Wine Freedom had been going for four years when Sam Olive took the plunge with its first premises, a century-old warehouse in an industrial suburb of Birmingham, once owned by Bird’s Custard. Covid threatened to derail the company’s ambitions, but as life slowly returns to normal, the venue’s future looks bright
There’s an inner-city grittiness to Digbeth, with its factory and warehouse buildings in varying states of disrepair, renovation or graffiti adornment. But it’s only a short hop from the main shopping district of Birmingham, a city whose self-confidence has boomed in direct proportion to the investment that has poured in over recent years.
Wine Freedom’s unit dates from the very early 20th century. “It was part of the Bird’s Custard factory estate,” says owner Sam Olive. “Our landlords own about 17 acres worth of Digbeth including pretty much the whole of the old custard factory estate, which equates to about 25% of those 17 acres. We’ve taken on an old building built by a local engineer called William J Wild and we have his name above the shutter.
“There’s not much to it and it costs quite a bit of money to keep it warm in winter. But it means we can have people in the building comfortably.
“We were open about seven weeks between both  lockdowns and it was an opportunity to show people what it was like. We had fantastic feedback from customers saying they felt safe.
“We have a nice big airy interesting venue and we are selling online to the trade and retail, as well as doing tastings and we have a bar set-up. So it’s a multi-channel business.”
Wine Freedom started out six years ago, after Olive finished a five-year stint with Bibendum.
“Initially it was a B2C business starting with the wine club because we had some fairly solid contacts and a small customer base,” he says.
“I started to try and raise the profile of the business predominantly online and on social media, and a lot of the trade customers I was working with previously started to come out of the woodwork.
“I realised there was a bit of an opportunity in focusing on good quality handmade organic and natural wines, as that was a USP in Birmingham, or the whole of the Midlands really. There wasn’t really anyone else focusing on that side of the industry.”
What prompted you to take the business into its current orbit?
I’ve got quite a creative background and I understand that connecting wine education, which is a real passion of mine, with creative elements is something which is really beneficial to consumers. So the idea was to create a platform, hence this new venue, where we could do wine events and wine education.
We took on the lease about two years ago. I was a little bit reticent – worried, actually – about taking on a load of new overheads, rent and new members of staff until we were fairly sure we could carve an avenue out of lockdown.
What was the initial effect on the business after the Covid outbreak?
In February-March last year it looked very rosy for the B2B side of the business. We had lots of new trade customers coming on and a big amount of growth planned, and then lockdown hit.
We were faced with the very tricky situation where we had a lot more stock, nowhere for it to go because all our trade customers had closed, and a new venue which would be very difficult to get out of, so we just had to pedal pretty hard. All the consumer contacts we had, which were friends and family, we approached and said, can you buy some wine, please?
The website only had a holding page, so we had to fast-track that and we launched online at the end of May last year, which was a godsend really. It wasn’t the best website but it meant we could launch our brand and get something presentable out there.
Digbeth will be the place to be
in the next 10 years or so
Like a lot of indies, deliveries became an important revenue stream for you.
We had a lot of wine in keg because we had prospective business with the NEC and other customers. I’d had this idea of “house wine” kicking around for a couple of years. I put it all together and thought. we could bottle this stuff and have a kind of a milkman service and deliver it all around Birmingham.
We set up a subscription service just before Christmas and it worked really well. We created a new sub-brand called House Wine and it’s still going even though we’ve come out of lockdown. We still have about 60 subscribers and the feedback has been fantastic.
It’s been an opportunity to do more video content as well. The idea was, rather than loads of wine notes and photos of the winemaker, the customer would get a video of me doing an introduction for the four wines. It keeps things nice and personal as well as us being able to introduce the context of our venue.
Talk us through the aesthetics of the venue. You’ve gone big on pallets.
We were working with an architect and a friend of ours is a great joiner and he came up with some pretty cool ideas. The set-up fee would have been about £70,000-£90,000 and I just wasn’t prepared to do that – it was too much of an expense.
We had to be resourceful. I did an interior architecture degree so I know a bit about spatial planning. I thought, how do we create a space that feels comfortable and has some intimacy to it as well, but do it on the cheap? How do we create something that is flexible so that when we do start adding bits to it, we can move things around?
So we started looking at ideas with pallets. The plants are a natural green backdrop and help to give it a more natural setting. There’s an element of value to having greenery in the space.
We did engage our joiner friend, on a much-reduced budget, to create a retail area, and work on dividing the space up. We wanted the customers to feel comfortable.
I’m a bit fastidious with the way things are presented, so even though we have pallets and there’s the fairly gritty backdrop of the warehouse, we have some clean lines and a fresh white palette which sets off the more rustic elements.
When customers come in it’s a relaxed aesthetic but we have a team who have been trained in Michelin-starred restaurants so you get a really nice glass and an interaction and conversation that is proper hospitality.
Digbeth is surprisingly close to the city centre. Does it feel that way?
The estate has a long way to go in terms of encouraging more footfall from the city centre. But there are some big plans. The estate which owns our building has been given planning permission for a regeneration project so there will be some upheaval in the next seven years or so, but there is more residential planned.
There is HS2, which is on the Digbeth side of the city. The construction for that station started a couple of years ago. A lot of the commerce and new construction for the city is going to be geared towards the south east end as opposed to the north west end. Digbeth will be the place to be in the next 10 years or so and we thought, let’s build a brand now in a unit that’s reasonably priced.
Digbeth is a destination spot. You have to have a specific reason to be there.
How do your sales break down between trade, retail, and so on?
It’s 65% trade and 35% what I would call B2C, so online, retail and in the venue. The idea is to keep that split over the next two years or so.
There are a lot of new restaurants and new business venues now in Birmingham. Off the back of the pandemic, we see a lot of businesses closing, but it’s a lot of the national and multinational businesses that are going to struggle with the big heavy rents they have in the middle of the city. We work with the independents who operate in the more satellite areas around the city centre.
How big is your team?
It’s really just me heading up the trade side of things at the moment and Taylor [Meanwell] looks after the venue. We have a team of 12. The majority of those are casual … we have four full-timers. It seems to work quite well.
We’ve got a great GM, Dan Bennett, and because of the dearth of hospitality staff at the moment, he has had many, many job offers on the table. Luckily he really enjoys working with us, so he wanted to stay.
I think because we have such a diversity of roles within the business it’s a great place to be if you want to learn rapidly about how a business works from both the front and back end.
What’s the shareholding structure?
Most of it has been investment from myself. The venue is a limited company and we have another limited company for the online and the events side of things, and a limited company for the trade side of things. It means the different streams can be protected as we grow and allow for future investment.
When we are in a position to take on further investment for online it makes things cleaner and more simple. So we’ve carved it up into limited companies and it works quite well.
It’s about time we talked about wine.
Everyone wants an authentic experience when they open a bottle of wine. We cut the crap and do proper wine that is made sensitively and farmed from good quality vineyards.
We educate in a language that our customers understand which helps us connect them to the taste of the grape in the vineyard. It means our customers become more wine savvy.
A lot of people don’t like those crazy, weird and funky flavours. We have had to send some wines back; they ended up being a bit mousey
Does it matter if the wines aren’t officially certified as organic?
No. The terminology behind natural wine is quite a difficult subject and it’s a bit of a minefield for the industry so for the consumer it’s even more complicated.
The majority of consumers don’t understand what organic is, and if you don’t understand that, you can’t talk from the perspective of organic. You’d be really surprised but lots of people don’t know what sustainable means either.
Using the word natural as an operative term is a lot more useful and understandable for most consumers. You have to put the language in consumer terms. We use the word natural perhaps a bit more freely than other merchants and wholesalers because it makes more sense to our customers.
Once you have them in an educational environment, whether it’s a tasting or an event, you can start to pick apart the differences between how different wines are made and how they are classified. The majority aren’t classified. It’s up to us as a business to try and choose the wines we feel represent the best of a grape variety and a region.
Which suppliers do you work with?
Les Caves de Pyrene, Indigo, Swig, Basket Press and Carte Blanche, amongst others. We have a wide range of different winemakers. We will, in the next 12 months, start importing our own wines as well.
How will you find those wines?
I’m very confident with the quality of wines from certain winemakers, so I already have a shortlist of makers and consultants we want to work with.
I have a friend who has been shipping wine for a few years and he is particularly good at sourcing really good quality, accessible, natural wines that aren’t too expensive. If you’re going to start importing you need some products that are good on price but still deliver on the quality and values we need.
Do you worry about inconsistencies between bottles of natural wine?
We don’t like wines like that. If we’re not comfortable putting them in front of our customers then we don’t have them.
A lot of people don’t like those crazy, weird and funky flavours. Some do, but the majority don’t. So it’s up to us to choose wines that our customers will like. We have had to send some wines back; they ended up being a bit mousey. You can’t serve them to a customer.
I went to the first natural wine fair that Doug [Wregg] and Isabelle [Legeron] put on about 10 years ago before it split off into Raw and the Real Wine Fair. Quite a lot of the wines were faulty and I was really sad about it.
The penny dropped that something wasn’t quite right even though the intentions were good and the philosophy was there.
Do you think the quality of natural wines has improved since then?
Over the last 10 years or so I have followed many different winemakers and tasted their wines and they’ve got better.
Some of them have started to understand that some of their wines don’t taste as good in the UK as they do in the winery. So how do we bridge that gap? Les Caves as an importer has looked at this very seriously and tried to make sure their wines are temperature controlled and that variation from source to consumer is more stable.
There are problems once the wine has been bottled. How does the retailer keep it and for how long? How aggressive was the journey from A, B, C and D? What temperature is it kept at?
Even if it’s mass-produced, wine is a sensitive product – and natural wine is even more sensitive. One wine we get from Carte Blanche is one of my favourites. Fabien Jouves makes wine in Cahors and every year you can tell they get slightly better, slightly fresher. He’ll come to the UK and he’ll taste his wines in situ and he’ll take feedback and learn from it.
Tell us about your keg wines.
I really see the value of KeyKeg, especially with natural wine, because it’s a very stable environment and it cuts out a lot of the potential issues and problems you have with shipping wine in bottle.
There are some problems that might occur but, because it’s a much more reductive, stable environment, when it comes out the tap it’s much fresher. It’s cheaper and much better for the environment, so it’s a real win-win.
We’ve got eight KeyKegs and will likely increase that to another four to six over the next year or so.
Every month we have four new wines we present to our House Wine subscribers. The guys in the bar have their favourites now so we want to keep a few of those on.
There are a few venues around town that do wine from keg, some of whom we supply.
Is there anywhere in the world you find particularly exciting for winemaking? Where would you like to visit?
I would love to go to Georgia, purely from a historical winemaking perspective. I nearly jumped on a trip a couple of years ago.
I think Greece as a country with all of its islands is fairly untapped and there’s more potential there. There is still more quality stuff to come from Spain.
I’d like to go back to New Zealand. I was there with my wife about 15 years ago. I’d like to see how the industry has evolved and changed there. The natural wine side of things is starting to take off.
What’s next for the business?
It’s education – that’s going to be the core driver for us. It will be how we build the business for the future. You get business off the back of educating people. With trade, you speak to chefs and say, if you’re bothered about what goes on the plate, you should care what is going in the glass.
We have a customer base that is really thirsty to learn more. The venue will allow us to put on various different educational experiences; tastings or big wine parties for 150 people. We’re not going to do the wine parties soon because we are conscious we need to keep things safe.
We need to get better at building the educational things online. We want to build products in Birmingham that are interesting, compelling and scalable that we can put out to the wider national market.