FEATURE: Make your wine sales rise as weather improves

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Summer favourite: pubs such the New Inn in West Sussex are taking advantage of wine
Summer favourite: pubs such the New Inn in West Sussex are taking advantage of wine

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Gone are the days when anyone asking for a glass of ‘dry white’ in a pub would be faced with rolling eyes as the bar member scrambled through the back bar fridge to find a bottle that had likely been open for at least a week.

The customer then handed over their cash for the putrid liquid that tasted like vinegar and was served out of a cheap-looking, scratched wine glass that had to be retrieved from the back office.

While that might seem like a distant memory for some, wine was, for many years, a neglected category in pubs that was dropped to the end of the drinks list along with those soft drinks that no one wanted to drink.

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The good news is that things have changed. Both wine and soft drinks have escalated to the top of people’s choices when drinking out-of-home. Wine is now a premium product with customer expectations high in terms of quality and serve.

People now consider themselves wine aficionados so serving up a bottle picked up on a discount deal from the supermarket shelf isn’t going to cut it.

Despite this change in habits, wine hasn’t avoided the inflationary woes and perfect storm of increased living costs and squeezed margins. Global wine consumption has seen a significant dip, declining by 2.6% in 2023, plunging to its lowest levels since 1996, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). The UK also saw its imports decrease in both volume (down 5.1% compared to 2022) and value (down by 3.3%).

Katie Hannon 35 GH
Katie Hannon of the Rising Sun

It is not all bad news though as the latest summer sun has helped to drive sales to the on-trade. CGA by NIQ’s latest Daily Drinks Tracker shows that for the seven days to 11 May, drink sales were up 13% with wine sales up 11%. This is in stark contrast to the previous five weeks of year-on-year declines.

Whether it is a glass of rosé when the summer weather hits or that bottle of Merlot on a cold winter night – wine is mainstream. It needs a more sophisticated approach than just adding a couple of extra rosé lines in the summer and more sparkling options in the festive season. It needs to be targeted at the season, the occasion, with food or without, and deserves as much care and attention as that craft beer or gin and tonic. And don’t forget that if a pub is tied for beer, the wine GP is going to be a lot more favourable to the bottom line.

‘Stonking’ wine list

How can licensees differentiate their wine offer and keep themselves ahead of the game?

Award-winning gastropub, the Rising Sun in Truro, Cornwall, is a pub that describes its own list as “stonking”, boasting 70 different wines on its menu.

Katie and Tom Hannon took over the Punch pub 10 years ago and initially relied heavily on advice from wine suppliers when deciding what to stock but they soon realised they wanted to take over the decision making and be more innovative.

“We realised it was the only thing in the business we were not leading the conversation on. I took some time out and took some qualifications in wine so we felt we were more in control of it,” says Katie.

There are obviously rules when putting together a list but I am not too much of a stickler for the rules

“We paired the wines with Tom’s style of food. He does rich, indulgent, real experience-type food with mainly French and British influences. You can’t really match any old wine with it. You can’t put a light wine with it because a lot of it needs some structure.”

Interestingly, instead of changing the wine list with the seasons, the choices are fluid, changing on a regular basis to ensure the pub offers a unique proposition to other competitors.

“There are obviously rules when putting together a list but I am not too much of a stickler for the rules. We try to have wines that we are passionate about and we can get behind,” she says.

May's Garden Restaurant Wine Dinner Rising sun
The Rising Sun

“We look for things that are not your standard Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Grigio, and if we do have one, it will be an unusual version of that. Our list is generally a bit quirky with some slightly unusual stuff but in a way people will hopefully find approachable.”

What are the trends?

Lanchester Wines says the role of wine in pubs is undergoing a “transformative evolution” with wine being much more inclusive.

“Consumers are seeking wines that not only complement their culinary experiences but also enhance them,” says Tom van der Neut, business unit controller for Pubcos at Lanchester Wines.

The company reveals sales of Portuguese wines are on the rise across the UK wine trade, largely within its red wine offering, but also Vinho Verde and vibrant, crisp rosés are capturing the attention of wine enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe is making waves as a go-to destination for cost-effective alternatives, offering exceptional value for money. And Champagne and sparkling also show no signs of slowing down, especially for celebratory occasions.

Stand-out trends

Meanwhile Roberta Neave, Star Pubs & Bars’ category buying manager says premiumisation is driving much of the industry.

“The stand-out trends that are evident in wine sales in Star Pubs are the continued premiumisation of Sauvignon Blanc, a revival of chardonnay and rosé becoming more of a year-round drink. In our Just Add Talent (JAT) managed-operator model pubs, we have also seen a 41% increase in sales of no and low wine, albeit from a small base,” Neave says.

And Morandé Wine Group highlights some consumer favourites publicans should be aware of and sees potential for Sémillon and Cinsault from Chile.

“According to wine intelligence research and what we’re seeing via our distributors, consumers are favouring easy to drink, fresh, crisp and fruity white wines, and reds that are full-bodied, smooth, rich and fruity. This makes wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and Merlot appealing and must-stock favourites,” says José Ignacio Bascuñan, export director for Europe.

To make the wine list more accessible to more customers, including those that are just popping into the pub for a drink, almost the whole list is served by the glass. This is intentional to give customers a chance to experiment and try new wines without purchasing the whole bottle.

“We have some different wine preservation systems such as Coravin and Verre de Vin so we can open more expensive wines by the glass and not have a lot of wastage,” she says.

Sustainability in curating the wine list is also a core strategy of the Hannon’s. Wines are stocked mainly from Europe, with some from the UK, so they can get closer to the producers.

With its passion for wine, there are always some special products the Rising Sun is keen to serve and showcase. This has resulted in the pub having a Secret Cellar Menu, which allows it to offer some exclusive and small batch wines from further afield.

Passion and innovation need to be central to any pub wine offer with the menu serving as the tool to drive sales and engage the consumer.Katie Hannon thinks it is essential that pubs bespoke their wine menus to the operation and customer.

“Trying to carbon copy another business is never going to work. You have to think about your brand and your business and what suits it best,” she says.

“Sell wine that you love because you can talk about it. There is no point taking a generic wine list from somewhere and using it. If you read up on the wines you sell and the producers that make them, you are instantly going to sell it better.”

Formulate a list

This is a view backed by Jon Howard manager of Fuller’s pub the Wykeham Arms in Winchester.

He advises licensees not to “underestimate” themselves when it comes to choosing their wine and he encourages them to pick products they like and would want on the menu.

“If you have the opportunity to take on a professional wine supplier, I would always recommend that,” he says.

“They will help you formulate a list that will be more in tune with what is selling and isn’t selling and will be able to help you with all your profit margins.”

The Wykeham Arms has a strong reputation for its wine boasting 140 bottles on the menu, including dessert wines and ports, and it even has a couple of products that have been on the list since the mid-1980s.

“You need a good balance with New and Old World, as well as some recognisable classic wines. It is the go-to that people will always default to. But I also think it is important to introduce people to wines they might not get an opportunity to buy very often,” he advises.

“The recognisable piece is important, especially for people that just come up to the bar for a glass of wine. When it comes to sitting at the table, people want a bit more of an experience these days. If you are going to part with a reasonable amount of cash for a nice meal then you probably want something really nice to go with it.”

the wykeham arms
The Wykeham Arms

The pub has five house wines priced at £28 a bottle (two white and three red), including a House Claret, House French and House Italian.

“It is a bit old school but it really works for us. The House Claret just flies out,” he says.

Making sure the wines stocked are inclusive to all means there are close to 30 wines available by the glass. This also enables the pub to pair certain wines with dishes on the food menu creating an experience for the customer. The pub also runs successful supper club events with wine flights that enable the pub to showcase its wine offer with food.

While staff are crucial to that wine sale, Howard admits an extensive list can be a challenge for them. The site has a ‘wine of the week’ in its staff briefings but employees are also encouraged to have two or three red and whites in their ‘tool box’ that they know well and can advise on if needed.

The wine scene now is a young, very trendy, very hip area

Staff are also crucial to wine sales at Rocksalt in Folkestone, Kent. It has taken its operation to a whole new level, responding to changing demands by opening a wine bar on its second floor in March 2024, which has 140 different wines with 35 being served by the glass.

Group operations director Jack Nimmons says the move was a response to the growing revival of the traditional wine bar that was prevalent in 1980s.

“In London, it is bang on trend at the moment and we just felt it was something we could get our teeth into and use our knowledge about wine,” he says.

“The wine scene now is a young, very trendy, very hip area.”

The Kent wine bar has made a conscious effort to tap into the local and sustainable trend with 10 of its wines being from smaller hyper-local producers while the rest are from the continent and the US.

“We are doing a really good amount of volume with a producer called Terlingham Vineyard. They are relatively small in size and make fantastic wine. We are also working with well-known producers at the top of the scale such as Gusbourne, which is only 15 miles down the road,” he says.

The majority of its wines are mid-range, priced between at £40 to £80, but with the current economic stresses the venue has had to adjust its approach focusing on cash margins rather than GPs to ensure the wine is affordable and accessible to the consumer.

Rocksalt Spring 24_0061
Rocksalt, Folkstone, Kent

But accessibility at the venue is not only about price but being able to introduce the consumer to new wines. Rocksalt has taken an innovative approach of offering wine tasters at 75ml to help increase trial and hopefully upsell customers to different wines. Also, glassware is offered from 125ml increasing to a carafe or bottle to adapt to all drinking occasions. It is already proving to be a successful strategy.

Being able to offer a large number of wines gives wide choice to the consumer but that isn’t necessarily the right approach for all pubs especially with the cellar vying for space for beer, spirits and other products.

The New Inn in Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, which is a Star Pubs & Bars venue, serves 10 reds, 12 whites, three rosés and four sparkling wines, including UK wines, with the most expensive at £40 a bottle and house wine at £22.

Licensee Murray Booker focuses on stocking a good variety of quality wines that are exclusive to other venues locally to give the pub a unique proposition.

He advises licensees not to stock too many wines, especially in the current climate, as they may simply end up taking up space in the cellar.

I don’t want all my money tied up in stock that doesn’t move very often

“We are a pub not a restaurant. The more you offer, the more confusing it becomes. If you stock 100 wines, it becomes expensive to do that. We are all under a bit of pressure at the moment and I don’t want all my money tied up in stock that doesn’t move very often,” he says.

Booker makes sure that wine in the pub is well-promoted on the drinks list and that there is a variety of servings by the glass as well as by the bottle. He has also launched events around the wines, including blind tastings and themed nights to help drive sales and awareness.

Having well-trained staff members, who have actually tasted the wines, means they can help and educate consumers, many of whom might be reluctant to try something different, he advises. And by keeping the wine list to a manageable size this can help both staff and consumers in making those choices.

But it is no good offering great-quality wines and not providing the serve that makes it a memorable experience. Booker feels strongly that the perfect serve is fundamental to this experience and names glassware as a potential issue.

“I hate glasses with a mark on them that say how much is in it. They are the sort of glasses you can drop on the floor and they bounce. We buy really good-quality glasses, which I think enhances what we are offering,” he says.

Getting the right balance and the right wine offer can bring success to any pub. Thankfully wine in pubs is now a premium offer that is getting care and attention. Whether it is getting the right list, glassware, staff training or running events with wine – it has the potential to give that pub a unique selling proposition.

The New Inn, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex

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