Las Bodegas – UK's Leading Specialist Importers of Wines from Argentina
In a short talk with LWC, Las Bodegas’ CEO, Laurie Webster shares insights about his business, current UK trends & his take on wine premiumization, Alexa & more.
Las Bodegas is an award-winning specialist importer of wines from Argentina and, increasingly, Chile, Spain and France. They purport to supply the best quality wines from small producers to the UK wine trade, particularly independent retailers and restaurants. They specialize in creating exclusive wines and labels for many of our customers.
Image: Las Bodegas’ CEO, Laurie Webster
Las Bodegas’ CEO, Laurie Webster, knows a thing or two about music and wine. A former HMV Marketing Director he also has massive UK wine market experience. He replied to our questions.
Tell us more about your business?
We are specialist importers and distributors of wines from Argentina. That is 90% of our business. We also have wines from Chile, Spain and the Languedoc in France, as well as a core range of premium spirits. We were established in 2004 by a small group of private investors.
What is your business’ target market?
First and foremost, the independent specialist retail sector; this has always been our main focus. We also sell wines to some regional wholesalers and a few restaurants directly. In the case of the latter, these are generally specialist Argentine / South American restaurants. We have a few listings with larger multiple retailers and we are always careful to ensure these are different wines under different labels in order to avoid any sector conflict.
How is the market currently?
It is more challenging than in any time during the last decade, more difficult even than in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. That was a finite event, something that we were all able to react to; it had an identifiable scale. In the current climate, however, there is an elasticity to the issues, and the issues revolve around economic uncertainty at every level, from individual consumer spending to large investment decisions.
All the stats show premiumisation of the wine market – how is your business adapting to that?
We have always focused on premium wines and we have never sought to try to compete seriously at so-called ‘entry-level’. This has always stood us in good stead and I think it will continue to do so, but there’s no getting away from the reality of widespread and heavy downward pressure on price.
Supermarkets dominate the UK drinks market, will they be still as powerful in 5-10 years time?
In terms of market share, I think, probably, yes. I suspect the processes of supplier consolidation and range rationalisation will continue, resulting – one could argue – in less choice on supermarket shelves and – one could also argue - an even simpler and yet more convenient wine buying experience in stores for consumers.
At the same time, I expect the many good independents we have in the UK to get through the current difficult economic times and actually thrive at the other extreme, providing plenty of choices and a deeper experience, provided they continue to remain relevant. So many of these operators are now far more than just a ‘wine shop’ and I think that’s excellent.
What are the specific wine trends that you are seeing emerge?
Fundamentally, heavy downward pressure on prices. It’s no surprise that with consumers generally spending less and spending less often, the trade is reacting by looking for cheaper wines at almost every level.
Should the UK market still be a priority for global producers?
I would not presume to tell producers that it ‘should’ be a priority. Like all businesses, producers need to see a return on their investment and there will be many throughout the world who have seen that diminish to a greater or lesser extent in recent years. They will obviously evaluate their priorities and, naturally, prioritise those markets where they see the greatest opportunities for growth.
That said, I sincerely hope that producers do continue to support this market and stick it out, so to speak because I believe it remains one of the most exciting markets in the world.
How should the ambitious producer approach the UK Market?
They need to think very hard about what it is they are offering that makes them different and better to what we are already importing and selling. I am sure that many importers feel, at least for the time being, that they are ‘on hold’ in terms of finding lots of lovely new producers. When great things come along they have an irresistible flavour to them and importers will often feel a ‘must have’ urge to get involved, but too many producers are a little naïve about the crowded nature of the market – a market that is not in growth – so any approach should be imaginative and intriguing. Obviously, the wines have to be excellent too and offer very good value.
The Millenial / Gen Z agenda of sustainable, environmentally friendly, natural, organic, biodynamic seems to be a growing force. Is the drinks market embracing it as quickly as they need to?
I could write a lot more on this topic than anyone will want to read. So-called ‘natural wines’ are very much on trend at the moment. I have to say I find this phenomenon laudable but frustrating, mainly because the definitions of what constitutes ‘natural’ are somewhat fluid, to say the least, and this leaves the whole thing open to abuse on a number of levels. I have lots of respect for importers, retailers and restaurants that specialise in this field but, on a commercial level, I simply find the wines too unreliable to be commercially viable – at least for us. Too many customer returns.
With the exception of consumers who have an intolerance for sulphites, and there are of course those who do and they should have a clear choice available to them, I honestly see no need to become obsessed with the use of sulphites in wine so long as this is done judiciously and sensibly.
If you are going to do the dishes, why wouldn’t you use a little Fairy Liquid?
I would be much happier to embrace the natural wine movement if a concerted effort could be made to establish clear guidelines on what constitutes ‘natural’ and if this were then to be made available to consumers via clear labelling and enshrined in an appropriate level of legislation.
Much as the certification process for organic wines is convoluted and expensive, it has nonetheless worked. Let’s have this for natural wines too, please.
A highly respected colleague in the wine trade once told me there are more sulphites in a single dried apricot than there are in an ‘average’ case of wine. I don’t know if this is true, but it makes you think.
For me, the priority is to offer really good wines that are consistently good, wines that consumers can be comfortable coming back to time and again.
I’m obviously 100% in favour of sustainable, environmentally friendly practices in vineyards and wineries.
Will Alexa ever replace sommeliers?
Let’s hope not!