Stuart Rothwell was in the transport business before joining the wine trade. The Vineyard at Ramsbottom in Lancashire adapted well to lockdown and has emerged from the other side in good shape, despite all the familiar challenges. Nigel Huddleston says hello
Stuart Rothwell admits that The Vineyard has had a bit of a spruce-up especially for The Wine Merchant’s visit.
“My wife’s tidied up,” he says, while he was away over the weekend playing cricket, in Portugal of all places. “There are normally boxes everywhere. Customers will wonder if there’s something wrong. I’ve had two customers this morning comment on how tidy it is.”
The Vineyard opened its door in the Lancashire town of Ramsbottom, a dozen or so miles north of Manchester, on the seventh day of the seventh month in 2007.
Since 1999 Rothwell had been one half of R&R Fine Wines in Bury, but he got the wine bug before that, helping out wife Geraldine, who managed a deli called Ramsbottom Victuallers.
“My parents were both teetotal, so it wasn’t from them,” he says. “I’ve never been a big drinker, a beer drinker, or anything like that.
“I used to go into the deli on a Saturday afternoon and help out with the wine, giving people recommendations. I didn’t get paid for it, it was a hobby. One of the customers said, ‘Do you fancy doing this full time?’ They had a premises in Bury, so we started a wine shop.
“I had a haulage business, but was selling that, so it just seemed to fall into place.”
He went to night school to do his WSET exams, which was “brilliant, not like doing maths or English”.
After eight years of R&R he decided to go it alone and moved five miles up the M66 to Ramsbottom, and the current site, a small retail space over two levels, and which now has a temporary marquee/gazebo providing an outdoor lockdown-plus space on the street.
“When we set up there were Victoria Wine and Thresher in the town, but they did their thing and I did mine. I’m not saying we’re upmarket, we’re not, but we were at a completely different level to those two. They’ve gone, of course, and we’re still here.”
The business is a family affair, run by Stuart with Geraldine and daughter Becky.
How was lockdown in a business sense?
It’s been good. We became a delivery service within a few days of the first lockdown happening. We were open but people couldn’t get their heads round the fact that we were open when the whole town was shut down. We knew it wouldn’t last [after the end of lockdown]. We were probably doing 15-20 local deliveries a day, and we’ve seen that drop to 20-25 a week. But we found new customers through it who’ve stayed. I said if we could keep one in 10 we’d be happy, and we have done.
How did the outside come about?
We put up the marquee in the street. There are two restaurants either side, tapas and pintxos, both owned by the same guy. We get on well. When shutdown came he was gutted, obviously. We got wind through our MP, who we get on with, that the council had to do anything they could to keep people in business.
So Sergio came up with the idea of how we could move outside. We didn’t get much sense out of the council at first but all of a sudden they said we could close the street. We had to go through a few hoops with Covid rules, risk assessments and the licence.
We had to get public liability for £10m rather than £5m. We are both insured by the same local company. It cost about £20 and the insurance broker [Monroe Greenhalgh] asked if they could sponsor the marquee, so it’s got their branding on it. It’s been fabulous.
How does it work in practice?
Sergio does the food and we do the wine. It’s worked really well. Overnight we became a hospitality business. It’s totally different but we worked hard at it, and it’s been totally brilliant really.
The plan is that next spring the council will decide to close the road permanently and make it pedestrianised, which I think they will, and then we’ll put a proper weatherproof structure up.
But we’re still using it: we’ve got the Halloween tasting in there and we’ll do a Christmas market and one or two other events.
It sounds like there’s quite a supportive business network in Ramsbottom.
There is. It’s all independents; the only chains are Lloyds the chemist and Ladbrokes. It’s an old mill town and there are few others dotted round us. You’ve got to work together.
We organise the Wine-dering Tour. People go, “what the hell’s a wine-dering tour?” At Christmas, I get all my regular suppliers to come up – Enotria, Bibendum, a lot of smaller ones, Raymond Reynolds etc. We take over eight shops and I put a supplier in each: the underwear shop, the hairdresser, the solicitor. For the Love of Wine does the Italian wines in the art gallery.
How does it work?
Customers come to me, get a glass and there’s a tasting in each shop that they walk around. They all put food on; we do the brochure. It creates late night shopping for the retailers, and the suppliers can talk to people and get them to try things that they wouldn’t normally. We have a Spanish shop, a French shop … we never have anybody in here. We can’t be bothered with that. Just go and bother everybody else.
We had the ports in the solicitor’s and he was taking 10% off if people want to do a will at any time. Just getting to know them.
Jonathan Cocker at Martinez in Ilkley wanted to do the same but he said the licensing people weren’t happy, but ours were OK. You can do it in a small town, but you couldn’t do it in Manchester. That’s the beauty of it.
How would you describe what you do day-to-day?
How many independents are there in the country? 700 or so? We’re similar to 650 of them, which is that middle level with more quality. We’re about quality, not quantity. We’re a bit eclectic and try to cover most bases with a bit of everything.
We’re busy at Christmas with people who normally shop in the supermarkets who want to buy something a bit special.
You have an anonymous-looking award for Portuguese wine from 2014. Would you regard yourself as a Portuguese specialist?
It’s from Wines of Portugal. We are the holders of that award still, because they pulled the funding and there hasn’t been another one. We had it on the van but we just took the date off.
It was just a little thing that other shops didn’t really get into. A lot of retailers do France, Spain or Italy, but Portugal’s always an afterthought. It really started through Raymond Reynolds, who are just lovely to work with, when we went on a trip to Portugal. The wines were lovely and I decided to try to bring them to people’s attention. So Portugal’s always been a bit of passion really … and great wines. If I tell people the grape varieties they’ll go over their heads, so we don’t go that deep into it. In the wine trade we think people should know about varieties, but why should they?
What are the people of Ramsbottom drinking at the moment?
Whispering Angel. “Have you got that rosé?” That’s all they have to say and you know what they mean. Our biggest seller is an Italian red, Sampietrana, from For the Love of Wine, and it has been for four or five years. It’s behind the counter; we don’t even put it on the shelves because it goes out that fast. It sells because we push it.
You get people coming in who want to know about wine but are a bit frightened, and ask for a recommendation. They go away and try it and then we sell cases. We take a full pallet for Christmas, which was a big decision the first time but it all went well.
As an ex-haulier, do you ship any wine yourself?
No, not now. With all the paperwork, who’d want to be an haulier? It’s a nightmare getting wines in at the moment, isn’t it?
We’re bottom of the pile at Rotterdam. All our suppliers are just saying, “you can’t have this, you can’t have that”. New Zealand Sauvignon, especially – and trying to get things out of Italy is difficult because there aren’t enough companies going into Italy to bring it out.
Beaujolais Nouveau has been cancelled. We get it from Georges Duboeuf through Berkmann. We do a good promotion every year; we always have done and it does very well, even though it’s an old-fashioned thing. I’ve got two alternatives from other suppliers to investigate but, apparently, it won’t be the third Thursday in November, it will be into December.
Are relations with suppliers generally good?
It’s mainly specialists in particular countries. I don’t abuse my suppliers because I need them. I’m not one of those characters who try to knock them down on price. If it weren’t for the Italian specialist, the Spanish specialist … we use Moreno for Spain and a small importer in Manchester for Spain – and For the Love of Wine and Liberty for Italy.
With all the supply issues and everything else that’s been happening, has 2021 been worse than 2020 in some ways?
I suppose it has in some ways. They keep saying about Christmas shortages …. top-end Sauvignons, Greywacke being one we could mention. We had an allocation from August to Christmas of 14 cases but that’s no longer happening. There are alternatives but if you like New Zealand Sauvignon you like New Zealand Sauvignon. There’s not a lot like it. People are saying about South Africa and Chile but it’s not the same. Loire is not the same.
It’s got to be damn good Chilean or South African to match New Zealand. But the situation might change people’s tastes as well. We’ve probably got 15 or 16 New Zealand Sauvignons. Why do we need so many?
Talking of down under, your Australia sign is upside down.
We had all the signs done by a young girl who said “I’ve made a mistake”, but we decided to keep it that way. There’s always some wag who will say: “Why isn’t your New Zealand sign upside down as well?” Kids love it when they come in with mum and dad, so we kept it as a talking point. Australia is a country that goes up and down. You sell a lot and then nobody asks for it.
The pricing has gone up of course. All our suppliers are telling us there are price increases coming across. There has to be because of the prices people are paying for containers, etc.
Where are you in terms of turnover? Back to 2019 levels?
We’re way ahead of 2019. Last year was a funny year but a brilliant one really when you look at it. Turnover has gone up 25% over 2019. The outside helped and wholesale has come back now. We do local restaurants … and cricket clubs. Our team plays social matches against local clubs, and I sponsor banners at a lot of the grounds. It’s good advertising and they give me business as well. We’ve just taken two new cricket clubs on. That’s all kicked in and the restaurants have opened up again. And retail is doing well, so we have that too.
A big part of the shop is devoted to spirits. How important is that?
It’s massive. We have a certain brand of customers who are knowledgeable about whisky. They know their stuff and I end up asking them questions. We do well in Cognac, and gin of course. It’s slowed down slightly but that’s only the quirky gin liqueurs, the cheeky flavours, like bubblegum. We’ve got a massive selection of proper gin and it’s still good. Rum’s doing phenomenally as well. The cocktail culture came in with gin drinkers and all the bars in Manchester are selling a lot of rum cocktails.
Tequila and mezcal are quite good, and the specialist liqueurs for cocktail making. If a recipe says “a dash of Angostura” you have to add it. You can’t get away without it.
Your catchment area includes a lot of very notable independents.
You won’t get better than D Byrne and Tom [Jones] at Whalley Wines is very good. Phil at Wino’s in Oldham is a good friend. Reserve Wines [in Manchester] are brilliant. Kwoff in Bury have been there for about six or seven years. They’re big Boutinot customers and I never really have been, so we do slightly different things.
Our catchment area is probably a 15-mile radius. People who come to us from outlying villages know Tom and they know Byrne and they’ll shop in each of us. We work well with Kwoff who’ll ring if they have customers in the shop asking for things they don’t have – and we do the same for them.
In the independent trade, that’s how it works. You’ve got to get on with each other.