more expensive, but they also noticed that the wines were better, and therefore easier to sell," says Wharton, who shares the buying responsibility with the Inde-pendent Wine Buyers Consortium, a group of independent family brewers (Wharton's patch is Chile and Argentina).

Among other quality drives is the bypassing of negotiants in Burgundy to buy direct from the grower. "We get much better wine now," he declares. Spain is also getting an overhaul, so is Beaujolais. "And we've got a little more work to do on Italy," reveals Wharton.

Wine education is also a key. From its enviable training centre adjacent to the brewery, Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses are available to any in the trade who want to mug up on wine, with additional courses on selling and serving wine. "The more they know, they more they sell," reasons Wharton. And you can't argue with that.

Related topics Beer

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