Insights on English sparkling wine in the USA

By Tamara Roberts – CEO of Ridgeview

Being back in the USA telling the Ridgeview story and convincing Americans to shun the French Champagnes in favour of ‘British’ Bubbles is great fun.  I have now spent time in New York, Washington DC, Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Francisco, Denver & Colorado Springs over the past two years of market visits and expect that list to grow over the next two. In fact it’s the 4 hour coach journey between Houston & Dallas that is giving me the opportunity to write this blog. The USA has some rather complicated rules associated with alcohol or liquor as they like to call it. In order to navigate these complex rules in the US we have to work with an importer to bring the wines, a wholesaler to distribute wines nationally and then local distributors to sell the wines in each state.  This is the three-tier system referred to in the USA.

Since 2016, we have been working with Banville Wine Merchants, set up by Lia Tolaini, an Italian American with serious drive and ambition. For those of you who interested in the nitty gritty, Banville operate as an Importer, wholesaler and also have their own distribution in certain states.  In the states they don’t have their own distribution they form relationships with third parties who they trust to deliver their portfolio successfully.  They therefore have national coverage which make it easier for Ridgeview to get wide distribution quickly.

So, how does the USA differ from the UK? Firstly, Sommeliers rule.  They are the rock stars, holding almost celebrity status within their towns, cities or even states dependent upon their profile, particularly the Master Somms.  They decide which wines are ‘cool’ and worthy of listing on the top restaurants wine lists.  It is no surprise that the key wine competition in the USA, Texsom, was set-up and run master sommeliers.  This has become a significant wine event for sommeliers across the USA. It pleases me to say that Ridgeview were the first English Sparkling Wine to enter this competition in 2016 and we won a gold medal for our Bloomsbury 2014 in the 2018 competition.  I am also rather proud that this wine also won gold and Class Champion (Sparkling) at the Rodeo Uncorked competition 2018 held in Houston every year and judged by the consumers, the harshest critics of all.

One thing for certain in the USA is you have to get Sommeliers to love your wines and your brand to have any chance of making it.  Secondly, each state has different rules as to where / how consumers can buy their wine.  For example, in New York a grocery store cannot sell liquor so there are hundreds, if not thousands, of mainly independently owned liquor stores which need to be convinced to list your wines.  If you then go to Texas, the sale of liquor is dominated by grocers with Specs, Central Market and HEB being among the largest chains.  Colorado sits somewhere in between. Thirdly, consumers are extremely loyal to their domestic production, Californian and other local wines rule and value for money is not a factor in many cases.  Something we should practice more the UK I think, but I am slightly biased.

One thing for certain is that the choice available to consumers out here is phenomenal.  Sparkling wines are a booming category but still considered by most as a celebratory drink and it is up to us English producers to teach them otherwise – sparkling wines are to be drunk at ANY time.  The reception I get in my many tastings with sommeliers, buyers and consumers over here has changed dramatically since my first visit in 2011 when I barely got the time of day by many.  Now most have heard of English sparkling wine and are very eager to taste.  Our wines rarely disappoint on tastings but we still have some price resistance due to the stronghold Champagne has on the market, particularly grower champagnes. But hey, we’ve been there before at home so nothing we can’t overcome if we persevere.  It’s all about the quality, people and place after all.