FEATURE: Let your pub shine with wine

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Story time: Heath Ball at the Red Lion & Sun writes stories about wines rather than tasting notes (credit: Getty/SolStock)
Story time: Heath Ball at the Red Lion & Sun writes stories about wines rather than tasting notes (credit: Getty/SolStock)

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There are some fantastic pubs serving amazing wines in the UK – but the pub sector does have some challenges to overcome in the category because it has a reputation for being focused on developing its beer menus rather than targeting wine sales.

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While wine naturally goes with a strong food offer that doesn’t mean wet-led pubs can’t offer a better experience. Wine has, in the past, been seen as an up-sell product to bring in female consumers. You only have to look at some of the high street promotions on wine that have been available, such as the famous ‘buy two glasses and get the rest of the bottle free’ to see the approach from some of the pub sector.

That approach isn’t going to cut it with consumers now they are drinking less, wanting better value and increased quality.

Alcohol trends analyst IWSR recently described the short and medium-term future for wine as “challenging.” It confirmed economic uncertainties are leading wine consumers in many markets, not just the UK, to cut back on discretionary spend, especially in the on-trade.

In addition, recent research commissioned by Wine Paris & Vinexpo Paris by Wine Intelligence into inter-generational wine consumption found just 26% of regular wine drinkers in the UK are aged between 18 and 39 (Gen Z and Millennials) versus 48% aged over 55 (Baby Boomers). The positive news is that, in the on-trade, the younger generation accounts for 50% of all on-premises wine spend. IWSR said that as they have a propensity to splash out for social occasions, the key to unlocking spend from Gen Z and Millennials is to offer wines that have a clear ‘wow factor’.

There are some further positives for wine in pubs as the latest stats from CGA show that in Q1 2023, the year-on-year best performer was wine, which has bounced back from a poor 2022, thanks in part to more older consumers returning to pubs, bars and restaurants after the Covid pandemic. It admitted that some drinkers have been trading down their wine choices but category sales have been in growth.

Therefore, pubs need to be appealing to the new younger consumer while offering the older consumer their favourite tipple? A difficult balancing act.

“You need to hunt out products that aren’t available in the off-trade.”

Offer something different

So what wine should pubs be serving? Occasion and season can influence the types of wines that are popular – sparkling sales boom over the Christmas period while rosé sales see an uplift during the summer months. The main grape varieties continue to dominate the market with Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rioja topping wine menus. But with weather impacting harvests and transport issues still plaguing the export market pubs need to be flexible about where they are sourcing their wines from. For example, Cremants and English sparkling can make a great alternative to Champagnes and Proseccos.

There is also very little point in offering customers the same wine they can pick up in the supermarket. Getting people out of home and into the pub is challenging enough without them seeing the wine mark-up.

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Heath Ball

Heath Ball, who runs the award-winning Red Lion & Sun, in London’s Highgate, argues offering something different is crucial. The pub has a menu of around 100 wines that is updated daily.

“You need to hunt out products that aren’t available in the off-trade. It needs to be wines that are only available to us and look at the small producers that don’t have the reach,” he advises.

This approach has worked because the pub is the former Great British Pub Awards’ Best Wine Pub of the Year winner of 2016 and 2018 (along with winning the overall GBPA title in 2018​) and is also currently Greene King’s Wine Pub of the Year.

He has been critical of the pub sector and its failure to focus on the category calling it “shocking” and says it is the reason why so many pubs fail to make good sales on wine.

“I look at wine lists when I am out and wonder why they are so terrible. The pubs will bore you to death with a massive beer range and the wine offer is so terrible,” he says.

“They go and do the obvious with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Argentinian Malbec and Italian Pinot Grigio and a Merlot from somewhere.”

He puts this down to various reasons including the fact the pub does not want to carry a large amount of stock and the licensee could simply be intimidated by wine.

The Red Lion & Sun has a high-quality house wine starting at £28 a bottle with the wider menu offering a range of price points, variants and countries that are priced up to close to £200 a bottle. It also offers Orange Wines, a complex wine created from white grapes.

Wines are available by the glass with 10 red, 10 white, three sparking and four rosé. Its most popular wine is a Southern France Picpoul, which actually outsells its house wine and is priced at £35 a bottle.

“I always assume people don’t know a lot about wine so I don’t write tasting notes. I write the stories about the wine,” he says.

This focus on making the wines accessible and telling the story has reaped rewards as 65% of the pub’s wet sales are from wine.

However, one area he thinks pubs get wrong is on the mark-up and profits on wine.

“I don’t work on crazy margins. I think that this is a big problem because pubs are trying to apply an 80% GP to a bottle of wine,” he argues.

“I sell a lot of wine at cash margin. I will buy it but I know there is no way I can put that margin on it.”

But offering something unique is where pubs can really differentiate themselves. He predicts there is new scope for German wines, which have suffered reputationally, to become really popular again, with Riesling being incredible value.

While there is a change in people’s choices with increases in rosé and sparkling at certain times of the year Ball is championing chilled light reds for the summer.

“I think pubs need to offer more. There is always someone who has a lot of money in their pocket who has had a really good week and wants to spend money on wine,” he says.

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The Unruly Pig owner Brendan Padfield and head chef Dave Wall

“We have to signpost wines so we don’t intimidate people who are less comfortable with a weighty wine list.”

Eclectic list

Owner of the Unruly Pig in Woodbridge, Suffolk, one of Britain’s top gastropubs, Brendan Padfield agrees that too many pubs are offering the same wines and need to offer something different. He deliberately has an eclectic list as the pub wants to have something unique.

Because the pub has a focus on British food with an Italian influence, this trend is reflected in the wine menu which offers 50 of them by the glass.

“A lot of people like to be challenged and push their own envelope and say ‘I don’t know that but I don’t really want to buy a bottle’,” he says.

“We are a pub, we are proud to be a pub and, therefore, we have to be accessible. We have to signpost wines so we don’t intimidate people who are less comfortable with a weighty wine list.”

While he believes there will always be a place for mainstream grape varieties such as Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, wines also need to be interesting and challenging for the consumer.

“We don’t serve South American Malbec, ours is a Malbec from the south of France. Our Pinot Grigio is not the standard it is a blush from a producer in the Veneto. Of course, we get people saying it is not a Pinot Grigio but it is just what the Italians would drink,” he says.

The pub finds it has to adapt as its wine sales mix changes over the weekends because there is an influx of people from London.

“The demography of London and income brackets of London is not the same as elsewhere and inevitably that causes an increase in the sales of premium and more edgy wines,” he says.

While Prosecco has been the go-to for sparkling wines, he is seeing more customers looking to experiment and highlights Spanish pink fizz as challenging the market. There is also an increasing amount of interest in English wines, he points out, which are levelling out in price.

But to make sure he can offer the right wines at the right prices he uses various wine merchants.

“I don’t believe in a single supplier because they can get complacent. I need them to deliver the best price for the customer. I have three or four wine merchants and their share of the list varies according to their ability to deliver on the price and quality ratio,” he says.

Suppliers are key relationship

Joe Mullane, licensee at the New Flying Horse in Wye, Kent, which is the Shepherd Neame Wine Pub of the Year, agrees it is important to use good suppliers.

“The most important relationship you can have with wine as an operator is with your supplier. Get them working for you. It is not about free glasses and ice buckets, it is about trying to get them to connect you to the people that are making the wine,” he says.

“You have got to be bold with wine but you have also got to invest time in understanding it or get really good people around you such as your suppliers.”

Over half (54%) of the pub’s sales are wet-led and, of that figure, almost 40% is on wine, meaning it is a significant part of the pub’s sales mix.

There are 60 bottles of wine on the menu, all of which can be bought by the glass because the pub uses the Le Verre de Vin preservation system.

“People can come in and have a glass of Barolo, which would cost them £75 for a bottle,” he says.

“You have to work out what the customer is looking for. If they are looking for white wine, how dry do they want it, do they want it fruity? All we want is the customer to have a glass of wine in their hand they are really going to enjoy because then they are going to buy another one.”

“I always say wine is stories in bottles.”

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Joe and Jane Mullane at the New Flying Horse

He ensures the list offers a wide range of bottles between £20 and £30 so people can experiment at an affordable price.

“You never want to rip off a customer because you will only ever see them once. And equally you don’t want them to buy the wrong bottle of wine,” he says.

“I am all about the value and that is what the customer wants.”

Mullane often takes ideas from other venues abroad and brings them back to the pub to improve the customer wine experience.

Every glass of white or rosé wine purchased means the customer receives a single Gordal olive from Spain while those receiving a red wine will be given a piece of cheese. While it clears the palate, it is added value but also means the customer has a premium experience.

“I always say wine is stories in bottles. You have to remember the wine is not about the grape but it is about the winemakers and the person who decided how long to leave the wine in the vat and how much skin to take off and blend. You have to release that story,” Mullane adds.

Another great way of ensuring that the customer is purchasing the right wine is to build in wine sampling and tasting into the stocktaking, he advises.

He is finding a lot of interest in Portuguese wine because there has been a significant promotion around it. The pub also stocks eight to nine local Kent wines to tap into the growing demand for more local and homegrown.

“There is a wine revolution going on in Kent. Some of the wines being produced here are world beaters now. In five years’ time English sparkling wine will be seen in the same way as we see Champagne,” he adds.

But no matter what the size of the wine menu or the type of pub, it needs to respond to what the customer wants and is willing to drink.

Weather dependent

Interestingly, London beer bar Mikkeller, while focusing on beer, has recognised that having a wine offer is important from a retail perspective.

Tony Haslam, Mikkeller UK Retail Manager, says it is important to cater for all customers not just the beer drinkers and includes the team in the wine decisions to help promote sales.

“We don't think about age ranges when choosing wines but we certainly like to have a variety of styles so anyone should feel they have the option for something that suits them,” he says.

“We might consider an additional red in the colder months, for example, but generally evolve our range over time rather than making set seasonal changes. The ratio of wines that sell best changes with the seasons – we might also consider taking a lower-selling wine to ‘bottle only’ during a quiet period and return to by the glass as the weather changes.”

Wine is an important part of any pub drinks offer and needs to be given a focus on quality and experience.

As Mullane says: “I would say I treat all my children equally. On my beers, I am actually a beer sommelier. I love beer and love wine.

“I always say that if an operator doesn’t like wine, it’s like an operator that doesn’t like customers.”

What do the suppliers say?

Mark Roberts, director of sales at Lanchester Wines says the story of the wine is important.

“The provenance of a wine is increasingly important – the producer and how it was made. As a business, Lanchester Wines actively seeks business partners and sustainable wine suppliers who share our vision to proactively improve their sustainability,” he says.

Roberts highlights that every wine list needs to be personalised for the pub because the customers and offer will be different.

“Operators should always work with a specialist wine merchant when it comes to creating a wine list most beneficial to their specific venue, which understands the geographic and demographic impact of what wines work best. This collaboration will allow you to have flexibility to adapt to market trends,” he adds.

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Lanchester Wines

Meanwhile, Grace Robertshawe, senior trade marketing manager at Accolade Wines, says consumers are looking for a range of easy-to-understand wines and varietals from different countries of origins. Its own Jack Rabbit range offers a lot of different options across red, white, rosé and sparkling.

“In terms of grapes, Sauvignon Blanc continues to be the anchor for white wines and is a must on menus, alongside Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. Merlot, Shiraz and Malbec are the top three when it comes to red wines, with new styles of Malbec trending in recent years,” she says.

“Zinfandel remains the most popular rosé wine for UK drinkers but we would also recommend stocking a Provence-style, or dry, pale Rosé, which has shown really strong growth in the past year and provides a more premium option for customers to choose from.”

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Three of the Jack Rabbit variants

Meanwhile, Andrés Alvarado, export director for North America & Europe, Morandé Wine Group, has highlighted the ​huge advantages” to stocking reserve wines in 20-litre kegs for both on-trade operators and their customers.

“Pubs can offer a range of higher quality wines by the glass in a more profitable, faster, convenient and sustainable way, while consumers have greater flexibility to try wines at this level without having to buy whole bottle,” he says.

“Kegs are fantastic at preserving wine quality – the first and the last glass taste the same for up to two months. This allows on-trade retailers to offer higher-value wines by the glass while also providing a faster and more convenient, flexible and efficient service to customers.”

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Morande's 20-litre wine kegs and lightweight bottles

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