Balfour-Lynn: it’s time to crack America

The English wine industry has a chance to confirm its international credentials by cracking the US export market, according to Richard Balfour-Lynn, owner of Kent estate Hush Heath.

Richard Balfour-Lynn is preparing to travel to the US in support of the biggest shipment of English wine to the country to date. Around half of the wine is from his estate (Photo: Hush Heath)

Balfour-Lynn’s comments came on the eve of his first major marketing trip to the US in support of the biggest shipment of English wine to the US to date.

As reported in the drinks business, the British Bottle Company sent its first full 20ft container of English wine – more than 5,000 bottles of fizz – to the US last month. Around half of the shipment was wine from Hush Heath Estate.

Travelling out on 12 October with Red Johnson, founder and CEO of the British Bottle Company, Balfour-Lynn will spend two weeks working with the business’s US distributor, New Jersey-based Vine Street Imports.

The pair will contribute to training the Vine Street Imports sales team about English wines and visit distributors in the nine, predominantly east coast, states in which the English wines will be launched.

There will also be tastings with several key Vine Street customers, and a press event at the British Consulate General in New York, before Balfour-Lynn travels to the west coast to spend a week visiting customers in Los Angeles and San Fransisco.

Balfour-Lynn said it would be “very interesting” to see what the reaction would be from the trip, adding that this was a critical time for the burgeoning English wine industry – particularly in light of the recent Brexit vote and the decline in value of sterling.

“It’s one thing getting a distributor and an importer, but the key is to get on to wine lists and from there to the customer, and to do that you’ve got to put some real energy into marketing, regular visiting and supporting the brand overseas,” he told db.

“It’s easy to believe that others can do it for you but the truth is you have to get out there personally and put the time and energy in. So it is a major investment to tackle these export markets.”

“Three or four years ago, export was not really on the agenda, but now I think English wine is being taken seriously. The quality of a number of English wines is really first-class and people are becoming aware of them for the first time.”

Appeal of US and Japan

Balfour-Lynn said that while there had been “one or two” recent significant export opportunities, including winning a tender to supply the Canadian Wine Monopoly, the biggest export opportunities for English wine producers existed in two key countries: the US and Japan, especially in light of the Brexit vote and the drop in value of sterling.

The first full 20ft container of English sparkling wine set sail for the US from Southampton today

The first full 20ft container of English sparkling wine set sail for the US from Southampton in late August

“I think there’s a huge trading affinity for English products and English brands in the US – in the fashion houses there’s been a huge growth in English brands – Burberry for example – being represented in the States. There’s a very strong trading relationship, and the Americans tend to be quite open-minded about trying different things…

“The Japanese love English brands. Again you can look at the fashion houses [which] have very strong trading relationships into Japan. I think they are a more developed and sophisticated market than the Chinese market. They’re price-conscious, and there is no question that the decline in value of sterling has helped increase sales.

“We started sending wine there through the British Bottle Company about six months ago and they are now ordering regularly. We will be visiting Japan in the spring of 2017.

“I think it’s really important to get behind the export initiative, train distributors’ sales teams, encourage their enthusiasm and explain our brand. This is all with a view to getting them to visit the UK, experience our winery and our vineyards and to buy into the whole English wine brand.”

From hobby to international brand

What began as a hobby for entrepreneur Richard Balfour-Lynn has rapidly expanded into an internationally-focused business.

Hush Heath planted its first vineyards in 2002, growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. For the first 10 years the estate made only one wine, the premium Balfour Brut Rosé. This sparkler became the first English wine on British Airways First Class worldwide, with other profile-enhancing milestones including being served at the Olympics in 2012, and on the Orient Express.

Hush Heath now produces both still and Champagne method sparkling wines as well as a range of ciders. In recent years the estate has also invested heavily in wine tourism, which forms a key part of a “three-pronged approach” to Balfour-Lynn’s long-term growth strategy based on tourism, growth in the on and off-trade in England and, of course, exports.

Balfour-Lynn revealed Hush Heath’s ambition was to grow the export proportion of its sales by 25% within the next three years. While Hush Heath has been selling small quantities of its wine in Europe – to countries such as Finland, Sweden and Germany, as well as further afield in Hong Kong, the over-riding emphasis for now would be on the key markets of the US and Japan.

“Whilst initially one had looked at a number of markets I think we’re now taking a clear rifle shot approach, and therefore putting time and energy into both the USA and Japan,” he confirmed.

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Balfour-Lynn added that, in order to succeed in the next stage of its development, it would be vital for English wine producers to work together and present a united front at international tasting events. This should involve the consistent support of the English Wine Producers marketing body in order to push home the ‘Brand England’ message.

A precedent for this is that, for the past three years, several English wineries have travelled as a group with English Wine Producers to the annual ProWein exhibition in Düsseldorf. Last year six wineries attended –Bolney, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Hattingley Valley, Ridgeview and Hush Heath. However Balfour-Lynn pointed out that English Wine Producers was as yet to show a firm commitment to marketing activities in the US and Japan.

Balfour Brut Rosé

Hush Heath’s flagship sparkling wine, Balfour Brut Rosé (Photo: Hush Heath)

“I’m hoping that English Wine Producers at some stage start exhibiting at shows in the United States and Japan but it’s yet to happen,” he said.

“At the moment it’s been individual efforts to sell into the States and I think the British Bottle Company are the first ones that have put forward four different English wineries with a view to representing all four, and therefore creating some sort of scale and variety for the distributors.

“We’ve all got to work very collaboratively – you think Wines of California or Wines of Australia – they’re very good at marketing the whole brand, and I think it’s really important that the premium English wineries continue to work closely together, to support each other and attend the international exhibitions as a group.”

Ultimately, as he prepared to embark on what may be a watershed journey to the US in October, Balfour-Lynn acknowledged the hard miles yet to travel to educate consumers of the quality offered by England’s top wine producers.

“There is no quick fix for this,” he admitted. “These are very early days. There are a lot of people who have never tried English wine. Part of the pleasure of this journey is how positively surprised people are by the quality of many English wines.”

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