THE WINE MERCHANT.
An independent magazine for independent retailers Issue 52, October 2016
Here’s to a pointless festival with zero revenue potential
Your mission: deterring freeloaders, and attracting
4 comings & GOINGS
A newcomer, an expansion, a refurb and a closure
The Artisans of Australian Wine tasting in Shoreditch was a good place for beard watchers –
the example above belongs to Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels – but also a perfect opportunity
to catch up with what some of the trendier producers Down Under have to offer independents.
Was David Williams impressed? Find out on pages 18 and 19.
Picture: Steven Morris
Merchants braced for major price increases
Independent wine retailers have been hit
will become an even more pressing problem in
by a flurry of pre-Christmas price hikes as 2017. The possible triggering of Article 50 is
suppliers pass on the effects of sterling’s
predicted to spark another currency shock.
post-referendum collapse against currencies Suppliers who spoke to The Wine Merchant
such as the euro and the US dollar. So far the increases have been limited to 3%
argued that the situation could indirectly benefit independents, because it is likely to lead
to 5% in most cases, and many suppliers have to further range reviews in supermarkets and
yet to move, choosing to absorb the currency more dumbing down of the multiples’ ranges.
losses within their own margins to minimise
But while independent retailers are taking
disruption for customers during the busiest
a pragmatic view of the situation, merchants
trading period of the year.
acknowledge that not all wines in their ranges
But there is general acknowledgement that are likely to survive a New Year range review
prices will have to rise dramatically in the New and some may prove too expensive to continue Year to reflect the reality of sterling’s ongoing listing.
weakness – which some economists believe
• Full report: pages 20 to 22
6 tried & TESTED
Yes, we like Lambrusco. Who’s with us?
12 HIGHBURY VINTNERS
How exactly can an independent increase sales
by 7% every year?
29 IPA TASTING
The 12 stand-out beers worthy of your shelf space
34 FOCUS ON SPAIN
Do consumers realise yet that it isn’t all about Rioja?
38 focus on RUM
It’s the toast of the trendy ontrade. So why not indies?
42 MAKE A DATE
Memorise these November tasting details immediately
44 supplier Bulletin
Essential updates from agents and suppliers
No raffle prizes, no free bottles
Most retailers know that requests for charitable donations are as inevitable as death and taxes. Taking part in community fundraising is often part and parcel of running a successful independent business and there are different ways of showing willing and making substantial contributions, all the while avoiding penury.
Cambridge Wine Merchants has a clear policy laid out on its website, stating: “We don’t make donations, hand over raffle prizes, or sponsor events.” But the list of good works that the company offers is enough to offset this statement with an admirable lightness of touch.
Chairman Brett Turner admits that the public’s expectations of independents can be a problem: “They wouldn’t walk into M&S and request a free case of wine … it gets very repetitive and people get upset if you turn them down. The lesson we’ve learned is to have a good policy in place so you can say ‘we don’t do that, but we do this’. It saves everybody’s time.
“From the wine merchant’s point of view the best thing they can do is the fundraiser tasting model, not just handing over free stuff. We say to people, you bring the guests, you sell the tickets. We give 25%
off the wine and put on the show, because that’s what we’re good at. Everyone enjoys themselves, we make some new customers and the charity makes the money.”
A few wine merchants already follow this model, with a few variations. Some, such as Regency Wines in Devon, get physical and brave a sponsored team activity – Commando Challenge, anyone? – donating the proceeds to a chosen charity.
Manchester’s Hangingditch supports a number of local charities, either by donating time at wine tastings or raising funds at its own annual wine fair. Owner Ben Stephenson says: “We get asked for a lot of donations, which we can’t afford to do.” The ideal situation is to choose a local charity to collaborate with, which in Stephenson’s experience, “works well – but it depends on how proactive the charity is”.
Simon Drew these
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 2
Piper smiles at the crocodile
Looking for an original and eye-catching way to label his new Australian range, Devon merchant Christopher Piper turned to long-term friend and artist Simon Drew.
“He said, ‘yes, why not – I haven’t done any wine labels before,’” says Piper. “People love them because they look totally different.”
Beyond the design work, labelling can be a complicated undertaking, but as CPW has plenty of experience in the labelling process – “we’ve labelled our own stuff before over the last 40-odd years” – Piper is well versed with the legislation involved.
“We check it through with the EC authorities and the local authorities, make sure the size of the print is right and make sure the information about where it’s all been bottled etc is correct. You have to absolutely make sure the minutiae is perfect so when you set up a proof of that back label you get it checked by the authorities to make sure you haven’t missed anything. You’ve got to be very rigorous about it.
“The way you put the labels on a roll is very important because different labelling machines are different in how it unravels. That’s the sort of detail that people probably don’t get – the size of the roll, how many labels you have on a roll.
“There are cost issues in terms of how many bottles you run through at a time because obviously every time you stop a labelling chain it costs a lot of money. So you have to do quite large quantities to keep it affordable.”
Crock of Gold and Red Herring are shipped in skins from Australia to CPW’s preferred bottling plant in Germany, where 1,000 cases of each wine are bottled and labelled.
Thinking big for small businesses
“Small Business Saturday is about changing behaviour all year round. You might discover a small business and go back and use them again and again for the rest of the year,” the initiative’s director Michelle Ovens says.
This year’s SBS takes place on December 3 and now is a good time for independents to plan their involvement.
Duncan Murray Wines, one of the Top 100 Small Business Saturday businesses in 2015, will definitely be taking part again this year. “You never quite know what it’s going to bring, but it’s free, it doesn’t take long to put together and it might just lead to a huge Christmas order,” he says.
SBS is supported by American Express, whose cardholders receive a £5 statement credit every time they make a purchase of £10 or more with a participating trader.
“It’s worth doing Amex; the charges are a lot less than they used to be,” says Murray. “We offer discounts for bulk orders paid for with cash or debit cards so customers know that if they use a credit card they won’t get that discount. But on SBS, Amex customers just need to buy a bottle of whisky or a bottle of gin and they’re going to get a fiver back for shopping with us – great idea,” Murray adds.
Free parking is often organised locally around SBS. Ovens says: “Over 80% of the UK’s councils are taking part in some way, doing a whole range of activities; street fairs, Christmas lights turn-on, free parking, networking events … so definitely drop your local council a line. And if you’re in a trade association – the chamber of commerce, the FSB – they are all supporting Small Business Saturday so they will probably be doing something local too.”
Small Business Saturday posters and
window stickers are available free of charge from smallbusinessaturdayuk.com.
Women: an inconvenient truth
The blokey reputation of wine merchants is going to take some shifting on the evidence of a new report.
A Wine Intelligence survey of 1,049 regular wine drinkers found that 16% of men who drink wine at least once a month do at least some of their shopping in an independent specialist. Among women, the figure dips to just 10%.
Of those wine drinkers who do buy from independents, the frequency of visit is significantly higher for men than it is for women. For both sexes, the most usual reason for visiting an independent is “I was just passing and popped in”.
The report goes into detail about the way different age groups and consumer types interact with indies, and also sheds light on the reasons why specialist merchants don’t necessarily pull in the kind of consumer numbers that their owners would like.
For 48% of consumers who don’t buy from indies, the simple truth is that “I am happier shopping for wine in the supermarket”. Some other old chestnuts also appear: 34% argue that “their wines are too expensive for me”, 17% say “they don’t offer enough promotions and discounts” and 11% “feel intimidated about going into the shop”.
But amid the negativity comes a glimmer of hope. Forty-four per cent of refuseniks point out that “there isn’t one convenient to where I live or work”. Just as well, then, that the report identifies around 200 locations where a new independent could potentially thrive.
More information about the UK Independent Wine Retail Report at wineintelligence.com.
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 3
“Our Man with the Facts”
• The earliest known winery, dating back to 4000 BC, was discovered in 2007 by archaeologists in Armenia. Locals are believed to have crushed grapes by foot in a metre-long clay basin before fermenting the wine in vats and storing it in jars.
• The Aztecs enjoyed an alcoholic drink called pulque, made from the fermented
sap of the agave plant. Anyone overindulging was said to be “as drunk as
• During World War II the Royal Navy started building “amenity ships” to cater for the off-duty needs of sailors in the Pacific. The MV Menestheus was equipped with its own brewery but the war ended before it went into service.
• The House of Commons spent £81,017 on Champagne and sparkling
wine in 2015. However the cost was recouped by sales from the cellars,
amounting to £110,187.
• The patron saint of vignerons is Vincent of Saragossa, who was tortured to death by Romans in Spain. He is also the patron of brickmakers and sailors.
Third store in three years for W&W
September saw the launch of a third Whitmore & White branch within three years of the original Heswall store opening in 2014.
Owner Joe Whittick says that while expansion has been swift, the business is resolutely “premises-led” and the recent opening was spurred by the sudden availability of a suitable unit in West Kirby.
He says: “A premises came up to let which was the only building in town I’d ever thought was the one we’d like to have. You can’t miss the opportunity, because you don’t know when it’s going to happen again.”
As the business has developed, each shop has changed to suit both the area and the steadily growing trend for on-trade sales. “There’s a lot of restaurants and cafés in Heswall, so we didn’t feel the need to do [on-trade], it’s just one of those things that has just naturally grown,” he says.
The Heswall site remains purely retail focused while the second shop, in Frodsham, has seen the introduction of coffee and wine by the glass.
And now, in West Kirby, there are 20 covers with cheeseboards and charcuterie platters on offer, alongside wine by the glass and gin and tonics. “But we don’t want to lose the focus of retail, and everything we serve is available to buy and take away,” Whittick says.
The wine list varies from store to store as each manager is given the flexibility to take on their own preferences, with the firm belief that “you sell what you love – we all sell what we like to drink”.
Currently the business uses between 15 and 20 suppliers, including Alliance, Liberty Wines, Gonzalez Byass, Mischief & Mayhem and Italy Abroad. “With the two stores we looked at importing ourselves
The Whitmore & White team: Joe Whittick, Tom Bennett, Laura-Jane Hall; and Simon Parkinson
and thought it probably wasn’t worth our while,” Whittick says. “But it’s something we’ll revisit now we’ve expanded again because you basically get through the volume and can justify pallets of things.”
Gill opens for business on the Hill
A welcome addition to the small, but growing, club of female wine retailers is Gill Stenning, who has opened Ninkasi Sussex in Burgess Hill.
Stenning reports that the business is “going slowly but steadily upwards”.
“I was working for Threshers a way back and then I worked for another independent before deciding to go it alone.”
Stenning’s real specialism is beer, with a number of ales on draught and a “fantastic” range of Belgian beers and other ales. But wine will also be a focus area and Stenning’s colleague Fraser Clarke has extensive knowledge of the category.
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 4
“We’ve just got a Hindleap Estate sparkling from Bluebell Vineyards and we’re shortly to be having Bolney Estate. Our focus is the stuff you won’t find everywhere else,” she says
Ninkasi has an on-licence for Tuesdays from 6pm to 11pm to enable tasting events.
Relaunched shop takes £16k in a day
Hampshire’s Stone, Vine & Sun marked its refurbishment with an event resulting in takings of £16,000.
“We had to work very hard and we’re still a bit shell-shocked,” says owner Simon Taylor.
A wood-fired pizza oven helped to attract about 150 people during the day. “We saw quite a few new people and they were very complimentary about the new shop. We’ve enlarged and improved it.”
By swapping over the office and shop space at the Twyford site, the retail area
increased by 30%. “We could run a tasting for about 60 people or even a dinner,” says Taylor. This extra space will be welcome, he reports, as overcrowding has been a problem in the past.
Being “completely invisible from any road” the business has to work hard to attract new customers, and as Taylor admits he eschews social media, finding “the whole thing a complete waste of time,” the company relies on word of mouth and understanding the needs of its clientele.
“Our average wine buyer is a man aged between 45 and 65, and we sell a lot of Bordeaux, so I’m not sure we’re going to attract those sort of customers on social media,” Taylor says.
Farewell to Wine Store at No 4
The Wine Store at No 4 has closed after six years of trading.
David Houghton opened Houghton Wines in 2010 in the Rhiwbina area of Cardiff, changing the name in 2012.
A post on the Rhiwbina Village Events Facebook page said: “Rhiwbina has lost a little treasure of a business in the village. It provided a friendly unique hub for local people to just pop into and enjoy a fabulous glass of something, and on festival days they helped transform Beulah Road, providing drinks and a place for people to stop and catch up or watch the live bands.
“Losing The Wine Store is a stark reminder of just how hard it is to survive as a small independent business.”
Files at Companies House point to problematic recent times for parent company Aeon Wines. In July 2013 an application was made to strike off and dissolve the company – withdrawn the following month – and accounts filed in January this year showed liabilities of more than £46,000.
Hasty despatches from the frontline of wine retailing
Iread that traditional wine retailing is dead. Hybrid models are the way forward, apparently. “Brave” is the merchant who ignores this. Eek!
It has been something I’ve considered, thanks to this very publication’s many stories about the glories that onpremises drinking offers.
On the other hand, if things are ticking along just fine with the odd tasting here and there, why invest more precious energy into the licensing, planning and organisation that serving wines by-theglass requires? Because it might mean a better turnover which means a better holiday in January.
But it might also mean more staff and longer opening hours. And what about preservation systems? Glassware? Dishwashers? Nibbles?
As my internal fevered debate continues, I plan some trips to visit some fellow indies who have taken the plunge.
Alex suggests I try Dosage, which has built its model around §wine dispensing machines. “You can taste some amazing old wines,” he says. “Stuff I could rarely afford, even with my staff discount.”
Indeed, there is an impressive line-up. It’s a Thursday night and the place is busy. It should be buzzing, too. However, any atmosphere is killed by the continual click-hiss-click-hiss that even the music can’t completely drown out.
One member of staff is showing people how to use the machines. The other is replacing an empty bottle. I ask her how she finds the machines. “A pain,” she replies candidly.
“We spend so much time looking after them and showing people how to use them, we never really get to talk to customers about the wine itself. As a result, most customers self-select.
Malbec and Sauvignon sales remain very bouyant.”
The following week, I head to The Vat Cave, a cheery shop full of “superhero” wines. Barrels with stools are dotted around, occupied by customers slugging back glasses of Vacu Vined-ed old world staples. I reveal myself and the owner reveals himself in return.
“We were struggling a bit, to be honest,” he says. “Serving wines by the
It seems I’m off-message when it comes to on-premise sales. Is that a bad thing?
glass has turned things around.” Then he lowers his voice: “Problem is,
many people now see us as a bar first and want longer opening hours and more food – plus explaining pricing is a mare. Those who still think of us as a shop first bitch about our £8 corkage, but they’ll happily order glass after glass of the same wine, which will cost them more.
“Those that see us as a wine bar can’t get their heads around the concept of shop prices. They rarely buy to take out as they think it’s one price across the board and they can get cheaper elsewhere. You don’t realise just how dumb some people can be until you start serving wines by the glass.”
Those final words resonate as he pours me a glass of their most popular white, which turns out to be the most bland and flabby Bourgogne Blanc known to man. I actually paid for this stuff?
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 5
tried & Tested
Villa Cialdini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro 2015
In a world where so much sparkling wine is dull and made to an identikit formula, it would be nice to think there’s a bright future for authentic Lambrusco. This, from a family producer who built a state-of-theart winery for the stuff in 2002, is lively, fruity and refreshing, with a cherry and raspberry tang. RRP: £13.99 ABV: 11% Liberty Wines (020 7720 5350) libertywines.co.uk
Matetic Vineyards EQ Chardonnay 2013
Matetic’s line-up was one of the highlights of the Armit
tasting and all the range was showing brilliantly. This
one’s clean and classy, with nuanced honey and peach flavours and a distant hint of salted butter. Say what
you like about biodynamics: when you get wine as lovely as this, the voodoo seems justified.
Armit Wines (020 7908 0660)
Heirloom Vineyards Barossa Shiraz 2014
“Seven long vintages of trial and error passed before Heirloom Vineyards could make a wine that was fine enough to pass on to future generations,” the marketing says. That happened back in 2007 and now
it’s producing dense, autumnal beauties like this, full of
blackberries, blueberries and a spicy prickle.
RRP: £18.99 ABV: 14.5% Liberty Wines (020 7720 5350) libertywines.co.uk
Litmus Orange 2015
Bacchus from Dorking: it’s perhaps not the most exotic
of propositions but you can’t fault John Worontschak’s
ambition for any of the Litmus range. Here the grapes
have been fermented and aged on their skins, adding extra colour and body to a wine that remains defiantly
subtle and secretive, but yields teasing notes of flowers, nuts and Turkish delight.
Litmus Wine Agencies (01306 879829)
Vina Tabalí Talinay Pinot Noir 2014
Boutinot describes this as “one of the best Pinots from
the southern hemisphere” and it’s certainly worlds
away from you might have expected from this grape in
Chile a decade ago. Soft, rich and peppery, with hints of leather, its finesse owes something to the cooling Limarí fog and afternoon coastal breezes.
RRP: £15-£17 ABV: 13.5% Boutinot (0161 908 1300) boutinot.com
Tua Rita Rosso dei Notri 2012
Cabernet dominates this super-Tuscan blend,
made in Giusto di Notri’s 20th vintage, with Merlot
and Cabernet Franc playing supporting roles. The
grapes come from a hot coastal area and have a
burning intensity about them in the bottle. A juicy,
succulent and multi-layered wine that craves a beefy
Armit Wines (020 7908 0660)
Es Fangar Elements 2012
Bancroft’s new Mallorcan producer makes characterful and complex wines in a maritime microclimate, typically blending local varieties with international stars. In this case the peppery, low-alcohol Callet and Manto Negro rub shoulders with Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah and the result is a rich, meaty but cherry-tinged wine with a breezy freshness. RRP: £30-£35 ABV: 14.5% Bancroft Wines (020 7232 5470) bancroftwines.com
Rodríguez La-Cave Barbiana Selecta Manzanilla NV
Berkmann’s new Sherry agency also features a
delicious Amontillado called Goyesco. This Manzanilla,
from the acclaimed Balbaina pago, isn’t of the salty,
pungent variety (fun though those styles are) – it’s
clean, creamy and toned down, with no rough edges at
all, which makes it dangerously drinkable.
RRP: £7.49 (37.5cl)
Berkmann Wine Cellars (020 7670 0972)
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 6
THE WINEMAKER FILES
Simon Waghorn, Astrolabe Wines
Astrolabe Wines was established in 1996 by Simon Waghorn and his wife Jane Forrest-Waghorn. Together they have developed a range of distinctive wines that
celebrate the unique varieties and terroirs of Marlborough. Today they own 10 hectares and now export their wines to the UK exclusively via Armit Wines
There’s no winemaking tradition in my family. I studied marine botany at university and was looking at ways of farming and utilising seaweed. I joined the wine club and worked at a bottle shop. Half way through my Masters programme I decided I’d opt out of the science course I was doing because I saw a post grad course in winemaking.
My view of winemaking is “less is more” with science. There’s a few scientific principles that are really useful and some of them are really basic – things to do with managing pH – but I don’t have any pretence of knowing about biochemical pathways and that sort of stuff. I believe you can come to winemaking with very little science.
I think you do need a sense of creativity. You have to have a vision that you’re creating something that’s life-enhancing. Otherwise you’re going to struggle as a winemaker.
A good thing about getting older is getting yourself into a position where you call the shots on every aspect of the business. Rather than having a marketing department saying “this is what we’re trying to do”, I can say “that doesn’t interest me”. Now I can afford to drink wines from further afield, I like to drink Chablis and I like to drink Mosel and Burgundy and Barolo and things like that, and my own winemaking is informed by the fact I’m drinking more widely. I’m less blinkered than I was.
I can control the way the brand looks, who we deal with, how the fruit’s grown, how the wine’s styled. It’s every winemaker’s dream to have full artistic control. I take risks in all my winemaking. A winemaker that doesn’t take risks becomes a bit of a plodder and never hits the high notes.
I think some people think Marlborough is one vast plain and all the grapes are grown the same way and wines are made the same way. You only have to spend five minutes in Marlborough before you’re conscious of its outstanding natural topography; the absolute variation in soils and aspects and mesoclimates. There’s absolutely no possibility of all the wines being the same, even if we tried to make them the same. It’s as complex and multifaceted as any great wine region in the world.
In my early days I tried to pack everything I could into a wine. But if people are paying this sort of money they’re expecting a bit more integration and harmony and restraint. Still a pleasurable, hedonistic experience … but they want a bit more refinement to it. I don’t want my wines to be too intellectual – I want them to be sort of sensual.
Feature sponsored by Armit Wines www.armitwines.co.uk
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 8
Durvillea Sauvignon Blanc 2015 RRP £11.95
“It’s my take on a classic Marlborough Sauvignon,
with emphasis on the Awatere which tends to have more mouthfeel and herbal influences. I want
lime zest, lemongrass, blackcurrant leaf,
gooseberries, passion fruit and Asian herbs.”
Astrolabe Province Sauvignon Blanc 2015
“Our flagship wine and the wine I’m most proud of
because of all the blending complexity I put into it.
Over the years I’ve made this wine drier. I want it still to be an easy-drinking wine, with fresh acidity, but I want fruit to be the
thing you think of.”
Astrolabe Province Pinot Noir 2014 RRP £19.95
“I’m looking for red cherry flavours rather than the darker end of the spectrum. We want good natural acidity and a sense of plushness with that. That’s the holy grail for me: plushness without heaviness, and vibrancy
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THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 9
bits & BOBs
Gorey Wine Cellar St Martin, Jersey
Favourite wine on my list At the moment it’s a wine with a great name: Podere Le Ripi Amore
& Magia Rosso di Montalcino 2010, from Hallowed Ground.
Favourite wine and food match I live in Jersey so it would have to be a seafood platter with a bottle of Chablis
from Gilbert Picq & Ses Fils.
Favourite wine trip I used to live in Cape Town so it would
have to be a trip to the winelands.
Favourite wine trade person Matthew Jukes flew over to Jersey to do
a tasting for us with his lovely wife Amelia – he is a legend and definitely the funniest man I’ve ever met in the wine
Aldi gets crafty with new wines
Aldi is looking to tap into the millennial market with the launch of a range of low-price “craft wines”.
Packaged in 50cl brown bottles and priced £2.99, the four wines are made by Origin in South Africa and include a red blend (Shiraz and Cabernet), a white blend (Chenin and Chardonnay) and two sparkling moscatos.
Buying director Mike James said: “It’s not sold by grape variety – we haven’t even put grape varieties on the label because we don’t want people to think of the wines in that way. And we haven’t talked about food – this is wine to drink.” The Telegraph, September 27
Majestic issues profit warning
Majestic shares tumbled by 25% on September 21 after the company issued a profit warning, following disappointing performances for its commercial division and Naked Wines in the USA.
In an announcement to the London Stock Exchange, the business said trading conditions for its commercial division had become “even more challenging” in the first half of the current financial year.
As a result, annual sales were flat and
gross profit had declined, leading to an anticipated £2m drop in expected earnings for the year as a whole. Decanter, September 21
Tongue gives wine experts a licking
An electronic tongue has been developed that can accurately determine the age of wine, the type of barrel it came from, and its overall quality.
The aim is to use the device to test wines on an industrial scale to ensure they meet quality standards before they are sold to consumers.
Xavier Ceto and colleagues at the University of South Australia made the tongue out of gold, platinum and carbon electrodes. New Scientist, September 29
• China has flown Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir vines into space. Chinese scientists hope that growing the vines in space for a short time, at the Tiangong-2 laboratory, will trigger mutations that may make the plants more suitable for the harsh climate in some of the country’s emerging vineyard regions. Decanter, September 20
Favourite wine shop I used to work in Palm Beach Wine Shop about an hour north of Sydney, Australia. The location, the weather, the wine, the
people … wonderful.
email@example.com Twitter: @WineMerchantMag
The Wine Merchant is mailed freely to the owners of the UK’s 809 specialist independent wine shops. Except one, and that’s deliberate. The magazine is edited by Graham Holter. Printed in Sussex by East Print. Registered in England: No 6441762 VAT 943 8771 82 © Graham Holter Ltd 2016
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 10
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THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 11
merchant profile: highbury vintners
Smells like team spirit
Highbury Vintners has thrived since opening in north London 13 years ago. Owner Sean Sweeney knows his many loyal customers by name but has recently stepped back from the coal face, happy to let his staff
take more responsibility for the £1.3m business
How does a wine merchant achieve an average annual growth of 7% over a 13-year period? Sean Sweeney seems momentarily stuck for an answer. The shop he set
Majestic-resistant performance? Sweeney shrugs. “The customers built the business, really,” he
says. “People were having wines in restaurants and coming in and
up in north London now turns over £1.3m and it all comes from
saying, ‘Sean, is there any chance you can get this wine in?’ and it
retail, with a smattering of web sales.
stemmed from there really. That’s how we’ve grown.”
“We started on about £1k a week and built it up to £25k a week plus VAT,” he says. “It’s tough keeping it going but we do it. We
Certain external forces have worked in the company’s favour. “The 600 flats on the old Arsenal ground have helped. The area
have our meetings every week: ‘What are we doing this week?
has become more residential. The numbers that come through
Let’s go, go go!’”
here on Friday and Saturday nights … it’s more like a train station
There is, apparently, no magic formula, but it helps that Highbury Vintners is camped in one of London’s more moneyed
residential areas, a short walk from Arsenal’s Emirates
‘We’re trying new wines allStadium. It’s a classic wine merchant model: no tables
or chairs or dispensing machines, and a beautifully presented range of wines, beers and spirits in an
the time. If you stand still,
uncluttered, air-conditioned environment. Sweeney was “kind of destined to set up my own
that’s where your problem
wine business”, having cut his teeth with Guinness UDV in Ireland and then running a couple of wine
lies. You’ve got to be
shops in London on his return to England. These days Sweeney takes something of a back
seat in terms of the day-to-day running of the shop,
handing management responsibility to Tom Hemmingway – who I’d guess there would be an old world bias in an area like this.
joined the business eight
Sean: Yes, spot on actually. I would suggest France, Spain and Italy
years ago – and assistant
are our core.
manager Sophie Nicholls,
Tom: We’ve got 1,400 wines and I’d say probably two thirds are
who’s now in her third year. European.
But back to that question Sean: We do try hard with New Zealand and Australia but it just
about growth. Surely there doesn’t quite work. We do sell some but it’s just not our focus.
must be an explanation for
We’ve won Decanter Spain and Portugal merchant of the year
such a credit crunch-defying, for the last two years running so that’s a real strength for us.
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 12
Sophie Nicholls, Sean Sweeney and Tom Hemmingway: grateful for air-con on the hottest September day for 50 years
Emerging regions are doing very well: England, Slovenia, Greece, Austria and Germany.
where your problem lies. You’ve got to be ever-creative in this world.
Are you importing directly at all? Sean: We’re bringing in some pallets ourselves but generally we’re using the usual suspects.
Boutinot has always been our mainstay. I was with them when I first set the business up. They’re amazing; you can’t beat them really. The Spanish and Italian buyers in particular are on the money.
We’re using about 40 or 50 companies. We’ve got rid of a few along the way but kept the good ones. We’ve seen some of the companies starting out who look really good. For example we were there with Raymond Reynolds at the beginning. Clark Foyster we’re dealing with now. Astrum I think are fantastic; Indigo are very good.
We’ve got such a range we just look for wines, try them, and if they’re better than what we’ve got on the shelf then we drop the old wines. It’s quite simple really.
We are forever trying new stuff, we’re trying wines all the time. The business never stands still – if you stand still, I think that’s
Does using 40 or 50 suppliers give you headaches over invoicing and deliveries? Sean: It’s definitely complex! But at the end of the day it’s choice for the customer. You’ve got to give it to them otherwise they will go elsewhere, to the supermarkets or the multiples. That’s what we’re here for.
How does the buying process work? Is it a shared responsibility? Sophie: If someone is at a tasting and you try something amazing and it’s a good price, you’ll get a sample. But everyone gets a chance to taste before we put something on the shelf.
Do you all have similar palates? Sean: Not always, no. I look at it more from a commercial aspect. I’m always looking at price, quality and what my customer wants
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merchant profile: highbury vintners
From page 13
and some other people look at it slightly different. I look at it through my customers’ eyes.
You can see at the front we’ve got “Tom’s Picks”, “Sophie’s Picks”, “Sean’s Picks” and that proves really popular. Customers love to see that.
I imagine you’re not short of attention from sales reps here. Sean: Generally reps have got to have an appointment but they will get excited if they’ve got a winemaker with them and they might just pop in. The shop’s really busy so you’ve got to be careful because we’ve got so much going on here all the time. Sophie: We do a lot of tastings and we are a busy shop so that half an hour is really valuable, so it can be annoying. We do a range of tastings, mostly on a Friday, and then we take over the cafés either side. Our “meet the winemaker” series is a bit more involved – a bit more in-depth.
Do you have a database of your regular customers? Tom: We’ve got a large mailing list that we’ve spent years building and that’s probably our main avenue when we promote our wine tastings.
We’ve got a wine club that we’ve been building longer than I’ve been here, and our wine club members get priority on our ticketed events. The wine club is free to join but you commit to a case – it could be monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly. That’s the beauty of it – everybody gets a different case. Sophie: It is absolutely handpicked. We are there with our spreadsheet with what people like and don’t like. We really do that, genuinely.
There are different budgets and some people are looking for everyday stuff and we try and give them something new every month. We deliver them ourselves so we usually have face-to-face contact with these people – it’s nice. Sean: We all like doing that. I like going out and seeing the customer at the doorstep – it’s great. We get really good feedback. It’s not like hiring some van driver to go out and deliver, we do it all ourselves. Sophie: The cheese shop, the fishmonger, the butcher and all our local grocery stores – we’re part of that Highbury community. We work with them for our tastings and do pairings. The more people care about their food, the more they care about where their wines are from.
What kind of people live locally and come into the shop? Tom: There’s a massive mix of customers. There’s an awful lot of people in the area that know a lot about wine and quite a few that don’t. Famous people in the food and wine world who really do know their wine, but they also like our opinion.
Do any Arsenal players come in? Sean: Well, the ground’s moved, hence we’ve got the flats there now. They tend to be bussed in; the players aren’t in the community like they were 20 or 30 years ago. Some of the older players we probably see a lot more.
Have you been tempted to put in a dispense machine? Sean: I suppose we have been slightly tempted over the years … I think we prefer to do tastings with our customers. I don’t see [machines] as much as I used to. I see them more in wine bars, which seem to work really well.
The store has been extended once and refurbished three times
You’ve stepped back from the business a little bit – how does that work out? Sean: I don’t need to be here much – I’ve got a great team. I’m here
THE WINE MERCHANT october 2016 14
Sweeney: “I didn’t want it to be about me … you can’t do it all yourself”
for tastings, doing deliveries. I made a decision: I set the business Would you ever look at opening more branches?
up with my wife and after about seven or eight years running it myself, Tom came on then.
Sean: If I was going to open more shops, I would have done that five or six years ago but this business is the golden egg really. To
I just didn’t want it to be about me so I decided to step back. You try and replicate this business would be impossible. This business
can’t do it all yourself and you’ve got to build the business, just like was built for Highbury and the customers who’ve moved out,
any merchant up and down the country. And it’s worked.
maybe moved up to Crouch End or Muswell Hill, they still come
Sophie: It does give you leeway to do a bit more buying – like going back here, so that’s great to see.
to the Rhône …
Sean: Buying wine is a job in itself: tasting wine and making sure
it’s right – and all the other side of it, like managing staff and making sure things run smoothly.
I like the buying and tasting side of it. Some of the customers have been coming here since I started and I love to see them. I know all my customers’ names and they know me really well – and they also appreciate
‘I had twins three years ago so it’s time to step back and have a bit of a life, and
that we have to have staff for the business to grow and it’s not about me.
drink some wine’
I had a plan that 10 years would be my thing but
this has become more and more successful and we’ve just taken on
more people. Ben’s been with us a year and came from Majestic in
St Johns Wood; I’ve just taken on a lady from the Clapham Majestic. What if one of the units came up on either side?
It just gives us time to do other jobs.
Sean: I don’t know, it would have to be a wine bar or something. I
wouldn’t enlarge the shop – it’s big enough. Our cellar is as big as
Apart from the buying, has it given you more free time with
the shop. It’s had three refurbishments in its time. We’ve probably
got a bigger range than most.
Sean: Yes, I had twins three years ago so it’s time to step back and
have a bit of a life, and drink some wine.
I’ll always do something – I can’t sit still, I’m busy every day.
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