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WINNING WINE LOVERS’ HEARTS: Adrian and Rebecca Santolin, makers of the Boy Meets Girl range for Naked Wines.
WINNING WINE LOVERS’ HEARTS: Adrian and Rebecca Santolin, makers of the Boy Meets Girl range for Naked Wines. Contributed

Host of Angels cap a vintage year for Naked Wines

NEW winemakers, bespoke wine brand launches, awards and a small army of new Angel customers: 2014 was a big year for Naked Wines Australia.

Naked Wines Australia was launched by Managing Director Luke Jecks in July 2012, with a mission to change the way Australians buy wine.

Mr Jecks believed that the industry was doomed; those at the lower end of the production chain were being squeezed to breaking point by unsustainable margins.

By partnering with independent winemakers across Australia and New Zealand, the crowd-funded business is able to connect wine-loving consumers directly with boutique winemakers.

"The wines over-deliver on quality at the price point because the winemakers involved can sell their products directly to Angels," Mr Jecks said.

"By stripping out the usual marketing and distribution costs associated with traditional sales models, the winemakers can focus wholly on what they are good at.

"Naked wines are generally small batch and hand-made, and includes award winning bottles, and winemaking talent drawn directly from the top tier of Australian viticulture royalty (Stuart Pym and Daryl Groom, to name two)."

The opening of 2014 brought a bitter-sweet dilemma for the business: Sales over the busy Christmas and New Year period had soared, but stocks of sparkling wine had run dry. The team was torn between trying to fulfill customer demand and remaining true to the principles of the business (exclusive wine, commissioned annually in advance and made by Naked Winemakers).

In the end they opted to confess: "Sorry guys, our winemakers made some really great sparkling, you were kind enough to buy it, and unfortunately we haven't got any more."

The waiting list was a huge risk - we didn't know if it would work, but we had to try to create a more sustainable business, without risking authenticity

The crisis prompted a review of the business and resulted in the introduction of a waiting list for new members, codenamed 'Velvet Rope'. The business effectively closed the doors in March 2014 to redress the balance between supply and demand.

"The waiting list was a huge risk - we didn't know if it would work, but we had to try to create a more sustainable business, without risking authenticity," Mr Jecks said.

"We needed greater visibility over the quantities of wine needed, and now we have that. As people join the wait list, we are able to issue contracts to new winemakers - there is now a direct correlation, we have confidence in our forecasts, and as a business we're now more efficient and responsible."

On January 1, 2014, Naked Wines had 12,129 Angel members. By August 1 this figure had swelled to 19,856 (despite the Velvet Rope) and on January 1, 2015, there were 31,949.

Adding almost 20,000 customers in 12 months has made Naked Wines Australia's fastest-growing online wine retailer.

In July, the brand opened a distribution hub in Perth, bringing wine heaven to Western Australian customers, and the cheapest next day wine delivery service available on the market to Perth metro postcodes.

Also in July, Naked was nominated for an 'Innovative Retailer of the Year' Award at the Online Retailer Conference.

In October, the brand hit the $20 million turnover milestone, gaining the attention of Sky Business news and the wider business media. In December, Mr Jecks was named one of the wine industry's top 50 wine stars in Australian Wine Business Magazine.

With 2015 already under full steam, Naked's wine scouts are busy looking for the next crop of Superstar winemakers to sign up. Their shortlist includes Rob Paulazz, Riverina (NSW); Luke Tocaciu, Coonawarra (SA); Leighton Joy, Pyrenees (Vic); and Ben Rector, Pemberton (WA).

Reflecting on an exceptionally busy but rewarding year for Naked Wines, Mr Jecks said: "When people ask what the secret of our success is, it's simple - the wine is delicious. But we've also been able to innovate.

"Our customers communicate directly with our winemakers online; they form relationships and share their wine-drinking experiences. It's hard to put a value on that kind of thing - that's where the business part ends and the social magic begins."

Naked Wines signed up seven new winemaker partnerships in 2014:

  • Gary Stokes, Great Southern region (South of Margaret River, WA). Gary makes a killer Shiraz and a delicious Riesling under the My Other Self label.
  • Winemaking rockstar Stuart Pym at Margaret River, the man behind Voyager Estate, Vasse Felix and Stella Bella, to name a few, and now the proud curator of the Hearts and Bones brand.
  • Nicky Parish, with the Dunnolly Estate brand. She learnt the winemaking ropes around the world over the past 15 years, before returning to the family vineyard in New Zealand to work with her father, who tends the vines.
  • Cynthea and David Feldheim who make premium chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Tamar Valley in Tasmania's northeast, under the Gypsy Caravan label.
  • Ben Gould with his Blind Side label, a young and dynamic winemaker based at Margaret River, with natural winemaking and sustainability his major driving force.
  • Nigel Ludlow with his label Art by Evoi, adding more passionate Margaret River talent.
  • Mark Kenneally, fresh from working for a high-profile winery in Marlborough, New Zealand, brings his organic Tapi label to the table.