Declaration of Independents

Independent wine merchants People & Places Articles
  • Monday 22 March 2010

Last year saw much gnashing of teeth from the wine trade as its retail presence on the UK high street was decimated. But while suppliers count the cost of unpaid invoices, for wine-loving consumers, choice and service is on the up – thanks to a string of innovations, openings and online offerings from adventurous, passionate, independent merchants who actually care about their product. As we check the pulse of wine retail in the UK and overseas, could wine on the high street be set to enter an exciting new age? By Anthony Rose

It could have been Alf Ramsey and not Gordon Ramsay for all the good the TV chef’s face brought former UK high street chain Threshers in its ill-conceived advertising campaign. But that was probably the least in a series of poor judgments that led to its demise. ‘It’s a shame [its sister store] Wine Rack has gone,’ says Patrick Sandeman of London independent merchant Lea & Sandeman, adding with a wry smile, ‘they did a job that was necessary – like supplying Baileys and Sambucca.’

It hasn’t just been Majestic, the UK’s biggest mixed-case wine retailer, that has benefited from the demise of the two high street chains. Sandeman said the influx of customers from three nearby Wine Racks, who had thought Lea & Sandeman expensive, were surprised by the quality of its wines under £9. ‘Half of them are still coming back after discovering we have good quality at prices they’re happy to pay.’

In the view of Mike Rogers, of fellow independent Philglas & Swiggot, ‘What First Quench [owner of Threshers and Wine Rack] did wrong was try to take on the supermarkets head on. No specialist – whether multiple or independent – can afford to do that on the same battlefield. It’s also vitally important to build relationships, and that’s what First Quench failed to do. They didn’t pay enough to get good intelligent, motivated staff.’

Ultimately, by failing its customers on people, product, price and perception, the demise of the unwieldy high street leviathan has, if not paved the way, at least given a boost to independent merchants with better ideas about how to cater for wine lovers and keep them coming back.

While few independent merchants would be rash enough to take on the supermarkets, many would love their accessibility. It was finding so many people bored with supermarket wines that led Ben Stephenson to set up Hanging Ditch in central Manchester two years ago, with the aim of being ‘a non-stuffy environment where people can come and choose wines in a relaxed way’.

Big windows, a coffee shop, nearby car parks, tastings with different speakers and one-to-one service have all ‘worked very well, with women not afraid to come in on their own – perceptibly increasing our customer base’. Stephenson also commissioned an architect to design the internal layout, with sections based on wine styles such as ‘dry & crisp’, ‘aromatic’, ‘off-dry’, and ‘rich & powerful’ for whites and ‘light & juicy’, ‘rich & powerful’ and ‘Italianesque’ for reds. ‘It’s about answering the questions people come in and ask,’ says Stephenson.

Dare to be different

Oeno, with a first shop opening in Stroud in 2008 and a second in Cirencester last year, echoes that welcoming principle. ‘We made a conscious decision not to go with the traditional “wine merchant” look and wanted something more in keeping with the wine shops you’d find in big European cities,’ says buyer Nick Burton.

In Cirencester, the result is a slick layout, with French, Italian and Spanish wines stored lying down away from direct sunlight and lit by non-heat-giving lights. You may think that’s too much city chic for the tweedy heart of the Cotswolds, but the Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen set can’t get enough of Oeno’s quality wines from dedicated growers. Owner Giles Davey now plans to expand to a five-strong independent chain.

At The Sampler in London’s Islington (Decanter Retailer Award winner in 2009), Dawn Mannis and Jamie Hutchinson’s innovative idea was the installation of 10 sampling machines, each holding eight bottles dispensing 25-75ml servings of anything from everyday wine to the finest Bordeaux and Burgundy.

The concept has been so successful that they now plan to open a new Sampler in London this year. In February, they announced that 12 Bordeaux estates had agreed to supply tasting samples of 2009 en primeur wines for consumers, direct from the châteaux.

This is the sort of added specialism that brings customers in. Other glowing examples include: Bennetts in Chipping Campden, known for its exceptional fine and rare wine, much of it New World; Vine Trail, for its growers’ champagnes; and Caves de Pyrène, for small French and Italian growers.

Despite the perception that consumers do their wine shopping in supermarkets because they’re looking for good value, the reality is that value lies on the lists of every successful UK independent merchant. ‘As people become more used to drinking wine, they want to have something that’s better. There’s a growing understanding that you do get better quality if you pay an extra £1 to £1.50 per bottle,’ says Sandeman.

Value can be interpreted in many ways, from quality at the right price to the whole package that comes with the territory, including in-store tastings and events, free local delivery and a user-friendly website. By sharing suppliers with a small like-minded group to keep prices competitive, Daniel Thorold, who set up Thorold Wines in Balham, London, in December, displays his wines by price rather than country.

After the fall-out from the closure of Balham’s Wine Rack, customers breathed a sigh of relief when they saw Thorold’s wines at £6 and £7. He’s aiming to change the range by 20% every three months to keep customers interested, with in-store tastings an important way of communication.

‘Wine isn’t just a white-collar drink any more. Everyone wants advice, a chat or a story and we give it to them, along with unpretentious descriptions such as ‘voluptuous’, ‘fruity’, ‘fun’,

‘rich’ or ‘round’.

Customer focus

For Sandeman, ‘Our core values are sourcing wines direct – wines which over-deliver in terms of quality against the price; wines you genuinely want to drink the whole bottle of.’ Stephenson at Hanging Ditch agrees. ‘We’ll always try and get what the customers want and aim to provide lots of customer attention.’

Social media are fast becoming part and parcel of involving customers. Philglas & Swiggot is on Facebook, ‘the sexy, modern way of communicating with the market’, says Rogers, who invites winemakers to join, communicate with customers and say what they want to. Oeno uses Twitter and has a blog. So does London’s Berry Bros & Rudd, now in its fifth century of operation.

Neither Philglas & Swiggot nor Lea & Sandeman are trying to reinvent the wheel but both these small, expanding chains have quietly got on with the job of building relationships with customers based on the values of high-quality product and knowledgeable, friendly service.

‘Our philosophy has always been to buy the best, but not necessarily avoiding big brands. We tend to look at the upper end, with £7 to £20 bottles our core market,’ says Rogers. They may go via a UK importer for more esoteric bottles, but are focusing increasingly on exclusive wines from the Rhône, Loire, Roussillon, Abruzzo, Piedmont, Valpolicella, Soave and Toro, sourced direct.

‘Our template is: Is it nicely presented? Is it well-priced? Does it taste good? We’re always looking for the wow factor and work hard to ensure we always have something to sing about.’ It’s an aria every wine merchant would do well to echo.

The New York Scene by Howard G Goldberg

For the second year, a legislative fight promises to shape wine retail in New York State. If the grocery stores and supermarkets (currently prevented from selling wine) win, consumers will find new enticements and promotions. If the protectionist wine- and liquor-store lobby again prevails, likely the battle will be refought until it loses.

For now, though, price-cutting merchants have added and expanded enticements and services. Free weekly tastings, including from visiting producers, are de rigueur. In-store and internet-based consumer education is common. Online accounts keep purchase histories for forgetful buyers. Free shipping and fee-based storage is available.

Merchants sponsor book signings, talks by writers and chefs, and fancy restaurant dinners with top producers. Wine’s democratisation benefits consumers as niche neighbourhood boutiques keep popping up across New York City’s five boroughs. Wine bars are also proliferating, where eager young patrons, impatient with wine snobbery, take cues from webcaster Gary Vaynerchuk’s populism.

Chilean specialist Puro Wines, opened last autumn in a multicultural neighbourhood downtown. Taylor Senatore and a partner, both sommeliers, surveying the onset of specialised shops, opened California Wine Merchants, at Manhattan’s southern tip, in 2008. About 95% of California’s 340 small producers sourced fall under the radar, Senatore said.

Tinto Fino, in the East Village, sells Spanish wines: 326 from 250 wineries. It’s Sherry central. ‘We carry up to 40,’ says co-owner Kerin Auth. ‘Some days my first five sales have been Sherries.’

At Frankly Wines, 30sq m of space in TriBeCa, customers can find ‘one bottle of every region you find in a textbook worth its salt, and a few not in textbooks’, owner Christy Frank boasts.

At Maslow 6, a TriBeCa boutique, classes are offered, focusing on such subjects as food-and-wine pairings, Austrian and Nebbiolo wines. Lisa Granik MW teaches Rioja while wine director Mollie Battenhouse, an MW candidate, gives a six-part basic ‘foundations in wine’ course.

Chambers Street Wines in Lower Manhattan has become a base for fans of natural, organic and biodynamic wines; co-owner David Lillie is a serious Loire specialist with sizeable stock.

Best Cellars, born in Manhattan in 1996 and still operating two boutiques there, has made a much-copied contribution to wine education: departmentalising low-priced, crowd-pleasing wines as ‘fizzy’, ‘fresh’, ‘soft’, ‘luscious’, ‘juicy’, ‘smooth’, ‘big’, ‘sweet.’

Supermarket chain A&P bought Best Cellars in 2007, and Best Cellars shops are now in Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts and Washington DC. As further openings follow, more and more consumers will learn to define wines primarily by their characters.

Howard G Goldberg is Decanter’s East Coast correspondent

The Hong Kong Scene by Jeannie Cho Lee MW

Only two years ago, Hong Kong’s wine retail scene was static, dominated by Watson’s Wine Cellar and a few supermarkets and specialty shops. The duty-free status for wines (including no sales tax) since February 2008 has transformed the picture.

At the supermarket level, sales of wine are thriving at all price and category levels according to Sean Robson, wine buyer of Wellcome, one of Hong Kong’s largest supermarket chains. And not only have sales increased, so has the average wine spend per person.

New wine retailers are emerging to meet exactly this need. Some, such as First Wine, which opened in December 2009 selling only boutique Italian wines, cater to Italian wine lovers. Others are aiming for the top echelon of the market.

Among the niche luxury retailers to open recently in Hong Kong, Bacchus & Century is among the most unique. Bacchus purports to have a wine of every vintage from 1900 to 2000, mostly high-quality French. Located in the busy Central district of Hong Kong, Bacchus displays wine like jewellery (prices start at £82) and offers bespoke wine consultations.

Success breeds imitators, and experienced retailers such as Jointek, a company with more than 80 wine shops in China, is attempting to beat Watson’s on price and selection. Jointek opened a spacious store in June 2009 in Wanchai, while others like Major Cellar choose to open smaller shops in a few locations around Hong Kong (Tsim Sha Tsui and Yuen Long).

Wine clubs in Hong Kong have been around for decades, and those with a physical presence such as Crown Wine Cellars continue to do extremely well. This concept is being replicated in many forms and among those that opened last year was a café that also doubles as a wine cellar and gathering place for wine collectors. DG Café & Wine Cellar offers wine cellar facilities, as well as access to its bar, lounge, VIP rooms and private dining room.

Many new retailers are operating without storefronts, investing instead in a targeted database of customers. No one has yet been able to create a successful online retailing concept in Hong Kong, but it’s just a matter of time. Fledgling small importers have formed partnerships with companies in the US or UK. In the case of Wellspring Wines, British expert Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW helps select the wines in its portfolio and provides tasting notes.

Hong Kong consumers are spoiled for choice. With all the new retailers coming on to the scene, there is a greater selection of wines available than ever before. But there are still too many who choose to go down the formulaic path of offering the same wares: Bordeaux, Bordeaux and more Bordeaux. The growth in selection lags perceptively behind the overall growth of the market.

Jeannie Cho Lee MW is head of education at The Fine Wine School in Hong Kong, which she helped launch in 2008

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