Zinfandel focus for new UK importer

A new UK importer has set up dedicated to Californian wines and especially Zinfandel.

Established by Mark Haddrell and Olivia Gilbert, Sheffield-based Zinstream began trading in November 2011, when the company’s first shipment arrived from its anchor producer Michael David.

Explaining the motivation behind the venture, Haddrell, who together with Gilbert continues to hold down his existing job with Hewlett Packard while the business establishes itself, remarked: “We’ve always been interested in wine and visiting vineyards, but we took a look at the wine country in California and there were all these wines that weren’t available in the UK.”

From Michael David’s perspective, the partnership opens up an opportunity which Doug Kahle, president of Global Wine, the producer’s export market representative, felt had proved elusive in the UK until now.

“For the last four years I’ve been trying to get Michael David wines into the UK, but no one was really interested,” he reported. “We found a lot of the agencies in the UK are quite jaded: they either see the bottom end of California, the big brands, or there’s the big agencies that have everything so you kind of get lost a bit.

“It would be nice to see it open up and see more people introduce Zinfandel to consumers here.”

Looking back on the first few months of business, Haddrell has plenty of feedback about the UK’s perception of Zinfandel. “A lot of people don’t understand it,” he admitted. “There’s certainly a place for more approachable styles and some of the less fruit forward stuff.”

He also cited the field blends produced by Michael David as examples of the variety that deserve to be better known in the UK market.

For Haddrell, it is the value offered by Zinfandel which makes it particularly attractive from a commercial perspective. Looking to the rest of California’s offer, he remarked: “The Cabernets are good, but they’re quite expensive and it’s the same with the Pinots.

While it remains early days for the business, Haddrell is also finding that the UK trade is reluctant to give this variety much shelf space. “The shops’ feedback is that they tend to have one Zinfandel,” he reported, adding: “Some are a bit dismissive; others are keen to promote it – people know California, they see the adverts and it looks nice.”

Another element in Zinfandel’s favour is its common “old vine” tag. “People here seem to love the old vine concept, even if there’s no definition about what it means,” remarked Haddrell.

Alcohol levels can pose a challenge for the variety, but Haddrell finds this is more an issue for the UK trade than consumers. However, he noted: “Anything over 15% abv is a problem with duty; that’s an important thing the wineries need to pay attention to if they’re wanting to export to the UK.”

As for the inevitable pairing of Zinfandel with steak, Haddrell has plenty of other recommendations to hand, from casseroles and lamb rump to, more suitable for the summer months, barbequed meat.

In his view, the way forward for Zinfandel is “definitely in the independent shops; that £10-20 range where you’re really getting some good variety.” In addition to working on “getting into more shops and restaurants” over the next few months, Haddrell also now plans to target consumers directly via events such as The Good Food Show.

Zinstream was not the only dedicated Californian wine importer to launch in the UK last year. California Fine Wine began trading last March, introducing a number of premium wines from the state, especially the Central Coast region.

Among other outlets for its wines, California Fine Wine has taken over a section of new London enoteca Dalla Terra, where the Italian-dominated wine selection is augmented by around 30 of the importer’s Californian wines, many of which are made using Italian grape varieties.

For an in-depth update on California, look out for the drinks business California Report, published with the May issue.

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