The Rugby World Cup is now reaching its tense semi-finals – Argentina versus New Zealand on Friday, then England versus South Africa on Saturday. We have already seen some amazing rugby in the past weeks, and these final matches promise to deliver a whole lot more… with only the very heaviest hitters left in the competition.

Meanwhile, we recently had the chance to catch up with Simon Halliday: a former English rugby union international, who had the honour of playing in the 1990 Rugby World Cup final.

Nowadays, Simon runs the Sporting Wine Club. It’s a clever initiative which brings together sporting beverages with support for some deeply meaningful causes around the world. For example, one of their biggest partnerships has been with the Doddie Weir Foundation – named for the rugby legend – which does groundbreaking work in the fight against Motor Neurone Disease. 

From their origins offering a selection of mostly rugby- and cricket-themed wines, the Sporting Wine Club has expanded its range, year-on-year, to add collaborations with all kinds of different sporting personalities… while also now venturing into the world of spirits, such as whisky and gin. 

You can partner with Sporting Wine Club on Alvio today – or read on for our full interview, as we talk to Simon Halliday about his journey from the pitch to the vineyard.

Simon Halliday, ex-professional rugby player, and co-founder of Sporting Wine Club.

A Conversation with Simon Halliday

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Simon. So can you tell us how the Sporting Wine Club came into being?

I was on a British & Irish Lions tour in 2009, and Allan Lamb, the test cricketer, invited us to have a wine tasting event with [South African rugby union player] Schalk Burger. I would have played against Schalk in the ‘80s, when he was playing for the Springboks, but I incurred a nasty ankle injury the week after I made my debut for England. 

So anyway, instead I met him 20 years later, 25 years later. And his wines were wonderful – he had a range of wines called the Meerkat, and a vineyard based one hour north of Cape Town, near Paarl. To cut a long story short, we persuaded him to deliver his wines to this company that was trying to tie wine sales in with sporting stories… though unfortunately, that company went bust. So I was faced with saying Sorry to a six-foot-eight Africana, who sounded pretty menacing even from 2,000 miles away. 

So I said: Look Schalk, we’ll do our best to pay you for the wines… because he sent 500 cases, and no one had paid for them. So that was the genesis of the Sporting Wine Club. I got together with a couple of my mates and one Irish entrepreneur, and we brainstormed it… we asked, What is the USP we've got here? And we realised we had great wines – and just to add, all these wines were made on the estate, which most of the wines in the world aren't – plus the great sporting backstory.

We formed the Sporting Wine Club together, with those criteria: that all of our wine had to have an authentic sporting connection; and the wine had to be made on the estate, you know, lovingly hand picked, hand pressed, and all that good stuff. 

With that in mind, we signed up Ian “Beefy” Botham and Bob Willis's wines: the BMW label from Australia. I know Beefy well. Then there were Nick Faldo's wines from across Europe, and Jimmy Anderson had some wines which he brought in from Languedoc. We also had a charity based in a wine estate in South Africa. They built a rugby pitch in their vineyard for a black African township team, who'd had their ground taken away from them. 

So there were lots of really interesting aspects to all of this, but of course, I'd never done anything like this before. I'd been working in the City for three decades. So it was difficult, but we kept going. We managed to – as people will see from the brands now – come into some NFL wines, some rugby wine from France, and world class Bordeaux wines. We added Graham Gooch's wines from France, some horse racing wines from England – the only English sporting wine that exists! – and of course, the great Leo Messi… who's got two Malbecs, a Torrontés, and a sparkling wine, that we took on from Argentina. So in most of the winemaking nations in the world, there's also a sporting connection there somewhere. 

Fine wines on offer from the Sporting Wine Club - now available through Alvio.

Sporting Wine Club also has a deep commitment to charity work. We’d love to hear more about those connections.

Most of our winemakers, if not all of them, have a formal relationship with a foundation or charity. Given my past as an ex-international rugby player, I’m very aware of how lucky we all are in the sporting world… and how unfortunate some other people are. So we felt that by supporting winemakers who worked with charitable causes, we could then build into that and serve a larger purpose. So when we were asked if we'd do a wine for Doddie, absolutely, we were glad to set that up.

Being new to this business, we don't hide what a bottle of wine costs. We just say it like it is... and that sales margin, we knew we could do something meaningful with that four or five quid per bottle. For example, the reason we did the Doddie Red, was to help raise awareness of the fight against MND [Motor Neurone Disease]. We do work with a children's cancer charity in Africa, I already mentioned the estate that built a vineyard for a township team, and Leo Messi – for every bottle of his wine we sell, an amount goes to the work done by his foundation in deprived cities around the world. And that's where he came from, you know: he had a very humble upbringing in South America. 

The most recent wine we brought in, was from the Beast. Everyone who knows rugby knows “the Beast” – Tendai Mtawarira – the South African World Cup winner, from Zimbabwe originally. And if you look at the Beast's foundation, it's all about helping disadvantaged kids in Africa to fulfil their potential. 

For us, we still need to manage that balance… in our situation I suspect sometimes you err on the side of the charity, and then remember that you have a business to run! So you’ve got to get that right. But all of this is part of our story. And I think it builds up some residual goodwill, for people perhaps putting up with some of the vagaries of a small company, or giving us a little bit more slack on things… Because we're trying to do a number of good things besides advertising quality wines. 

Sporting Wine Club is committed so supporting a range of different charitable causes.

It’s not just wine though, is it? Seems like you’ve been expanding into the territory of high-class spirits too!

Yeah, we have a rugby field vineyard whiskey, which is a very limited single malt, and 12 years old. It's a wonderful whiskey, really terrific. I just haven't got enough of it. Then there’s Louis Oosthuizen's 12-year-old whiskey, Loch Lomond, celebrating his 2010 Open Championship wins. We've got Matt Hampson gin too. Matt broke his neck playing for England under 20s many years ago, and he not only survived that, but he now runs an incredible foundation which helps people with spinal injuries to recover. His theme is “Get Busy Living,” which is great. And he has this wonderful gin, it really is a nice gin, which we've stocked, and a certain amount from that goes to his foundation. 

So there's gin, there's whiskey, there's a bit of brandy. We are flirting with the beer market, because the Doddie Foundation's done a beer. So we're looking at that as well. Or maybe beer could be a step too far! But there are always other products we will take on, if it makes sense. If the story's right. For example, we have a rum coming soon. Rum is the next gin, apparently – so we'll see if that works.

Where do you see all this going? What does the future look like for the Sporting Wine Club?

I think I've probably come to this a little bit too late for it to be my life's work! But for me, it's all been about the network… and about creating something that's interesting, that’s high quality. You know, the number of rugby clubs and rugby matches and stadiums that you go to and find the quality of the wine is really poor, because no one really cares about it: it's always the bog-standard Chilean Merlot bottled in Bristol. And so we’re trying to get away from that. 

Our proposition is to say to people: Combine great sporting events, with wine, and good causes. Just imagine people wanting to order the wine at an NFL match, because they're world class wines, and the guy that made it played quarterback for the New England Patriots. What a wonderful story, you know? Or you're watching the Buffalo Bills play the Chargers, and you're drinking an NFL glass of wine. 

I know that sounds a bit fanciful. But you can already go into a football stadium and drink Messi's Malbec, rather than some horrible thing you've never heard of. And I believe that people do actually see the value of that. But of course, then you come up against the business side of things. I guess the dream is that people can actually see through the false economy of a cheaper bottle of wine... That they're prepared to pay a few extra quid for this. Because unfortunately, the margins in wine are not very good, unless you're dealing in high-end Bordeaux. 

We've had a number of situations where we have been on the edge of some really serious business, which would have been great. The winemakers would have loved it, we could have leveraged the downstream, but then you lose it because the current supplier can go 50p cheaper than that. And actually the end consumer should say: You're missing the point! But they get seduced by the 50p reduction, and they go: Oh, we love what you're doing, but they came in cheaper, so we're sticking with them. Which means they were attracted by the 50p saving per bottle, more than they were by the opportunity to put some quality narrative into the story of their wines.

The Sporting Wine Club are now moving into the world of high-end sports themed spirits too.

Surely a lot of consumers out there would rather give four pounds to building a sports pitch for disadvantaged kids, than give three pounds to profit someone like Tescos?

I think that's right. And I can sell that story every day of the week – it's probably not a difficult one to sell, but you still need supreme amounts of energy. You need to be competitive when that conversation happens. And you need to maintain those relationships as well. Because however good you are, whatever story you have, you can be disintermediated if you don't stick to it. Our content is wonderful. And the wines are lovely, people keep telling me... after all, I sell some of the best Bordeaux wines you can buy in the world. But people wouldn't know it, because I'm not out there spending a hundred grand on marketing.

So I guess, long-term, maybe we set it up as a membership thing. Our future has got to be to deliver higher volumes to places where people then go: Yeah, I'd like to keep buying this myself. And we've got amazing sporting gifts, for fans, players and enthusiasts.

I think going forward, if the driver of the business was supplying high-end quality wines to members… and then we managed to get into the corporate boxes of sporting clubs around the UK, and managed to get our products onto gift lists, or get listed in certain sporting restaurants – and there's a number of restaurants that are owned by sports people – that’s the way to do this. 

As long as that connection is authentic, and people get what the story is, I think they should be a little bit more agnostic to the pricing... and that’s the key thing, because while the winemakers love the story, love the connections, ultimately they do also want to sell wine.

Finally, what role do you see Alvio being able to play in the future of the Sporting Wine Club?

Technology facilitates connections. When the execution is right, it lets people connect swiftly, with low costs… and as long as we’ve still got that emotional connection in there too, people will go: Oh, sporting wine, and good causes. Yeah, I like that. 

When we did the Doddie red, we made a website sale every three minutes for two days. It was so emotional. People couldn’t get enough of it, a nice case of Doddie red, and they knew they were contributing to MND causes too. Our online sales went through the roof.

So I think where Alvio can help us, is to introduce that swifter, technology-driven sales opportunity – without diminishing the brand. We currently only have limited capacity for our own marketing, so it would be great to be getting to people's front doors via other websites and companies. 

Obviously, there's bucketloads of sporting clubs out there we could partner with. And when you have the potential for that sort of digital relationship, it allows us to say: Look, if you want to partner up, we can actually set it up really easily thanks to this company Alvio.

You can partner with the Sporting Wine Club on Alvio today!

Thank you so much for your time, Simon – we’re thrilled to be working with you and the Sporting Wine Club.

Add Some Sporting Wines to Your Store Today!

So what do you think… Do you like the idea of combining sports, fine wines, and support for meaningful causes? We think it’s a surefire winner, and it couldn’t be easier to start adding Sporting Wine Club’s products into your own ecommerce store.

Partner with Sporting Wine Club on Alvio

Sporting Wine Club are looking to partner with all kinds of sporting clubs and retailers who share their pro-charity outlook (not to mention their passion for fine wines). Especially right now, considering how giftable their products are, this would be a great opportunity to fill your store with sporting wines and spirits ahead of the Black Friday rush. Talk to us today if you need any help getting set up!

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