Well worth a try
Bottles of Worcester has just celebrated its fifth birthday, but owner Richard Everton’s wine trade career stretches back far beyond that. Like his father Don Everton, he captained the local rugby side, and has taken almost as many knocks in his business life as he did in his sporting days.
Graham Holter reports
Richard Everton’s career in the wine trade has been full of highs and lows, so you get the impression he’s taking the Covid crisis in his stride.
“We are busy, but in a different way,” he says. “The wine bar obviously had to shut and the wholesale side finished overnight. It was a case of adapting and trying to turn defeat into a victory, as my dad would say. Giving up is not in my DNA.”
The Bottles business, which has just celebrated its fifth birthday, operates primarily as a wine bar.
“We’ve had to develop the model a little bit to hook into all our contacts and get the home delivery stuff working,” he says. “We’ve tried a few different things and fortunately they’ve all worked. I’ve had to buy a second van to cope with everything.
“I’ve utilised the situation to get rid of a load of bin ends and refurbished. I’ve reassessed the whole of my purchasing and joined the Vindependents as well. I’ve really changed the pattern of buying and as a consequence I’ve been shipping more wine in the last two or three months than I have in the last few years.”
Everton was born into the wine trade. His family business, Evertons, started in Ombersley in 1918. He briefly considered a career in the army, and turned down a chance to study accountancy at UCL, in order to work in Bordeaux, Burgundy and South Africa, where he could also indulge one of his other passions: rugby.
“Looking back, it was a great decision,” he says. “I had a great life doing it. You don’t realise how much you’re learning when you’re working in it that way. I worked in the vineyards and the blending rooms.”
The Evertons business had 21 wine shops and delis in the 70s and 80s, which it started to offload when the supermarkets muscled in on its territory. When Richard returned from South Africa, he helped transform the company into an importer and wholesaler, with its own bond.
A series of unfortunate events followed. “We had a major flood in 2007, which wiped out our property [Browns on the Quay in Worcester]. That closed us for 12 months and just as we were re-opening that one, our hotel and restaurant in Ombersley had some structural issues which got worse.
“The building almost fell down. We were supposed to shut just for two weeks but it took over a year and we had to make everyone redundant.
“Barclays pulled the rug on us with no warning, no reason; we had never once defaulted on anything. Overnight they withdrew our overdraft and that was the night before the loan repayments went out, so of course the payments bounced and they called in the loan immediately.
“The banks targeted people who had substantial assets and guarantees in place and we ticked all the boxes for their shenanigans. There is no other word for it.”
Even for a positive character like Everton, all this took its toll. “It made me ill. I lost my home; my wife at the time left me. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. My dad always used to say, ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’, and I thought, ‘sod it – I’m not going to sit back and give up. I’ve got the contacts and the know-how’. The only thing I didn’t have was the money.”
The next chapter in the adventure saw the opening of Bottles of Worcester.
How did Bottles come about?
I’d always had this idea in my head of a hybrid wine shop and bar. When I was working in Bordeaux back in the 80s there was a restaurant/bistro where you’d go and choose your wine from the racks and I used to love it. In South Africa I saw a development of that using some early wine dispense systems, so I pieced bits together of these things I’d seen.
I kept looking at this building with a huge glass frontage and I went for a European funded business development grant, specifically for buildings that had been closed, to help regenerate city centres.
I initially got rejected but they allowed me to appeal and give a presentation. By the time I finished they were almost in tears and they all voted to give me 100% of the grant. It was £140k.
It was very useful and specifically to be used to create jobs, and it proves that these things work: over the five years I created eight jobs for people and kitted out the building from scratch. With the help of one or two other people who stepped in, I got up and running, and my dream of an idea came to fruition.
I used Wine Emotion machines; we have two of them. I was hoping it would be very laid back, but Friday and Saturday nights were absolutely manic – it became the place to go. So instead of turning over a small amount we were turning over probably three times that amount simply because of the busy venue. We introduced some live music and a DJ.
We get a lot of people in the 25 to 45 age bracket, but we get a lot of people in their 60s and 70s drinking in until 3am having a good time drinking bottles of Bollinger. It’s incredible and it’s nothing like I envisaged it but it’s great fun.
How would you describe the interior?
I have retained a slight factory feel with an open ceiling and open air conditioning.
The shop is sealed off within the bar itself. It’s open during the day and quiet nights and we lock it at 10pm on a Friday and Saturday, but if people want to go in and choose a bottle we unlock it and they go in.
In a normal working month what percentage of your turnover would be retail?
It’s heavily weighted towards the bar and heavily weighted to wine. We do draught lager and we do premium spirits but wine sales are 75% of our turnover. We have 35 to 40 by the glass including the wine machine, Sherries and Ports.
The food area is not anywhere like as busy as we feel it could be. It’s busy on a Saturday afternoon when people want to come in and have sharing boards. It’s busy if we have an event on and we do a lot of private events for people in the week.
Is there scope for more retail growth?
Our retail trade had started to grow before the shutdown anyway and I think that was because we had changed the styles of wine quite a bit, and we did a lot of online tastings before lockdown. We were utilising Deliveroo quite a lot.
The wholesale side we do under the name Worcester Wine. It’s a different company – so Bottles is a customer of Worcester Wine. It was building nicely until everything shut. There will be a big focus on the wholesale side when we reopen, especially with the new wines from the Vindependents.
How has home delivery been working out for you during lockdown?
There seemed to be a week when supermarkets couldn’t cope with home deliveries and Majestic had their issues, the Sunday Times Wine Club had their problems and we stepped in and picked up a few private customers that were dealing with Berry Bros.
They were people I realised I knew but weren’t coming to Bottles and that made me scratch my head and realise we needed to move very quickly with the times. Even though I thought our social media was very good and we had built up a mailing list with the wine machine cards, I don’t think we were disciplined enough using it and it made me quickly change that.
Independents are working harder to understand the different types of customer they’re dealing with now.
There seems to be a trend for people wanting to deal locally and that has come out of this catastrophe.
It has made people more aware of other people’s feelings and livelihoods and by shopping locally they are getting a better service.
Our mailing list and social media following weren’t necessarily the people who would be interested in the better wines and were probably buying a lot of wines in the supermarkets.
One of my things with Bottles is that I wanted to make wine drinking and wine tasting more acceptable and take away the pomposity and stuffiness that is sometimes associated with the wine trade.
I wanted to sell wine not just to my “good” customers but to the masses. We did that with the bar but also now with our home deliveries, so we’ve put together some £35 bundles.
What kind of suppliers do you use?
I’ve always had a close relationship with Mentzendorff. I’ve always worked closely with Bollinger and they are our pouring Champagnes. I always worked with Chapoutier and I’ve done a fair bit of business with Caves de Pyrene because I wanted access to the biodynamic and natural wines.
What are the wines you enjoy at home?
I love Champagne. I was lucky enough to be a member of the Champagne Academy. I’ve never looked back as far as that’s concerned. I love Rhône, I love Gigondas. On the budget end of things I love Côtes du Rhône. I like wines from South Africa and that’s probably because of the time I spent there. I’m a massive Chardonnay fan and I get on my soapbox at tastings.
I tasted some good wines recently from Uruguay – some Tannat and Viognier. We don’t sell a lot of Eastern European wines. What I’d love to see come back is German wine.
The Eastern European wines I feel are difficult probably because they don’t necessarily suit me, and it’s hard to sell something that you’re not turned on by.
Going back years and years, Spain and Italy wouldn’t have been our strong areas but I have to say I’m loving the wines coming out of Spain – great value. The prices are a bit more realistic with Albariño now.
I don’t want to be classed as a pompous wine merchant; I want people to be able to drink what they like. I’m very much an advocate of people being able to drink what makes them happy. And that’s why I want winemakers to make wines that they are comfortable making and not try to copy what they think they should be making.
I think I’ve got a good commercial palate. I can taste a wine and know what will sell and what won’t sell. I’ve learnt by tasting with my dad and tasting with winemakers, so not by the book, and I think that’s why I have a wine list that’s slightly more eclectic than other people’s.
How do you stay interested and open to new ideas and not stuck in your ways?
I believe as an independent you have to constantly keep moving, keep looking for ideas. My dad used to say, ‘if you’ve done 10 things and eight don’t work, you haven’t got eight failures, you’ve got two successes’.
If you’re going to be entrepreneurial you have to have that philosophy. If you’re petrified of making a mistake or something not working or taking off, then you’re not going to get much further than doing what everyone else is doing.
I do travel a lot and I keep my eyes open. I like to employ people who challenge me and ask questions and who are very much geared into the entrepreneurial side of being independent. Creative people. Sometimes it’s good to sit back and listen to what other people have to say.
As I’ve got older, I’ve become less opinionated. In all fairness I’d say I’m probably a better businessperson, and person, for having suffered some of the hardships. There’s no shortcut for graft and some people are born with a work ethic and some aren’t.
Tell us about your team.
The right-hand person is Hannah Webb. She’s actually from a music background – she plays the saxophone and she’s in a band and she’s a music teacher by trade. She’s about to be promoted onto the board.
She ticks all of the boxes that I need around me. A visionary; someone who isn’t scared to pick up the phone. I get very frustrated with this world that’s all email. What’s wrong with picking up the phone? Hannah is an all-rounder. She’s got hospitality running through her and she’s a grafter. She’s done her WSET 2 and will be doing her Level 3.
Joe Gosling is more of the wine man. He also does some tastings under “The Bearded Wine Guy”. He does some of our tastings now and the more I can get him leading those, the better.
Then there’s Ellie – her dad is a well-known local chef. And then we’ve got some part-time staff who have all been with us for quite a long time and they know the brand that we are trying to create, and they know what works. Going forward they will have slightly different roles.
When you have a challenge, like the one we are facing at the moment, people’s strengths and weaknesses become very clear. You can tell who will be best suited at writing for the website and for podcasts and who will be there driving the more commercial side of things.
I have a freelance accountant who works with me on the wholesale side and he even does some of the deliveries and looks after that side when things are normal.
Will you reopen as a wine bar on July 4?
I struggle to see how Bottles would lend itself to a social distancing operation. When we will be able to do tastings and events, we might introduce them on Friday and Saturday nights when we normally would be really busy as a bar.
I think we could make those work under the regulations. They wouldn’t necessarily be that profitable, but I think it’s about hanging in there and keeping your name in front of people.
Have you taken advantage of a bounce back loan to help with cash flow?
I’m not a big spender and, especially with what happened before, I tend to keep things back for a rainy day.
But I couldn’t say no to an interest-free loan and I’ve used it for stock as much as anything. A lot of really good stock: allocation stock and wines that people had reserves on that have suddenly come back on the market.
Are you worried about a no-deal Brexit?
I don’t know. I’m not certain that the French, Germans and Italians can afford to cut us off. I think that anything is on the table at the moment and we might end up coming away with a good deal. There is a better chance than ever now.
How much wine do you import yourself?
Before the Vindependents I would have said 30% but now it will be a big chunk of it. I honestly believe that there is some water to go under the bridge with these negotiations and I really believe that people on all sides of the equation need mutual help.
It’s not the time to be cutting yourself off and I don’t think that it’s worth getting so despondent about something that we don’t know the answers to at the moment.
We don’t know when we’re going to come out of this lockdown – if there’s a second spike it will all go tits up. I don’t think it’s a time to be predicting, it’s a time to be watching, preparing and opportunistic.
Once things go back to normal, what’s your plan for the next five years?
I want to carry on importing boutique wines and finding some nice wines and bringing them to market and unearthing one or two new wines.
I think one thing we have realised through this lockdown is there is a thirst for socialising. Even though you can do Zoom and Houseparty, people will always want to go out and socialise.
I have an idea, which is an extension of my Bottles idea, that I think my efforts will be going into. It will be done under the Bottles branding and it’s a little bit out of town. Specific sites would work for it, and that’s all I can say really.
It’s something I discussed about three or four years ago, but the time didn’t seem right for it. But I think this appetite for local produce and local suppliers will open up new avenues.
I’ve been lucky to be born into what I think is a great trade and I’ve had a great lifestyle. I’ve had some downs and some ups, and I will probably continue to have downs and ups. But as long as the ups outweigh the downs, when I come to weigh it all up I feel that I’ll have had a reasonable life.