“My first day was the first day of the London Wine Fair last year. I had a blank sheet of paper – I wanted to take the business here without any baggage or history.”
He started out by setting up an office in a Grade II listed building overlooking Canterbury cathedral – on the high-speed rail line to London but far enough out to be affordable – and building up his team, including former Bibendum colleagues Angus Clark and Alastair Green.
Félix Solís Avantis is owned by four brothers, three of whom are silent partners, and is run by the eponymous Félix Solís Yáñez – son of founder Félix Solís Fernandez and father of export and marketing director Félix Solís Ramos.
It owns Europe’s largest automated and air-conditioned wine warehouse in Valdepeñas, capable of storing 18 million bottles, which it hopes to increase to 30 million. Two bottling plants can produce 6,000 bottles an hour and the company has some 50,000 American oak barrels to mature its wines – and is hoping to double that number “in the near future”.
It also has wineries in La Mancha, Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Rioja and Toro as well as, since 1998, Shanghai.
In spite of the company’s massive output, Cochrane says one of the draws for him was its agility.
FILLING A GAP
“It is a family business with a UK future and I can have a conversation with two people to make any decisions I want. Normally meetings take a lot of time, [but the structure here] makes us reasonably large but very agile. The business has grown pretty well with significant double- digit growth on last year,” he adds.
Cochrane sees Spain taking on the New World to fill the gap for reliable, well- priced wines left by Australia since prices went sky-high there.
“The scene is exciting,” he says. “Spain 2013 – what an epic vintage, mostly from La Mancha. There is the real possibility of bringing Chardonnay, Cabernet, Grenache and rosé wines to shelves at affordable prices.
“Fifteen years ago Australia won the game by doing international varieties consistently at a good price. As brands became stronger prices have moved up a bit. Spain can bring a new challenge back to the New World. Geographically it is close to the UK but it has a significant footprint of international varieties that deliver an affordable price to quality ratio.”
Félix Solís Avantis supplies the major supermarkets with own-label and exclusive-label Spanish wines at various levels, including entry-point offers such as Tesco’s Everyday Value red, white and rosé in Tetra Pak.
Cochrane says: “They are our top four key customers. We account for one in every four bottles of Spanish wine in the market, although with the growth rate we are on at the moment it is probably a little bit beyond that.
“When we work with a customer we are very happy to do the value end and work our way up the ladder to something pretty special at the top.
“We have a model that is wholly efficient and provides value at each price point. The cheaper end of the market is quite hard to do well.”
The company then moves up the price chain with wines such as Waitrose’s Rueda Verdejo at £7.99 and Tesco Finest Ribera del Duero at £9.99.
Cochrane says: “Spain’s challenge is £5-£10 and making that relevant.
“Everyone says ‘let’s stop doing wine under £5,’ but if you want people to buy a wine for £5-£10 you need to keep enough consumers in the game who will navigate up the ladder. International varieties act as a stepping-stone to do that. A Chardonnay or Shiraz at £4.99 might take somebody to a Sauvignon Blanc from Rueda at maybe £7. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is in a similar price area, so a New Zealand consumer might come from the New World to try a Verdejo and then move on to white Rioja or into reds.
“It is about finding ways to take shoppers from where they are to where you want them to be, rather than shutting the door and saying go and buy beer or spirits and mixers.”
At the top end of the spectrum, the company produces La Unica, a £95 Tempranillo with labels hand-painted by Argentinian artist Mariano Rinaldi Goñi. The wine was blended from barrels selected from across the company’s six wineries, and the end result is a table wine because winemakers did not want to be restricted by DOC laws. Some 2,000 bottles of La Unica Vino Tinto 2011 were produced and the wine is now available from Matthew Clark.
Cochrane says: “It brings a completely new concept to its range – a table wine right at the top of its list.”
The on-trade makes up around a quarter of Félix Solís Avantis’s UK business, and Ayrum is the on-trade equivalent of its biggest off-trade brand, Viña Albali. As well as Matthew Clark the company works with Inverarity Morton, Greene King, Tanners Wines and El Vino.
LOOKING AFTER INDIES
On the independent side, Cochrane admits “we have been weak”.
“We haven’t pursued the independent sector fully,” he says. “A lot of independents use UK stockholdings to be able to service and supply them, but we work almost entirely ex-cellar. We are now able to do some mixed pallets for on-trade and independent ranges, so we can start to look after them a lot better.”
After such a promising start it is no wonder Cochrane is feeling positive about the future – not just for Félix Solís Avantis but for the whole UK wine scene.
He says: “There are people who criticise the supermarkets, but there is nowhere else on the planet offering the kind of diversity, choice and value – tax notwithstanding – that is available every day almost 24/7 here in the UK. It is phenomenally exciting.
“We have great riches – to be able to walk into a retailer and see anywhere between 500 and 800 SKUs in an average grocery store is remarkable, and there is no lack of innovation.
“I see experimentation in terms of countries – wines from eastern Europe, Slovenia, and then the Old World revival which Spain is benefiting from – and within countries. “We love to bring innovations to a world with lots of white labels – it is fun to bring a bit of colour.”