Adrian Bridge: 'Many people’s perception of port is old colonels in men’s clubs'

Julie Sheppard

Julie Sheppard

22 December 2017

'Tis the season when port sales soar, so what better time to catch up with Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, producers of Taylor’s, Croft, Fonseca and Krohn? He discusses the role of the on-trade in port promotion and education – and how to engage new drinkers into the category.


How important is the on-trade to the port category as a whole?
I think the on-trade is important to all drinks categories, because obviously it’s a place where a lot of people can try out new wines, so it becomes really critical for that moment of experimentation. We would also see it as a moment when you can educate people, with properly trained sommeliers who can help explain and do things like food pairings, which somehow add value for the customers. They have that direct communication and conversation with a consumer, in the context that consumption is taking place.

How does The Fladgate Partnership work with the on-trade?
First of all we segment our brands. In the UK, Taylor’s is available in all channels, because it’s a brand leader. But we specifically have Fonseca more focused on restaurants, because we understand that price equivalents are sometimes an issue in the on-trade. Glasses, service: all these things cost money and that needs to be covered, so the on-trade needs higher margins than the retailer would make on selling a product.

How can restaurants increase port sales?
Hand-selling, by the glass, flights and food pairings are all important, but with one concept in mind: that a sommelier’s job is to increase business. In that context, there are two things we’re actually looking to do. One is to enhance the value of the experience of the customer, through education, interaction or making the customer feel more welcome and therefore more likely to become a repeat customer. The second thing is that the sommelier is there to help sell people an appropriate drink. At the end of the meal, do you ask someone if they want coffee, or do you ask if they want a glass of port? I would argue most people know whether they want coffee and will ask for it. Whereas they wouldn’t necessarily think about a glass of port. So from a business perspective, a very basic way to increase sales is to ask for the order, but make it an appropriate suggestion. I think customers want that help.

Do you think customers know much about port?
The port category is a very old category, so there’s an assumption from a lot of people that they know everything about port. Of course they don’t, but because they think they should, they don’t want to ask. A lot of people feel they should know how to decant port for example. But they think: do I have to stand the bottle up for a couple of days? Do I have to hold it over a candle? What do I really do? People want that reassurance, and wine service professionals can offer that. They can help the customer and add value – and if you’re adding value then that’s good for the restaurant business.

Do you feel that port is still viewed as a very traditional wine category?
Many people’s perception of port is still old colonels in men’s clubs. If that was true, we could be doing tastings in every gentlemen’s club, to everybody over the age of 65, and we would be talking to every single port consumer in the UK. But that isn’t the reality. The reality is that 54% of our consumers are male, 46% are female. Half of our consumers are under the age of 45, so we actually have a huge number of people to talk to, and a huge number of different channels – and that’s a challenge.

How can port appeal to new consumers?
The evidence we see is that the millennial consumer is interested in brands of authenticity; not just brands that have a story to tell, but brands with a genuine history, a genuine ability to develop products, to engage, and have tradition. A lot of millennials have been bombarded with – I’m cautious to use the word ‘fake’, because there’s a chap running around calling everything fake news – but ‘fake’ brands in the sense of things that come and go, that aren’t consistent. But Taylor’s is 325 years, Croft dates back to 1588, Fonseca is 200 years old. These are brands with a real story and real authenticity – and people like that.

What are your challenges in engaging millennial drinkers?
We’re seeing millennials drinking less, but typically they’re drinking better. People talked about this trend a decade ago, but we actually see it happening now. The niche drinks categories are getting more attention; we’ve seen that with the resurgence in quality in sherry. And we’ve certainly seen it in port; the top of end of port is actually doing really well because these people are genuinely interested in that sort of product. The nice thing about millennials is that they’re more willing to experiment. I think the on-trade is where they can experiment and likewise, sommeliers and bartenders are looking for new drinks to excite their customers. So it’s a two-way street in that respect.

What’s your key message for millennials?
I like to call port the oil of good conversation, which I think it is. You come to the right moment of the meal, people are relaxed, you want to prolong the evening, sit around and chat, sip on a drink – and port actually works in that situation. I think that younger group like the fact that port is formal, but at the same time you don’t have to get too hung up on the rules. Just open and enjoy.

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