Champagne native Pierre Hourlier has made a career selling French wines from his base in Derbyshire. Now he and son Jean-Pierre have their own bricks-and-mortar premises, located in the salubrious surroundings of Melbourne Hall. Nigel Huddleston pays a visit
The location of Pierre Hourlier Wines is unlike that of any other wine merchant in the UK, if not the world.
It occupies part of a stable block adjacent to Melbourne Hall, a Georgian pile in Derbyshire that was once the home of the 19th century prime minister William Lamb, aka Viscount Melbourne, who gave his name to the state capital of Victoria in Australia.
You won’t find that state’s wines in Pierre Hourlier Wines, however, nor any from elsewhere in Australia. Nor the rest of the new world for that matter. Nor Italy, or Spain.
Run by founder Pierre Hourlier, a native of the Champagne region, with his son Jean-Pierre, the business is 100% focused on French wines, all of which they import themselves.
The hall is still in private hands, as the seat of Lord and Lady Ralph Kerr, who are the shop’s landlords.
Pierre first came to the East Midlands on a school exchange visit and liked the UK so much he vowed to return one day.
“I thought I’d better come back to where there were people I knew rather than start afresh, so I came back to the Midlands,” Pierre says. “I joined a wine firm for a while and left them in 1975 to start my own business selling wine.
“In those days French wines were dominant and selling them was easy. You could sell virtually anything to anybody. I only operated by word-of-mouth with private clients … for 40 years.”
In 2016 Pierre was persuaded by his family that there was merit in putting down a permanent and separate business base that took the operation into bricks-and-mortar retail, backed by national online sales.
“I remember way back going into his office and seeing his customers’ details on cards that he flicked through,” says Jean-Pierre, “and I thought, I’ve got to help. I gradually computerised it.
“This shop and office was the next step – from working from a piece of paper and a stock sheet of wines that you can’t physically see, to presenting more a showroom type of thing.”
Why did you move into retail after so many years without a shop?
Pierre: Before I was selling wine from home through wine tastings and recommendations. The costs were very low. Jean-Pierre joined about 15 years ago, with different ideas of course. He modernised everything. A website was his ambition and we’ve now got a super one really. It has given us more oomph. We’ve got an extensive new clientele since we got it.
Four years ago, my son and my wife looked at what we were doing and said, “this is what we want: a new adventure”. It complemented what we were already doing, and it is the future. Retailing and the internet are the future.
Jean-Pierre: I just wanted to showcase things and have a set-up like this, really. We like to look at it as another string to the bow. There were also more practical reasons: to have an office next door, and a showroom and a little bit of a distribution spot here. It was a positive thing to do, so we made that choice.
How did you end up in this location?
Jean-Pierre: I found it online. We had to change the use and get a premises licence and go through all the process of doing that. There was a lot of work to do.
We just drew a line down a sheet of paper and put all the pros on one side and all the cons on the other, and then we said there were enough pros to do it, so we did. It was a case of “let’s have an office that’s not in my folks’ home, where we can present wines and invite customers and do onsite tastings”.
It’s very rural. Did you consider a high street in a town or a city?
Jean-Pierre: We’re specialist. We’re not catering for everyone. If we did a high street operation we would need to change. We’re still very much an importer that specialises in French wine. A wine importer with a premises on the high street wouldn’t really cut it. You need to have a bit of everything that way. We did look at other venues but this works really well for us. It’s nice place for people travelling from afar. There are amazing gardens at the hall which are open to the public and a nice high street and great restaurants in the area.
Pierre: One of the appeals of being here was that there are a few other reasons for people to come here, which makes it a nice day out.
What was 2020 like for you?
Pierre: We were so bombarded with orders during [the first lockdown] period we had to work seven days a week to cope with dispatching them. The shop was closed because we were using it to dispatch orders and no one could fit in to buy wine. We were open for click and collect.
Jean-Pierre: It was like Christmas. We got a lot of new customers. People’s buying habits were different, because it was a time when holidays and meals out had been cancelled, so they bought nice food and wine to eat and drink at home instead.
Did you take tastings online?
Jean-Pierre: We did a Zoom tasting with a private wine club. We only did it once. We had three wines we needed to chat about and allowed an hour and 20 minutes. It was just too long and hadn’t been thought out properly. I think it’s another business model altogether but it’s not really one for us.
Pierre: We have been taking groups of customers to visit the vineyards every year since 1989, but obviously not lately. We took 38 people to the Languedoc in 2019: we fly there, have a good hotel and have a coach to go round vineyards, and have lunch or evening meals and so on. It works very well in getting you closer to your customers and to your suppliers.
We have regulars who’ve been a few times.
If it’s not a stupid question, why do you just stick to French wines?
Pierre: Because I’d rather be a specialist in one thing than a jack of all trades. A lot of wine merchants are a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of everything – and nothing in particular.
The only exception is Niepoort port because we were the very first supplier of it in 1975. The rest is all French. There are no negociant bottles of wine, no co-operative wines. They’re all individual growers; a lot of them are small. They are not factories. Two-thirds of the wines we have in the UK are ones that no one else has. The remaining third others have, but most of the time we are cheaper than them.
I had three golden rules when I started: never let customers down – if you make a mistake correct it straight away; never borrow money from the bank; and never pay suppliers late. I still stick to them to this day.
The worst time of my career was 1992 and 1993 after Black Wednesday when the pound lost 15%. French wines lost momentum; new world wines invaded the market. My best three customers in wholesale went down. Although I lost 75% of my business, because I had no debt, I’d amassed enough working capital not to go down.
What earns a wine a place on your shelves?
Jean-Pierre: It’s as simple as the customer wanting it again and again and again – that’s the ultimate.
Pierre: We know when we’ve failed – they don’t ask [for the same thing] again.
Jean-Pierre: Sometimes it doesn’t happen overnight; it can take a few years before something becomes a keeper. Essentially, the profile of the producer needs to be right for us. We’re looking for smaller operations most of the time where we mean something to them. We’ll taste it on site [in the vineyard] or get samples back and evaluate it and if we like it, we’ll give it a punt.
Over time we will present it at tastings, which we do a lot of in here with customers. We’ll present it gradually to an array of customers at different times of year to give the wine a good chance. You’ll quickly find out if it’s a wine a customer asks for again. Ultimately, they decide. That’s when you know you’ve got something. The process is messy [laughter].
Pierre: It’s not simple to buy wine from small vineyards. You make mistakes. The reward is in the bottle, so we put up with the mistakes.
What do you mean by messy?
Jean-Pierre: If you deal with a big, slick operation, sometimes everything is easy, but if you’re dealing with a lot of individuals who you’re waiting to get hold of or waiting for an email … there’s one producer who’s only just got rid of his fax machine. But there’s a certain charm to that. And that direct contact, having met them, had food with them, for us it’s very important.
Pierre: We don’t use UK agents. We have perhaps 50 suppliers. Some of them we buy from occasionally and some on a regular basis. But all of them we know.
Where’s particularly exciting in French wine at the moment?
Pierre: Languedoc. It had a bad reputation many years ago, but it always had potential. It was really only Hugh Johnson that realised that at the time in his first wine book. In the last 20 years many producers have really come up. But they still suffer because “label” drinkers don’t buy Languedoc wines; they buy names. Languedoc wines are wines to drink; unless you taste them, you won’t buy them.
How well do you think France competes in the modern wine market?
Pierre: The truth is in the bottle, not on the label. The label gives you an indication of what it could be but it is the content that is important. France lost ground to the new world because it was too complacent and it didn’t call wines by the name of grapes. A lot of people didn’t know that Burgundy was Pinot Noir or Chardonnay – and it didn’t matter to them.
Commercially, many producers have improved but you have individual wine growers and big organisations, and they are in different worlds. We only believe in small growers, who are more natural and genuine. They are not necessarily marketeers, but they know how to make wine.