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Letter from… Martin Crozier-Cook, a busy merchant

Working in retail at Christmas can be fraught but on the whole, enjoyable. A wine manager shares his experiences with Decanter.

Martin Crozier-Cook is wine manager at Jeroboams food and wine store in Holland Park, west London. Jeroboams was voted Outstanding Retailer of the Year in the 2022 Decanter Retailer Awards

Christmas time is when things get crazy – we all know this from our own experience of shopping in December. It brings out all sorts of behaviour in people. I help manage the Jeroboams store in leafy Holland Park, and I can tell you that a smile and a good sense of humour are absolutely necessary in making it through what is our busiest and most pressurised time of year – the festive season.

I joined Jeroboams eight years ago, and have worked in our stores all over London. And while business really ramps up in every location throughout November and December, Holland Park is far and away our busiest branch.

What makes my store different is that it is a delicatessen as well as a wine shop (hence the ‘cheesy’ photo). Although Jeroboams is known primarily as a wine merchant, the original shop was the go-to for cheese, charcuterie, vinegars, oils – and of course wines – in South Kensington. This is not the easy life: others in the wine industry may moan about carrying cases of wine around, but it’s nothing compared to carrying gigantic wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano into our cheese cellar. They leave you weak at the knees in more ways than one.

We open early at Holland Park: 8am most days, while the team members from other Jeroboams wine shops are still in bed. But it is not uncommon during December to have customers queuing up before we open, looking to get a head start on their Christmas shopping. You have to respect the hustle of the early riser, who shops with the intensity of an unexpected blizzard.

Our regulars either want to speed in and out, like those early risers, or hang around to chew the fat, and Christmas exacerbates these tendencies. I’m not going to say it makes everyone a bit neurotic, but there are definitely those who feel the need to know every minute detail about a product – the ancestry of a Burgundian winemaker, or the Sherry house that supplied the casks in which a Speyside whisky is matured – in order to make a decision on a gift.

Compare this with the busy celebrity, for example, who just wants the headline info: does it taste good, does it look good, and will my friends respect me more or less if I gift them this bottle?

If I were to describe my ideal customer during the festive season, I would say that they would be appreciative that it is manic every single hour of every single day for at least six weeks straight; they know what they want, even if that is as general as ‘a £50 bottle of wine’; and are happy to trust us with recommendations.

After all, we are the experts. And, trust me, we spend an awful lot of time throughout the year tasting, drinking, and eating as much as possible so that when it comes to the business end of the year we are more than prepared.

So, when it’s time to offer a recommendation on which indigenous Italian red grape variety tastes most like cherries (pro tip: they all do), or how many bottles of Springbank single malt they can buy (pro tip: it’s always one, you naughty reseller), we’ve done our homework.

Dishing out all these recommendations has a secondary function, of course: it’s a great way to ruminate on what I’ll want to drink myself at Christmas. Whether I’m helping the customer or helping myself, I’m not quite sure…

Although working in retail during Christmas can be trying, it is, on the whole, good fun, even when having to work out plans for spending time with the family for not just Christmas Day, but the myriad other days of celebration throughout the latter part of the year.

Sometimes we are on the receiving end of someone else’s stress, but we are also blessed with many really nice customers. There are people who recognise how hard we work during this period, and drop in with a little sweet treat, or buy us a pint or two in the local after a busy shift. After all, that’s what the festive period is about: spreading joy, whether in the form of cheese, a glass of red, or a few pints of Guinness.

All that having been said, I can’t wait until January, when it’s all over…

What I’ve been selling

The Domaine Philippe & Sylvain Ravier, La Peyse, Chignin-Bergeron 2017 (£29.56 Jeroboams) boasts a Gold medal from the DWWA 2022. This Roussanne from Savoie is packed with gingerbread spice, apricot, honey and beautiful minerality: the kind of warming white you need at this time of year.

La Biòca’s Stërmà, Nebbiolo d’Alba Superiore 2020 (£18.95 Jeroboams) always flies out the door. Although not a Barbaresco or Barolo, this Nebbiolo is a blockbuster, giving all the beautiful rose petal and tar flavour at below £20 per bottle.

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