Ellis Wharton Wines, Cornwall

Spaced out

It’s been an eventful year for all indies, and for Charles Wharton in particular. Having bought out his business partner and relocated to a retail park warehouse, he’d been open for just one day when lockdown hit. But, as Nigel Huddleston discovers, the larger premises have been a blessing, for lots of reasons

On the face of it, the January move to new premises by Cornish independent Ellis Wharton Wines doesn’t look like great timing.

“We spent two months getting the shop and warehouse sorted, had the shop open for a day and shut it down in March,” says owner Charles Wharton. On top of that, co-founder David Ellis had retired in December, and Wharton had bought him out to become 100% owner.

“I’ve not had a day off since New Year’s day,” he observes matter-of-factly.

As it happened, the move to a bigger, more modern site, with room to process ramped-up web orders and built-in social distancing in the shop, proved to be advantageous.

“It’s probably helped,” says Wharton. “Where we were, the shop was very small, wasn’t very visible and there wasn’t a lot to show off. When we moved, we got comments along the lines of it being a bit of a statement – and I suppose it probably was.

“Having retail, internet and trade – three parts of the business – is a good thing at the moment.”

Ellis Wharton’s spanking new 4,500 sq ft unit is at Indian Queens off a junction of the busy A30, roughly midway between Bodmin and Truro. One of Cornwall’s best-loved bakeries and a mountain bike shop are in neighbouring units and the business park is still being developed with the promise of more footfall to come.

Ellis Wharton has divided its unit into a 3,000 sq ft warehouse to the rear and a 1,500 sq ft shop at the front, as Wharton looks to balance the business more towards retail.

He was the wine buyer for the wholesale operation of local brewer St Austell when he and restaurateur Ellis decided to go into business together in 2006. Their first customer was the chef Nathan Outlaw.

“When I started at St Austell it was doing about £25m and when I left it was doing about £95m,” Wharton says. “But it was just beginning to lose interest in the top-end of the wine list and the nicer customers, so it was a good time for me to move on and do something else.”

The company is a member of the Independent Wine Buyers Consortium and employs six people (temporarily reduced to three during lockdown).

How did lockdown affect you in the early stages?
We carried on doing home deliveries and the internet but 90% of the business disappeared, like it did for lots of other people, and it just carried on from there.

You could feel trade sales going about a week before. People were taking their foot off the pedal and not ordering any more, just in case, and then the last three or four days before lockdown it was nothing at all.

We reopened the shop towards the end of June. We had more and more people ringing up to say, “can we collect?”, so we quietly opened the doors and got on with it.

We rarely get more than one or two people in the shop at any one time anyway. The doors have been open through the summer, and the back doors of the loading bay, so there’s been a good flow of air going through. I like to think we’re relatively safe.

How did things build back up?
We hit the ground running when the on-trade opened on July 4. It was a case of “we’ve got to get wine to everyone, let’s make it work”. You just do, don’t you? One or two trade customers had managed to drink through their cellars during lockdown, so with them it was bit like starting up the account again.

We’ve had a good summer, a lucky summer, but we’ve worked hard for it. You think you’re just about there and they go: 10pm curfew. We did see the orders drop off again but, touch wood, we’re going to be OK.

This all came just after the move. What drove that?
The last address in Par [half an hour away] had a very small shop and we had an overflow warehouse because the site was so small. We were spending a day a week moving stock between the two warehouses. It was just getting crazy.

We were looking for the best part of 12 months and then this came up. It was a little bit further to commute every morning. We’re an hour, at most, from all our trade customers now. The location’s great. Apparently, 40,000 cars go past that junction every day in the summer and 20,000 in the winter, so for the shop it made sense.

Part of the reason was to spread the risk on the business by expanding the retail side. From doing the small amount of retail business that we were doing over in Par to potentially what we could do here just seemed like a very sensible decision.

How important is wholesale to you?
We’re probably 85% trade, 15% retail. I’d like retail to be a third of the business to spread the risk. Since we’ve been here, I’ve started buying different products for the shop, just having a slightly different range for trade and for retail. It also allows me to buy small parcels of things, whereas the trade needs consistency through the year with the same lines. With the shop we can have some fun with parcels and put something new on the floor every month and make it a bit more interesting.

Taking lockdown into account, has the move helped retail?
We’ve certainly got more customers coming through the door now and we got more profile from the lockdown by going into home deliveries. We’ve not really started shouting about ourselves on social media just yet. It’s just been a bit of time on Facebook and Instagram saying we were doing home deliveries.

A lot of people have gone back to the supermarkets. We’ve retained some of the nicer and bigger customers, which has been great. People are finding us through Google or word of mouth, coming in saying, “wow, this is great, we didn’t know you were here, I’m going to tell all my friends”. That’s the best bit of advertising we can have.

The level of spend per transaction is up as well. I think we can triple our retail turnover here in next year or two.

Have costs gone up?
The previous place was an old prefab unit with lots of potholes and puddles outside. It was relatively cheap but when it rained customers were having to work out how to park so they didn’t step out into a pothole and get wet feet.

This is all nice and new with fresh tarmac outside. It’s all super-insulated, high-efficient, low-energy consumption. It’s great for distribution: 10 minutes to the north coast, 25 minutes to the south coast.

The rent is more but we’ve got double the square footage that we had before. Proportionally it might be marginally more expensive per square foot, but not a great deal more – and there’s a saving in not having a person moving stock between warehouses one day a week. The extra business we’ve picked up will hopefully pay for the rest of it.

Has your retail customer profile changed?
We’ve retained all our really nice customers who used to come and see us from Fowey and the surrounding areas. We’ve picked up a lot from Indian Queens and the north coast of Cornwall, and more holidaymakers. We had a lovely couple in early July who’d rented an apartment in Newquay. It was the only thing they could get. Their Waitrose delivery had arrived, but the wine hadn’t. They Googled and found us and spent £550. That was unusual – if only all my customers were like that – but the opportunities are there to tap into.

Tell us about your wines. What’s your shopping list like when you’re buying?
I do all of the buying and all of the selling, so if we’re left with lots of stock we can’t sell it’s my fault. I want to work with smaller, family-owned wineries. We’ve got a few entry-point wines but most of what we sell is between £10 and £20 a bottle. David and I always took the attitude that, if the business is going to go wrong, let’s be left with a warehouse full of stuff we’d want to drink rather than wash the car with. We’ve kept that philosophy all the way through. There’s nothing in there I’ve bought purely on price or to fill a hole on the list.

Which suppliers have been most supportive?
When we started out, I wanted to do something a bit different to what I was doing at St Austell, something that was grower-led and with a little of personality. I was put in touch with Doug Wregg at Les Caves de Pyrene and he was brilliant. About 10 boxes of samples turned up a week later, something like 100 different bottles of wine, and we worked our way through them. We’ve been with Les Caves de Pyrene ever since and it’s still probably one of our biggest suppliers in terms of numbers of products.

There’s always been an emphasis on organic and biodynamic. When the Scarlet Hotel [a Newquay eco-hotel] opened up they wanted a fully organic wine list that stretched the boundaries of what was being offered in Cornwall at the time, so we worked very closely with them, playing with natural wines and figuring out what worked by the glass, by trial and error more than anything.

Do you have go-to countries for the range?
Half the list is probably French – and maybe up to 80%. We’re very much European-led, probably because of my palate more than anything else. Personally, if someone said to me you can only have one country to drink, it would be Italy. I love the food, I love the culture and I love the wines.

But we’re probably seeing the biggest movement in Spain at the moment and there’s some great stuff coming out of there – and some great labels. That’s still an area where the French have got so much to learn. There are great wines coming out of France but the labels still need working on. Spain has brilliant labels and the wines to go with it. Some of the declassified wines are really interesting; producers saying, “we don’t want to play by the rules, we’ll do what we want”.

Do you ship direct for the company outside the IWBC?
There are certain bits we buy direct and we’d like to do more of that. We ship some Loire, some Chablis, bits from Italy and Spain. But then we’ve got proper Brexit looming at the end of the year with extra levies when it leaves one side of the Channel and arrives at the other. That’s where the benefit of the buying group comes in. Rather than ship two pallets in, we can bring in a trailer-load to the central warehouse and keep the costs down.

For our own buying, it may be a case of rather than doing one or two pallets, shipping four to spread the cost, and having the bigger warehouse will help.

Cornwall’s a big place. Does that give you a certain exclusivity of catchment area?
There’s a Majestic in Totnes and one in Falmouth and Wadebridge Wines and BinTwo up the road, and a few other independents around.

You get the feeling that the supermarkets are limiting their range recently and reducing choice so people come and see us instead. If you’re spending £6-£8 in a supermarket, and spend that with us you’ll get a nicer wine. We’ve got a few wines at £6 online, just to drive a little bit of traffic. It supplies a few parties … when we’re allowed them.

Some people don’t want to spend a lot of money on wine. Some people will spend £30 or £40 on a bottle of Cornish gin but get frightened by spending £10 on a bottle of wine.

I don’t want to get too exclusive. People know we supply top-end restaurants, so there can be a perception that we are expensive, but I want to cover both things. There are one or two bottles over £100 but we’re not quite Berry Bros with DRC and that sort of thing. We don’t go really silly. I’d love to sell some of those, but the reality of life is that people don’t buy them too often.

With all this space to play with, was hybrid a part of the original plan?
We had ideas of doing winemaker dinners in the middle of the shop, putting a big table down the middle. We spoke to half a dozen of the chefs we supply who said they were up for it, one or two of whom have Michelin stars. We said we didn’t want anything too poncey and it had to be centred on the wines. Licensing were brilliant and said yes but the planning officer said we couldn’t.

The landlord has been brilliant and is happy for us to do what we want, so one of the things we’ve got to do for the winter is apply for a slight change of use to do the odd dinner.
We’ve got two Wine Emotion machines and we’d like to put a couple of tables in the window and outside and do plates of cheese or charcuterie with a glass of wine as an ongoing thing.
But at the moment we’d probably get slapped and we’ve got enough on our plate already.

How is the retail park you’re on evolving?
The landlord has a couple of car dealerships and the plan was to have his flagship dealerships on the other side of the road. He just wants nice businesses in here, so the idea is businesses like us can provide footfall for the showrooms and the showrooms can provide footfall for us as well.

And is the passing tourist trade doing OK?
Cornwall is busy at the moment [early October]. A lot of the hotels are still full and caterers are saying they’re running at high levels of capacity, and think they will be all the way through until Christmas. If we can do click and collect and delivery for holidaymakers instead of them having to bring wine with them, we’re here. Cornwall potentially could have its busiest winter for a long time, if not ever, because of staycationing.

There were stories during lockdown and soon after of locals being hostile to visitors. Was that an accurate portrayal?
It was happening. There were signs up in villages telling people where to go. Quite frankly the main industry in Cornwall is tourism and we need tourists. Being rude to them is not the way to do it. My message would be “come later, we’d love to have you here and we’ll look after you really well”. But some people are a little bit more … assertive.

We’ve got lots of space, fresh air and you can sit on a beach with lots of space around you. You can do it with all the social distancing you need. We lost a lot of turnover for three months and we’ve pulled a little bit of it back. The longer we can keep going we can pull a little bit more back. I’m keeping everything crossed.

November 2020