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Insights / Amid a crisis, a wine merchant reveals an adventurous spirit

Amid a crisis, a wine merchant reveals an adventurous spirit

Covid-19 came at a tricky time for Off-Piste Wines, which was forging ahead with plans to put an £8m investment to good use this summer. Jo Gilbert caught up with MD Andy Talbot to find out what Plan B looks like for this forward-thinking business.

There hasn’t been a normal day for Andy Talbot, MD of Off-Piste Wines (OPW), since he took on the top job three years ago. After he began his tenure under the shadow of Brexit – and a now familiar sounding “underprepared government” – the company finally secured an £8m investment deal with the Business Growth Fund (BGF) in December.

When the deal came to bear after two years of negotiations, it was hailed as a turning point for the company. It would allow OPW, which has made its name on the back of product development over the past 13 years, to move to the next phase of growth.

2020 was supposed to be the year that Off Piste came off the side slopes and on to the fast track.

But, given the full-on nature of the past couple of years, Talbot seems almost unsurprised when talking about Covid-19, the meteor which arrived just in time to scupper all the company’s plans for the new decade.

“I’d equate it to watching a kids’ football match, where every player on the pitch follows the ball,” says Talbot. “We saw huge spikes in demand in retail in March when everyone was panic buying and we were able to divert our on-trade sales. Then there were major logistical challenges. Port closures in South Africa, for example, caused us a lot of short-term headaches. We also had our Off-Piste Spirit range, which we had hoped to launch at Prowein. It feels like we’ve been running towards one thing, then suddenly we’re off running towards another.”

For Talbot, as for everyone this year, plans/rules are made to be broken. Not to be deterred, he and the team came up with a plan to make sure their new spirits range reaches a consumer base this summer.

As the first spirits and the first NPD to carry the company’s own name, it might not have been quite the roll-out the company was hoping for. May’s persistently blue skies offered exactly the kind of weather that Talbot and the team envisaged for a summer of on-trade activations, festivals and outside events; and which helped Most Wanted pouches and Pinot Pinot cans become such hits in previous years.

Instead, they’ve had to make do with direct to consumer, with the spirits made available through the company’s ecommerce channel.

“It’s been a complete rewrite of our marketing plans,” says Talbot. “But you know, we’ve been delighted by the feedback so far and it’s showing real signs that it could have a big role in our future.”

The new Off-Piste Gin, first in the spirits range, continues the company’s reputation for slick-looking products, often with playfulness around format as an MO. But the range encapsulates all the trends that were heavy hitters pre-Covid: premium spirits, gin, outgoing branding. Will these things bounce back once lockdown eases?

“There are plenty of travellers out there who will want to be adventurous again,” says Talbot. “We thought it really made sense to use the Off-Piste branding for spirits, which is such an adventurous category, and our NPD manager Rachel Archer has done such a good job. We wanted her to have full creative control to just make the best product possible.”

Pushing on with NPD is another area of focus. Not content to slow things down – “NPD is what we’re known for”, says Talbot – the company is currently hiring a head of marketing to take the burden of selling off Archer’s shoulders and leave her to focus on brand development.

Other priorities include ramping up the company’s digital systems, which were identified as an Achilles’ heel by BGF.

“We have good information in our systems,” says Talbot. “But to be able to grow and double our profits over the next five years, it means we need a system that can scale with us.”

Needless to say, it’s been challenging few months for OPW’s managing director, and not just in the office, but in the Talbot household too. “The virus tore through the family,” he says. “Luckily, my daughters’ symptoms seemed to go within 48 hours. But I lost my sense of smell and taste for nearly a month, so you can imagine how relieved I was given my job when it came back.”

Talbot and the team seem about as resilient as the best of them out there – the past three years have shown that. Off-Piste Wines isn’t alone in weathering the storms of Brexit, financial restructures and now Covid-19. But if you can survive that, there’s a good chance you can survive anything.

This article was written by Harpers Wine & Spirit Trade News and appeared under the headline ‘Rewriting the rules with Off-Piste Wines’ on Harpers.co.uk