Q&A: Rollo Gabb

The managing director of Journey’s End in Stellenbosch and director of the Hart restaurant group in London on the challenges of South Africa’s strict lockdown and what the UK on-trade needs to do to find its feet again.

 How is business during this tricky time?

Different parts of the business are doing very well and other parts have disappeared temporarily. Our on-trade business globally has seen a lot of stress, but our retail side is performing very well and has given us an avenue to use more premium fruit from the 2020 vintage with our retail cuvées. We’ve managed to navigate Covid by focusing on the areas that are working.

How have you adapted the way you do business during the crisis?

We’ve been doing a lot of online tastings with our key customers involving our winemakers and buyers. We’ve put a huge focus on UK retail, with some strong successes of new business being won. We’ve also placed an emphasis on the Asian market, which emerged from Covid first. We’re well set up in Asia to be able to gain more traction in that market to spread the risk.

Only 3% of our sales are in the domestic market in South Africa, as we’ve always been massively focused on export. We’ve come away relatively okay compared to other domestic focused producers that are really feeling the pinch.

South Africa has had a particularly tough time of it during lockdown – how did you navigate the situation?

We try to carry 2-3 months worth of stock in the UK, so when South Africa banned the bottling of wine we were still able to supply our customers. The government has been very strict with its lockdown – I got one of the last flights out before they closed the drawbridge when they had just a handful of cases. The lockdown has been very vigorous but it can’t go on forever.

Restaurants are open in South Africa but you’re not allowed to serve alcohol in them at the moment. The smaller premium producers focused on the domestic on-trade and cellar door sales will be hardest hit by this. Producers are having to be versatile and think on their feet, ramping up online and off-trade sales. There is fear of another lockdown in South Africa as cases are increasing rapidly there. 

Bee hives at Journey’s End in Stellenbosch

What is the 2020 harvest looking like?

The 2020 harvest was great. Three short harvests and years of drought have been putting a lot of pressure on cost at the volume end of the market. South Africa is increasingly struggling to compete with Chile and Argentina at entry level.

With 2020 we’re back on track, with volumes approaching normal again. People are sitting on good inventory and great quality. We had a fantastic harvest at Journey’s End, with really good ripeness in the reds and good natural acidity in the whites – 2020 was a cracking year, close to 2015 in quality.

Have you noticed the crisis has changed consumption trends?

Our wine sales have been coming from online and retail, where they’re up by up to 30%. There has been a huge drive towards entry-level wines. Consumers have got more into cooking during lockdown and exploring wine, which has been broadly good for the industry as a whole, as it has driven new people to wine.

You’re a director at the Hart Group – have your restaurants reopened?

It’s an extremely nerve wracking time for the industry, which has faced turmoil after turmoil, from the financial crisis and Brexit uncertainly to chef shortages, high rents and expensive sites – it’s been a very difficult industry to navigate.

Without the government support many businesses would have gone to the wall very quickly during the pandemic. Coming out of it, there have been a number of casualties, mainly brands and concepts that had already become dated and had timed out.

We worked through lockdown to make sure we were going to emerge match fit and be in a position to be able to react, survive and thrive. We opened four sites at King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard on 4 July and opened El Pastor and Quo Vadis last week. Barrafina now takes bookings, which is proving popular. It’s exciting to be open again. We’ve worked hard to keep the team in place.

Rollo with his beloved Lurcher, Twiggy, in London

How do you think the on-trade will survive the pandemic – what needs to be done?

The on-trade is going to contract over the next 6-9 months. A lot will depend on what the government does and how ruthless landlords are with rents. Robust businesses will tighten up their systems.

The interim period will be tough for everyone while consumers get comfortable with eating out again. It will take time to build consumer confidence again- it’s like getting back on a bike after a long time. High-end dining might come out of this okay because those venues can more easily implement social distancing.

There is a large demographic of younger London-based consumers that want to get out and meet mates, have dinner and have fun. I think the sector will come back – a lot of operators that didn’t have strong identities or products and were already struggling have realised that they need to close some sites or change their formula.

Wine producers will have to work harder for a smaller share of the pie, which may take a few years to normalise again.

How do you think the coronavirus crisis will change the world?

I’d like to think that everyone will emerge from this much more aware of the environment and how precarious and delicate the world has become. I hope it has improved us all and we’ve all become better people for it and more conscious of things like the clothes we wear and what we eat.

Hopefully we’ll emerge in a greener way. People will realise they don’t have to travel as much and that their quality of life better through not doing it so much. There is no need to travel across the world for the sake of a day’s meeting – we have the tech in place to do that from home now.

What are your top priorities as a company going forward?

To continue building awareness of Journey’s End as a top quality, sustainable, ethical South African producer making great wines from coastal vineyards.

I want to build awareness of South Africa as a quality wine producer. South Africa is performing really well in the premium sector in the UK, but that requires a huge amount of focus and investment by WOSA and producers.

The top end of the market is South Africa’s biggest opportunity at the moment and is producing a diverse array of exciting wines of unbelievable quality at that level. We have so many dynamic producers – it’s similar to where Australia and New Zealand were in the early ‘90s.

That passion and supply is still there – there just needs to be more investment and education going into steering the British public in the direction of SA wines.

At Journey’s End we have a couple of new wines in the pipeline, including a Fairtrade Chardonnay that we’re launched in Marks & Spencer in September. We’re also releasing South Africa’s first augmented reality wine label in Sainsbury’s in October, which took a year to develop. The illustration tells the story of our farm and comes to life when you hold your phone over the label.

We’ve just released our first rosé, called Wild Child, made from Grenache, which will be sold at Quo Vadis and the Ivy restaurants among others. We’re also doing a bit through Tanners.

How have you been keeping yourself busy during lockdown?

I’ve been cooking a lot – I made a chimichurri sauce for a rump steak that I cooked on my Big Green Egg barbeque last night that I was pretty proud of. I’ve also been keeping fit by kayaking along the river with my son by Hammersmith Bridge, and walking our Lurcher, Twiggy.

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