Ask Philip Cox how his business is going and he says “our only problem is we don’t have enough wine”. But this is not the statement of a cult winery regretting that it has to sell on allocation. Cox is CEO of Cramele Recas, a giant Romanian winery which now produces around 25 million bottles per year. Yet they’re still unable to keep up with demand.
How a man from Bristol, a port-town on the west coast of the UK, ended up at the helm of Romania’s most successful exporting winery is just one of many stories that Cox has to tell. Despite 30 years living abroad, he’s retained a Bristol accent and the sense of informality associated with the region of his birth. Cox is no diplomat either – he tells it like it is.
He first set foot in Romania in 1991. Having completed university in 1990, Cox struggled to find employment but eventually found a position at a London-based advertising agency. He was despatched to Romania to market Heineken beer and Douwe Egberts coffee. “I was the newbie”, he explains, “and no-one else wanted to go to eastern Europe back then”. Romania was recovering from the bloody 1989 revolution and trying to find its feet in a post-communist age. The country had been brought to its knees under the authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, and its people were starving and destitute.
“It was like the wild west” recalls Cox. “There was no food in the shops, no fuel in the petrol stations. Pretty early on, I learned how to siphon diesel out of tractors”. He quickly saw that the Romanians were different to their neighbours. “Romania is an island of latin-ness within a sea of Slavs” he says, “and Romanians are really entrepreneurial”. Everyone wanted to talk to this novel western European visitor about their business plans – even though he was 22 and penniless.
From pallet of beer ...
Cox quit his advertising job and started an import business with a pallet of Heineken beer, which he says “sold out in five minutes”. Then he brought in a truck, and grew from there. But his fledging operation rapidly hit an issue: the Romanian Lei was devaluing to the point of becoming worthless, and couldn’t be exchanged into any other currency. Cox had no way to pay his Dutch suppliers.
Realising that wine ought to be one of Romania’s strengths, he visited a few wineries to see if there was a saleable product that could be exchanged for imported goods. In the 1990s, all of Romania’s wineries remained under state ownership as they had been under the Communist regime. Quality was mostly “diabolical rubbish”, as he puts it, but after a year of trying to drum up interest at wine fairs back in the UK, Cox struck gold. Via contact with Scottish MW Angela Muir, he came into contact with Reh Kendermann, the German parent company of the famous Black Tower brand.
Seeking new opportunities as the popularity of inexpensive semi-sweet German wine in markets like the UK went into terminal decline, Reh Kendermann wanted to get into eastern European. Cox brokered deals for them in Romania, and ended up on their payroll. During the second half of the 1990s, the company built a dedicated winery and brought in flying winemakers to provide much needed expertise.
But Cox had spied an Achilles’ heel: as land in Romania was haphazardly handed back to its original owners, vines started disappearing. No-one had the money or the expertise to manage vineyards. “You need to have a stake in the vineyards here – it’s a deal-breaker” he says, but unable to convince the owners of Reh Kendermann to invest in the land, he parted company with them in 1999 – the year the Romanian government decided to start privatising its wineries.
... to a "rubbish old winery"
First up for sale was Cramele Recas, a 600 hectare property near Timișoara, with what Cox describes as “a rubbish old winery”. With encouragement from his Romanian wife Elvira, Cox partnered with two other families and started negotiations to acquire the estate. “We didn’t want to buy the whole 600 hectares” he says “but the government insisted it was all or nothing”. The trio had little capital, and the Romanian banks refused to provide loans for anything related to agriculture. However, there were no other buyers, so Cox was able to agree a deal where payments were deferred for five years under a leasing agreement.
“Looking back, we had no idea what we were doing” says Cox. Suddenly he and his partners had a large area of of vineyard to manage, and bills to pay. With no credit lines available, the business ran at a loss for the first decade and stayed afloat on a hand-to-mouth basis, with each partner ploughing in any spare cash they had. Cox says “It was not a comfortable time - I vividly remember selling my wife’s gold earrings given to her by her mother”. After Romania joined the EU in 2007, the team were able to access grants to help with vineyard replanting although, as Cox notes with slight bitterness, they did not quality for any financial help with modernising the winery or developing the business.
Focus on the customer
“It forced us to be extremely customer-focused” he adds. “We had to sell wine. If we didn’t sell, we had nothing to pay the wages”. In stark contrast to the more romantic idea of winemakers as philosophical artisans, the Recas team adapted their products to whatever customers wanted. This extended not only to wine styles and price points, but also to what was planted in the vineyards.
Originally, these were filled with Chasselas, a popular variety in Romania at the time, plus Bordeaux varieties, Furmint, Kekfrankos and Welschriesling. Cox and his team gradually replanted with more commercially attractive options such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, both of which have proved hugely successful, especially in export markets. In the early 2000s, while Romania – like most of the rest of Eastern Europe – had a very poor reputation for wine, thanks to low labour and land costs and the expertise introduced by Reh Kenderman and those flying winemakers, Cox was able to convince customers with a combination of reliable quality at extremely competitive prices.
While international varieties were key to Recas’s success, they also innovated by planting native Romanian varieties such as Feteasca Negra and Feteasca Regala, which were hitherto unknown in the Timis region. These helped the business to offer the domestic market better quality versions of familiar styles than the old state-owned wineries had ever managed. As one of the first privately owned businesses in the country, Recas managed to build a solid domestic market from almost zero.
Today, Recas sells 45% of production domestically, and the rest to export. By 2016, 75 percent of these exports were to the UK, but events in the June of that year would bring another test of Cox’s agility. “As soon as I heard they’d voted for Brexit, I jumped on a plane to go visit my German importer” says Cox. “I said, ‘I’ve got a great idea for you – why don’t you sell more Eastern European wine”. He had similar conversations with all of the company’s other potentially strong markets – Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Norway, Japan and South Korea: “We showed them the track record we had of producing bespoke products that were both great wines and great value for money”. The process doubtless involved more effort and stress than this description suggests, but it was certainly successful, and now the UK represents just 10 percent of export sales – a remarkable pivoting of distribution in such a short time.
Although the winery worked widely with supermarket own-labels in the 2000s, this is no longer a focus, and Recas now owns or co-owns almost all of the brands under which it sells. Cox does however like to develop sub-brands in collaboration with his clients. The ‘I am’ brand, for example, is co-owned by Recas and their Dutch importer Delta wines, and represents one of their most successful lines. Exports to the Netherlands have been so successful that Cox now has a problem. “They asked me for three million bottles more this year” he says, “but I can’t just turn on a tap – we don’t have that much wine”.
Cox resents being regarded as merely a cost-cutting, mass-production company. He says “just because we’re big doesn’t mean that the wines are low quality”. Indeed he notes that it’s only because the winery was able to over-deliver in terms of price/quality that it survived at all.
The orange succes
After reading about the developing natural wine and orange wine trends in the press, Cox realised that sustainability and minimal intervention were important themes for many customers. While Recas itself has a 20ha experimental organically farmed vineyard, Cox has also partnered with three other major vineyard owners with organic certification. Their output goes into a range of low-intervention wines that have been a proving ground for Cox’s winemaking team.
He laughs that Recas’s Australian head winemaker Hartley Smithers wasn’t immediately enthusiastic about trying to make an orange wine, but Cox insisted, and the result has been a commercial success. From a mere 10,000 bottles in 2016, Recas’s “Orange” will hit a quarter of a million bottles in 2021 – a drop in the ocean for Cox but one that would dwarf most artisan wineries in Europe.
Cox says that he “almost received hate mail” when the winery first marketed its orange natural wine. The disdain from the natural wine community was unwarranted – Cox fulfilled all of the criteria, making the wine with organically grown fruit, no added sulphites, no added yeasts and no filtration. He notes that it sells particularly well in Asia, and can be found in 7-11 stores in South Korea. However in Europe, its success depends on appropriate distribution. After initial collaborations with supermarkets, he has, perhaps unsurprisingly, discovered that these wines sell better in the on-trade or in specialist wine shops.
Recas doesn’t neglect sustainability when it comes to its more mainstream production, having dispensed with the use of herbicides across its entire 1,250ha vineyard holdings. While fungicides are still used, the company utilises spray collection technology that has reduced the amount of sprays needed by 80 percent. The huge winery now also boasts an impressive array of solar panels, and a fleet of electric cars – including Cox’s own prized Tesla.
The wines are certainly mainstream and fruit-driven, albeit sometimes rather simplistic. But it’s not easy to produce wine on this scale with consistency and quality, and Recas has perfected the recipe. Walking through the unending vineyards in the gently rolling hills of Timis, it’s hard not to be impressed by their health and condition. The winery itself is modern and spotlessly clean. Light years away from the bad old days of Soviet-era winemaking.
As Cox stands aloft a sea of massive stainless steel tanks – a single one holds 75,000 litres, more than the output of most wineries in Burgundy – a smile forms on his face. He takes obvious pride in what he still describes as “a family business”. The only thing that keeps him awake at night is where to find another three million bottles of Pinot Grigio for the thirsty Dutch.