Watkins wine making a splash in the US market

09 Aug 2023

South Australian wine producer, Watkins, cracked the US wine market last year in a big way – selling 15,000 bottles of its award-winning wine in its first order. 

Jo Watkins, who is Export, Sales and Marketing Director for the label, recently returned from her third visit to the US in the past 12 months. The purpose? To continue to develop the in-market relationships made during her first visit as part of a US Market Export Program with Wine Australia.

They were able to participate in the Program because of a 50 per cent fee rebate provided by the Department for Trade and Investment, as part of the South Australian Government’s Wine Export Recovery and Expansion Program.

Why the US market?

The Watkins wine label started in 2019, however there is more than 25 years of family history and experience in viticulture and winemaking behind it, with the Watkins family planting their first vines in South Australia in the 90s.

Although a young wine brand, Jo Watkins says exporting to the US was a strategic move they set their sights to early on. 

“We were attracted to the US market because of its size – it’s a significant market and offered major growth,” said Jo.

“While most of our wine is sold in Australia, our winery produces 20,000 cases, and is scalable to 100,000 from fruit grown on our properties alone, which allows us to meet large orders.

“The palate for wine in the US is also well-suited to the full body, modern fruit-driven styles we produce – with 44 percent of our vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

The US market was a great fit for our product and business.”

Ben, Sam and Jo
Ben, Jo and Sam
US Market Entry Program

While Jo describes their entry into the US as “short and strong”, there was a lot of groundwork behind their entry, including invaluable knowledge and contacts gained through Wine Australia’s US Market Entry Program.

The market entry program provided important insights and learnings about the US market – from compliance to legalities, pricing, logistics and marketing.

As part of the program, Jo visited New York and California where she was introduced to a number of importers, brokers and retailers. 

Jo says that the key to the US is having your product in market. 

“The problem is it’s a chicken and egg situation: you need an importer to get your product in market, but to get an importer you need your product in market,” said Jo.

“This is where the market entry program and Wine Australia were really helpful. As part of the program, we were able to get samples into market so importers would look at us.”

Importance of in-person follow-up

When the programmed wrapped up, Jo returned to the US to follow-up with the contacts she’d made.

Jo says following up those contacts and making the effort to visit them in person really paid off.

“I think after Covid where we all moved to Zoom meanings, a lot of businesses thought that Zoom meetings would replace in person meetings,” said Jo.

“In our experience that hasn’t been the case. 

“Showing that you are willing to travel to the US and meet importers where they are shows a real commitment to doing business in the US marketplace.”

Another advantage Jo says was the strong connection and affinity the Watkins family have with the US. 

All three of the Watkin’s siblings have lived in America. Sam Watkins did a vintage in Napa Valley, brother Ben had lived in Texas where his wife is from, and Jo had worked in Washington at the embassy.

“The fact that we had all spent time in the US and the move to export there was a planned, strategic move, was very well received,” said Jo.

“The US market was a great fit for our business and our wine a great fit for US consumers, so people could see our approach was authentic rather than a reaction to the collapse of the China market.”

Watkins also export to Canada and Poland, and are now taking steps to enter the UK market.

A growing market for South Australian wine

For many South Australian wine export businesses, market diversification has been key for growth amid the trade difficulties of the past couple of years.

The US is one of the markets that has opened up for Australian wine. In the past 12 months to March 2023 Australian wine exports to the US have grown by 22 per cent to $178.9 million.

South Australia has the lion’s share of wine exports globally, exporting 64.6 per cent of all wine exported overseas.