Critic’s Choice: Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton

Jilly Goolden sings the praises of an eccentric, and inspirational, independent wine merchant

October 2020

Butlers Wine Cellar opened in a small corner shop (with a large cellar for stock) in the nether regions of Brighton in 1979. Cheap rent, big storage. Back then wine was a narrow peninsular not spanning the whole world as it does now, so Butlers concentrated on just Bordeaux, Germany and the occasional bottle of Tokay.

Forty years later and Butlers has the largest range of wines in the whole area with more than 2,000 lines, still squeezed into the same tightly packed corner shop (all the neighbouring shops have been turned into bijoux houses).

And Butlers’ two shops (this one in Kemp Town, a second off Marine Parade) did more business last year, their 40th, than ever before. At the helm is larger-than-life Henry Butler, son of the founder, a passionate wine lover, very knowledgeable and an eccentric (so, incidentally, are all the staff). He’s a legend locally with a network of fans and followers.

“We are a destination shop,” he told me. “Free parking, complimentary dog biscuits …” But it’s not just a local affair. Customers shop from all over the country. Unsurprisingly.

I love the diversity of wines stocked by Butlers, very much reflecting Henry’s own personal passions (and those of his partner in business and life, Cassie). At the moment he’s on a mission to popularise Beaujolais and Lambrusco. Portugal is a very strong suit for Butlers – my tastes very much mirror his. California features large too.

Cassie and Henry

“We get offered many tiny allocations which other wine shops don’t. We love them and promote them,” he says. Then there’s South Africa; one of their suppliers, Blank Bottle, collaborates with Henry to make wines unique to Butlers. Only Tate Modern and the Ledbury can boast that.

The pandemic has turned occasional drinkers into eager enthusiasts (don’t I know it…!) Cassie explains: “Everyone suddenly wanted cheaper wines in higher volumes so we immediately put together mixed cases of affordable wines which we discounted and they sold in the hundreds. Trade became busier than Christmas.”

I discovered Butlers way back when I was only just old enough to drink and since being professionally involved in wine myself (from when I was 24) I have kept a close eye on them. I don’t live in Brighton but I regularly run into Henry at trade tastings where I’m eager to exchange notes and to catch up with his latest discoveries and obsessions. Henry is inspirational – and his shops reflect that.

Boris permitting, Jilly runs tastings at her home in East Sussex, Jilly Goolden’s Wine Room: www.jillygoolden.com. During lockdown she has been much in demand hosting virtual tastings and working in an advisory role with a major supermarket.