As the pandemic continues, so has an increase in sales for many wine businesses. This has provided a lifeline for many operators, allowing businesses to keep going despite the changed trading circumstances.
In March of 2020, a savvy barman named Oliver Brown, noticing the rush of hospitality venue closures, quickly established his own online DtC (direct to consumer) business, Big Easy Drinks.
In the following weeks, the online wine buying market boomed exponentially to all-time highs, due to strong demand from locked down consumers who were unable to visit venues to make on-premise purchases.
Orders flooded in from local customers in South Australia, boosted by interstate sales as well. This year, Big Easy Drinks (BED) shifted its business model in an effort to bring back one of the crucial elements of the hospitality trade: the bartender’s recommendation.
Brown, who had often heard the “what do you recommend?” line while working behind the bar of East End Adelaide institution, The Stag, had been missing this interaction all year, ever since the pandemic forced people into becoming more reclusive.
So, in January, Love & Other Drinks (L&OD) was launched – a subscriptiononly DtC platform for Brown and his wine buyer Jack Booker to keep wine interesting, while supporting Australian producers at this crucial time.
The idea to transition the business to a more personalised, curated platform came as venues started to reopen at the back end of 2020, which coincided with a reduction in orders for BED. “I think the word of the last year has to be ‘pivoted’,” said Brown.
“It was really fast-paced when we launched Big Easy Drinks last year. And when we did, we saw a huge amount of orders flow in from all over.
“So from there, when venues started opening again, orders started to settle back to some form of pre-COVID-19 normality. There were a lot less orders going through the online platform, probably like a quarter of what there was during the closures.
“Then we decided that the online subscription market was what we loved and where we wanted to go.
“We love curating products for people.”
Brown says supporting local was the definitive selling point for BED.
“We went strictly with independent producers, because they’re the people we’ve gotten to know well through working at The Stag,” he said, “We wanted to be able to pay our bills and continue to support our smaller suppliers”.
Rather than people just ordering the same things they usually order, Brown says he and his team wanted to choose wines that they thought really “hit the mark”.
“So, we chose to go down the subscription and curated path,” he explained, “This was our way to introduce people to new products that we, ourselves, were enjoying”.
“So we launched Love & Other Drinks in January of this year, and since then we’ve just been building that subscription service up from there.”
The underlying process for getting that multipack of mixed wines delivered to your door involves much more than you would think.
Jack Booker, L&OD’s wine buyer, says curating the wine list, on a month-by-month basis, comes down to supporting local, what’s selling on-premise at The Stag and a bit of gut instinct.
“A lot of the producers that we work with are local, quite small, and are just distributing directly,” he said.
“I often will get in touch with them to offer another way for them to keep their supply chain moving through us.
“What usually happens when we take on another producer is we run up a little tasting, and I see what products I like and what products I think will work in the market.”
Booker says his focus for L&OD’s wine program has always been about “supporting local producers”, a lot of which are on-premise or in-venue only.
“When our industry ground to a halt with all the venues closing, those avenues for producers to sell halted too,” he said.
“So we just really wanted to support them and give them an avenue to keep selling, through us.”
Last year saw devastating bushfires tear through many of Australia’s wine regions. The effects of which, on vintage releases, are starting to be seen, according to Booker.
The fires constrained many producers’ vintages to minimal quantities, while some had their production reduced to nothing due to burnt vines or smoke-tainted fruit.
“I think we’re starting to see the effects of the 2020 vintage, with the impacts of the fires,” Booker said.
“Even in the last three or four months, there have been such small quantities of wines that are just flying off the shelves. I sometimes get an email from a producer saying, ‘Hey, I’m releasing this vintage’, and two hours later it’s all gone because people have snapped it up.
“I think there’s going to be more of that kind of thing going forward for at least the next year.” However, the vintage doom and gloom seems to be fading now that the outlook for this year’s vintage is far more promising.
“I think the 2021 vintage is looking amazing,” Booker said, “All the producers that I’ve spoken to have said that yields are up and quality’s looking really, really good”.
“So that’s very, very promising. But as far as the supply chain goes, it’s probably going to be similar, just with smaller quantities from some producers. I guess this just pushes me to do a bit more research and push people to dive into producers that they might not have ever seen before.”
Brown says the subscription market is alive and thriving, with consumers showing a trend toward preferring a “set and forget” mentality to their wine purchases, letting the supplier select the best three per purchase timeframe.
“I think people love to kind of set and forget,” he said, “It becomes a lot more, because we as bartenders are used to someone coming up to the bar and saying ‘give me a wine’.
“So we’d say ‘perfect, what are you looking for?’, and we get to kind of go down the path with them and then find a wine that we think will suit their requirements perfectly.
“When you have an online bottle shop, you don’t get that opportunity to excite and delight and give service like that. So for us with the subscriptions, people say they trust us to make that call.
“They’ll set what kind of wines they’re after, and then we get the opportunity to go out and find the wines that we’re really excited about and then deliver them to the customer.”
So far, Booker says the business model works well with feedback ‘coming up Milhouse’, adding the business hasn’t seen a dip in subscriptions so far.
“The really positive thing is that we’re seeing no customer drop offs with subscriptions, whether monthly, or every two or three months,” he said.
“We haven’t seen any customer feedback saying that this kind of thing isn’t for them. So I take that as I’m doing a good job, and that people are happy with the local produce we’re choosing.”
The big point of difference for the L&OD crew is their selection. Not only does the site offer a whole host of different Australian wines, but beers and spirits as well.
Brown says consumers are really getting into the diversity that subscription services can offer. He adds that direct to consumer has been the go-to space for the alcoholic beverage industry, saying the value of purchases has risen while quantity may have reduced slightly.
“There are a lot more wineries selling direct to consumer now,” he said, “And then there was a lot more consumption for retailers and bottle shops, which spiked a lot”.
“The obvious observation of this is that a lot less is being sold in venues because people weren’t really going out.
“The way people are consuming wine has definitely changed to be a lot more home consumption, directly from the winery. And I think people are starting to spend a little bit more on booze but drinking a little bit less.
“I also think people would rather spend money on a good bottle and have that one rather than having something more affordable and smashing a few of them.”
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of the Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker. To find out more about our monthly magazine, or to subscribe, click here!
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