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Knock sets out Philglas & Swiggot future

Justin Knock MW has hailed the independent retail sector as “one of the biggest success areas” for the UK wine trade in recent years as he outlined ambitions for newly acquired merchant Philglas & Swiggot

The retailer, which operates three shops in London, was bought earlier this month by Australian winemaking consultant Knock in partnership with compatriot Damien Jackman, who was formerly general counsel EMEA for Treasury Wine Estates, as well as Klein Constantia co-owner Charles Harman, and Gareth Penny, owner of fellow South African estate Penhill Manor.

“Our priority is to make sure that the stores we’ve got are doing the best they can,” Knock told the drinks business. “It’s going to take a bit of time to get our feet under the table, but Mike and Karen [Rogers, who founded the company] are going to help the transition. We just want to bring in two things: first of all investment and secondly fresh ideas.”

Knock described Harman and Penny’s primary role, alongside their financial investment, as being “great strategic advisers” for the business. “First and foremost they’re wine lovers who have put their money where their mouth is and own wine estates,” he remarked. “They understand the wine business and both have backgrounds with luxury brands.”

However, Knock confirmed that on a day-to-day basis on the shop floor “the execution of the business strategy is really down to myself and Damien.”

As for the decision to buy Philglas & Swiggot in the first place, Knock stressed the appeal of this business in particular. “Opportunities to buy independent wine merchants in London don’t come along very often and we certainly wouldn’t have looked at any other opportunities,” he insisted.

“Philglas & Swiggot was my wine merchant when I first moved to London 10 years ago, I interviewed Mike and Karen when I was doing my MW dissertation so they taught me a lot about UK retail, and the fact that they have a background in Australian wine is a natural fit for us,” outlined Knock as he confirmed a plan to build further on this specialism.

“I certainly feel Australian wine has been under-represented in London in the last few years,” he remarked. “There have been some really good new age wines coming through that we want to support.”

Justin Knock MW

With his own background in winemaking and importing, Knock expressed particular enthusiasm for this new chance to talk directly to the end consumer.

“Sometimes the trade has more resistance not so much to novelty products but to innovative products,” he remarked. “It’s very easy to say ‘I just want Shiraz from McLaren Vale or Barossa, not from the Yarra’, but the Yarra is an area where I’ve made wine and there’s some really interesting, exciting stuff coming out of there. When you can talk to the consumer about these wines, they don’t really care about the things we care about, they just want something good to drink.”

Picking out other areas of particular focus in the merchant’s portfolio, Knock reported: “Italy continues to be one of our most interesting areas – more and more customers are asking about it. I also think in South Africa there could be some interesting opportunities for us – and our investors mean it’s a natural fit.”

In addition to the “solid” portfolio already in place at Philglas & Swiggot, Knock emphasised the benefit of taking over a company where “there’s a lot of goodwill” from both the trade and customers as he outlined plans for developing the business still further.

“It’s done so well in the last 10 to 15 years, then the last five years have been more of a plateau but it means there’s a good base for us to build on,” remarked Knock. Among the early tweaks planned he confirmed: “We want to be more active on behalf of our customers so we’ll stay open a bit later.”

Creating a programme of tastings and events will be another important focus for the new owners, with Knock reporting “a latent demand for tastings – not formal education but learning about wine in an informal way.”

For Knock, Philglas & Swiggot offers precisely the right outlet to show off the wines that he feels deserve a bigger platform in the UK.

“If you buy into all the negativity in the trade, so much is focused at the bottom of the market and the multiple retail sector,” he commented. “We’re in a lovely niche, out of the groundswell that’s competing on price. The people who come into our shop are looking for wines from a certain place or for dinner courses they’re preparing. So much of our conversation is about the nice things about wine – not price.”

He also emphasised the vibrant nature of the UK’s independent sector at the moment, especially in the capital. “Arguably it’s been one of the biggest success areas for the wine sector in the last five years,” claimed Knock. “Look at how well people like Bottle Apostle have done. We’re lucky that London has largely been insulated from the downturn.”

Drawing a distinction from the volume pressures that affect larger retailers, Knock observed: “We’re so small that we just need people to buy one bottle of good wine from us a week, not five bad ones.”

For the moment however, the new team’s main focus is on steering the business through the peak Christmas season. Despite the additional pressures of this timing, Knock insisted: “It’s the best time to hit the ground. It’s like being in the winery at vintage, there’s so much going on.”

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