WBI 515 p54 56 indigo[6][1] (PDF)

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Ben Henshaw’s import company, Indigo, has become a trend setter.
Adam Lechmere goes behind the scenes to find out what’s made it so influential in the British market.


n terms of wine style, the last decade has
seen a pendulum swing from oak and
sweet fruit to freshness and structure. At
the same time, and as a natural result of this,
there has been a surge in the popularity of
artisanal wines from smaller producers. This
emphasis on the authentic and the handmade
has led to the rise of a new breed of wine importer to service the needs of sommeliers and
independent wine merchants on the lookout
for such wines. Some of these small importers
react to current fashions while others set the
agenda. Indigo Wine is one of the latter.

A sign from the wine gods
Ben Henshaw, a spare, restrained
individual with a slightly monkish aspect,
rather drifted into wine. At the turn of
the century he found himself bored with
working on start-up websites and after his
parents bought a vineyard in the south of
France, was inspired to see if he could make
a go of importing wine. “I took it as a sign,”
he says. “I had a naïve but reasonable palate
and I used it as a starting point to work in
and around the Languedoc.” He called his
company Indigo, and had an early success
with Domaine Saint Hilaire, his parents’
winery; he managed to catch the eye of the
influential sommelier Ronan Sayburn, then at
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital
Road, who snapped up their Vermentino.
That wine is still listed by Indigo.
From Languedoc Henshaw moved on to
Spain, on the (sadly) reasonable grounds
that “Languedoc is a difficult sell. A
similarly priced Spanish wine from the
same grape and of the same quality will
go much faster.” He started just over the
Pyrenees. “I didn’t really know the area at
all. I walked into Vila Viniteca [Barcelona’s
long-established importer, distributor and
retailer] and asked to speak to the export
guy. I had an amazing hour there and came
away with 12 samples.” He still lists a
handful from those early days.

Indigo, which operates out of a compact
office – three desks and a kettle, wines
stacked four deep – in a converted
Victorian department store in the lively
London district of Brixton, now employs six
people (one of whom, his logistics manager
Nicolas Breton, doubles as a babysitter
for Henshaw’s triplet boys). In 2014 it
turned over £2.1m ($3.2m), and growth is
healthy at about 25% a year. There was a
flat period in the early days of the global
downturn, but by virtue of its size, Indigo
was “fairly immune to recession. We were
young, with a small base”. In those days
they concentrated on selling to retailers –
“because the restaurants were suffering”.
Still, while sales might be healthy, margins
can be tight, and cash flow can be a problem
as “we have to hold lots and lots of wines.
There’s a hell of a lot of cash tied up.”
Henshaw doesn’t want to discuss margins,
except to say they are respectable. “If we
get 20% then we consider we’re doing well.”
There are some 90 producers on Indigo’s
list, 60% of them Spanish, and some 350
wines. While he concentrates on Spain,
the list is wide: a grower Champagne and a
handful of sparkling wines; Portugal, Italy
and Slovenia, Germany, Austria and Serbia,
Australia, America, plus a partnership with
the artisan beer importer Biercraft.
Indigo’s approach to the US is typically
eclectic. There’s a skin contact Pinot Gris
and a Grüner Veltliner from Oregon, a Long
Island producer, and two interesting new
listings in California. There are wines from
US producers Nathan Kandler of Precedent
and Duncan Arnot Meyers of Petrichor,
both of whom have impeccable pedigrees
– Kandler has worked all over northern
California, plus a stint at Torbreck in
Barossa, while Arnot Meyers is celebrated
for the superbly structured wines he
produces under the Sonoma-based ArnotRoberts label.
Such producers are quintessentially
artisanal, a word that in 2002 didn’t carry


nearly the weight it does now. But those
were the producers that Henshaw wooed,
and now he finds himself perfectly placed to
satisfy a burgeoning demand for interesting
small-production, hand-made wines. “It’s
all about freshness now, isn’t it? I hear that
word all the time.”
He sounds faintly surprised, and
certainly unwilling to acknowledge that
he’s making the weather, but his peers
credit him with more than just selling the
wines he happens to like.

The impact
Mark Andrew, of London merchant
Roberson, considers Indigo to be “part of
a community of importers, sommeliers
and merchants that are all responsible for
shifting the agenda,” he says, remarking
that their biggest contribution has been
“to offer an interesting alternative to the
old school or high-scoring Spanish wines
that dominated the scene beforehand.
Thanks to Ben and his team, a different
option emerged that reflects the diversity
and artisanal ethos of Spain's most
exciting winemakers, and forward-thinking
merchants and sommeliers got access to
some amazing new wines.”
Those professionals flock to Indigo’s
tastings. These are sweaty, noisy affairs, a
scrum of young, bearded sommeliers from
London’s trendiest (and Michelin-starred)
restaurants elbowing their way to their
favourite winemakers’ tables, and talking
at the tops of their voices.
Raucous his events may be (they’re a far
cry from the buttoned-up solemnity of many
London tastings) but there’s no doubting
the seriousness of Henshaw’s purpose.
His list “inspires sheer joy,” Julia Harding
MW, one of Jancis Robinson MW’s stable of
high-profile critics, wrote recently. Indigo’s
clients are a roll-call of the capital’s best
restaurants, from Gordon Ramsay to Fera at
Claridgeʼs. Romain Audrerie, sommelier at



the Chiltern Firehouse – a favourite of the
Beckhams, Kate Moss and other A-listers
– told Meininger’s he considered Indigo
“indispensable – I’ve always followed
what they do. Their wines provide depth
and value to my list. He’s got all the crazy
new Spanish producers – from Ribeira

winemaker. “It took three or four years to
get Rafael Palacios on board,” says Henshaw,
referring to the younger brother of Alvaro
Palacios, possibly Spain’s most renowned
winemaker. Indigo represents Rafael’s
sought-after Godellos from Valdeorras. “I
knew the wines were good, so I bugged him.

Ben Henshaw (in blazer) with his team: Julia Frischtak (F) marketing; Nathalia Ventura, sales;
Nicolas Breton, logistics; and Alvaro Ribalta, sales.

Sacra, Tenerife, Ribeiro, Mentrida. There
are names that I knew when I worked in
New York but that I couldn’t get in the UK.
Indigo is absolutely in the top rank. For me,
working with them was automatic.”
Other sommeliers are equally complimentary.
Jan Konetzki at Gordon Ramsay takes some 40
Spanish wines. “It’s a thrilling and unique
list,” he says. “They’re the type of wines you
want to serve your friends.”
Any wine importer understands that
wine is about stories. When you turn up
with your suitcase of samples it’s useful
to be able to describe the particular
circumstances of the Roussillon producer
who scrapes a living from a couple of
hectares of arid hillside. “He knows the
producers personally,” Audrerie says. “That
individual approach is very reassuring. He
knows the landscape, and the family.”
Personal contact is key. Importers of
Henshaw’s stamp will spend months,
or years, cultivating a rapport with a

The relationships which take time are often
the most successful.”
A particular recent triumph is winning
Remelluri, the family winery of Spanish
dynamo Telmo Rodríguez. To say Rodriguez
believes passionately in terroir and in the
primacy of the vineyard is to understate
the case. As an artisanal winemaker he
is perfect for Indigo – but securing his
agency is also an indication of the kind of
clout the importer now wields: Rodriguez,
who makes wine in nine appellations, is a
powerful force in Spain.

Getting in
There are no set rules for inclusion in the
list. Wineries don’t have to be family-owned,
nor organic or biodynamic. “Twenty to 40,000
bottles is the average production of one of
our producers. That’s the artisanal sweet
spot,” Henshaw says. “But I don’t have a set
of criteria. It’s more about the way they taste.


If they’re handmade, not manipulated, I tend
to like them.”
The one word that seems to sum up Indigo
is “momentum”. They are now at the stage
where people will start knocking on the door
of the Brixton office. “He doesn’t hang out
with average people,” Audrerie says. “When
you work with producers like Raúl Pérez in
Bierzo, everyone wants to find out more about
you.” Henshaw – for all his modesty – is
perfectly aware of this. When he started in the
US for example the list might have looked a bit
top-heavy, with dozens of Spanish producers,
and two Americans. Was he worried the US
offering might seem cursory? “Not at all.
Indigo’s reputation will carry them.”
That reputation is strongest amongst
those who hand-sell wines – sommeliers and
the keener independents, concentrated in
London and the south-east of England. Sales
are half on-trade and half retail. “Restaurants
give a better margin, but they want smaller
orders – you have to give them one bottle
if they want it, but they go for unusual and
expensive wines.” Independents are “a key
market for us,” he says, adding that he sees
it as “absolutely our responsibility to support
them, with customer tastings, free stock for
sampling and so on.”
Growth will be organic, Henshaw says.
The list isn’t going to expand that much
more, but there are all sorts of projects in
the offing. They are already making a South
African wine, Force Majeur, along with Johan
Meyer in Swartland. That has spawned a
new label, Mother Rock wines, into which
Henshaw has sunk some £25,000.00 (“of
my own money, not Indigo’s”). That in turn
has inspired a multi-regional Australian
wine, a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre with
the working name of Mog, made by the
winemakers at three highly-regarded cultish
wineries – Jamsheed, Ruggabellus and
Ochota Barrels. And he’s also sniffing around
for a similar project in Spain.
While Mother Rock and Mog are going to
be around the £30.00 mark, Henshaw is keen
for the Spanish wine – when it materialises
– to be more accessible. “It’s easy to make
an artisanal wine at £30.00, but bringing it
down to £10.00 will be more difficult.” It’s a
pleasingly democratic instinct, and one that
does credit to a company that is constantly
at the forefront of the movement to bring
artisanal wines to a wider audience. 

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