Lloyd Beedell has quite simple priorities in life, and they mostly centre on good wine, playing his favourite LPs and spending quality time with a German shorthaired pointer who keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings at his shop.
Chesters has embedded itself into the Abergavenny community, with a loyal customer base which has gradually come to understand why some wines make the list, and others certainly don’t.
It all started with an ultimatum from Majestic, issued to trainee manager Lloyd Beedell.
“I had quickly got fed up driving the van, and selling £6, £7 bottles of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc,” he recalls. “So I started my own little wine pop-up tasting called Wineways Cardiff. It would be in a different restaurant, different café, different bookshop, trying to introduce people to fun wines that I love drinking.”
Some of those wines came from Majestic. But plenty didn’t.
“From my time in restaurants, I knew all the reps and I knew some winemakers,” Beedell says. “We used to have guest speakers and we had guest winemakers. This was happening all over Cardiff, and we were quickly selling 30, 40 tickets a night, once a month, drinking lots of great wines in cool venues.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, “Majestic had a bit of a problem with that”.
Beedell explains: “I got a call from the head office in Watford and had a meeting with my area manager. He said, ‘Well, you know, it’s very entrepreneurial, it looks great, but you can’t do both. So you drive home to Cardiff and by the time you get there, I want a decision on whether you want to stay with Majestic, but if you do, you have to stop the Wineways Cardiff thing.’ I drove back to Cardiff, and I handed in my fleece.”
Three months later, Chesters opened in Abergavenny, originally in a smaller unit than the delightful old building it now occupies in the centre of the South Wales town. The German pointer from whom the business takes its name appreciates the walled garden at the rear – and so do customers, who have come to expect an eclectic range of wines and music, and know not to ask for Pinot Grigio.
What was the original shop like?
It was an old stables, so we had a little retail space downstairs. It wasn’t actually much less wine, in the old shop. But it was like a shoebox.
You could fit a desk at the bottom, Chester’s bed under the stairs, one big wall of wine and a little mezzanine upstairs, where I could sit about 10 people for wines by the glass. It was mainly retail focused.
I ordered far too much wine all the time: I was either playing Tetris or selling wine. We just outgrew the space, really.
Covid hit and it was a busy time for us. For the first three or four weeks, everybody got behind supporting local shops, so we were shifting wine like it was Christmas. It was great. Then it slowed down a bit, and like everybody else we had to pivot. So I looked at it and thought: when this is over, are we going to survive with just retail? Not sure. So we had a chance to look at this property down here, with the garden. I thought yeah, let’s go for a bit of on-trade and retail and see how we go.
This feels like it was almost purpose-built to be a wine shop and bar. It looks great.
Yeah, it didn’t look like this when we took it over, it was very grey. All the walls were covered in the most amazing units you’ve ever seen, which we ripped down, and I made a right mess doing. All the beams were painted, so we had to blast them off. Obviously I didn’t want to spend much money, so I got some real cowboys to do that, which delayed us opening for two weeks. They sandblasted without any extractors and just left it, so that was a bit of a pain.
The building itself was a Peter Dominic wine merchants many years ago. It’s quite nice to go full circle back to it.
What made you think Abergavenny needed a wine shop in the first place?
Well, we were based in Cardiff, and there’s obviously a couple of good little indies down there. I looked at Abergavenny; I didn’t know the area that well, but I knew of the food festival and its reputation as a foodie town. If you’re a very foodie town without a wine shop, there’s obviously a little gap in the market. There are a couple of independent shops that do a little bit of wine but they’re not actually experts in it. So we opened and built a community around the shop. And it’s been a part of Abergavenny ever since, really.
How big is the population?
Roughly 9,000, as a town.
As small as that? Is there a big hinterland to tap into?
Yes and no. A lot of the surrounding towns in Monmouthshire, blue [voting] towns, probably buy a lot of wine from Tanners. But the town is growing massively. Since you don’t have to pay to cross the [Severn] bridge anymore, and because of Covid, there’s definitely a lot more younger people that have moved here from the Bristol area. So the demographic is changing in the town.
When we first opened, we were definitely too young and cool for Abergavenny – and trying too hard to be young and cool. There aren’t enough other people that want to drink those kinds of wines. So we’ve kind of found the middle level now, doing lots of stuff that we really love and want to do, as well as keeping the town happy, which I know is a weird thing to say. We couldn’t just sell lots of low-intervention, orange wines. It wouldn’t work here.
There are much bigger places than this that wouldn’t support a specialist wine merchant.
I think we’re quite lucky here, actually, because we are quite isolated. It’s beautiful; it’s on the foot of the Beacons. But there’s nowhere else to go. The closest town is actually Crickhowell village outside Brecon and even Brecon is half an hour away. Monmouth’s half an hour away. So once you’re here, you’re kind of here, and the community is quite a strong community.
Do you have most of the obvious boxes ticked with the range, or do you wilfully do your own thing?
I think we’ve sort of wilfully tried to do our own thing, and not conform. Like, we still sell more Austrian Grüner Veltliner than we do New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I can’t remember the last time we sold a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Do people ask for it, though?
Not anymore. I suppose we’ve influenced people’s tastes.
From day one we only stocked grower Champagne, which for a year probably hindered our Champagne sales. But now people get it. There are a few producers I’ve given up on for sure, just because obviously everybody wants their wines, so they’ve become allocation-only mythical beasts that you can no longer get – or you can get six bottles, and I’d probably want to drink all six. Long gone are the days of selling lots of Agrapart and things, because the price has gone through the roof and they’re just no longer really available to us. But new young growers go on the shelf, for the right money.
Do you do any wholesaling?
We’ve started. Not huge amounts; we’ve never really gone after it. That’s part of the plan for next year. But it’s something that’s grown organically with local restaurants. It’s really hard, actually, to find people that want to put decent wine on the list.
Just outside of town, we’ve got four or five really, really good gastro pubs and restaurants that have opened in the last few years, who actually care about food and where it comes from. So the wine list has to match that. It’s too easy to just write a list full of recognisable wines. We’ve slowly started to have influence, I think, on the local wine scene.
How do you think your customers are discovering new things?
I say everybody who works in the wine trade’s job is to introduce new wines to people. It’s too easy to go and drink the same bottle of wine every time. We have wines on by the glass here, which we change every week, so that’s a good way of getting people to try different things. I encourage the guys here to taste wines all the time. So I suppose people are buying what we’re drinking.
How many wines are on pour at any one time?
We do three reds, three whites, a rosé and bubbles. And then we do the sort of icon wine list by the Coravin alongside that, which enables us to open some slightly more expensive and delicious wines. We pick them really by what the guys want to taste and learn about.
Do you have a good relationship with your reps and suppliers generally?
We used to work with far more companies. I’ve cut it down over the last six years or so. The core people we buy off do come and see us and are quite forthcoming. We are hard to get to, so if I need something they’re more than willing to send some samples, which we normally pay for anyway. We’ve got quite good a relationship with our reps.
Our core suppliers are Carte Blanche; Ben [Llewelyn] is a friend and a bit of a mentor and only lives down the road. Flint Wines; we do quite a lot with Thorman Hunt and Savage Selection. We’re starting to do a little bit more with people like Indigo. Swig are quite big for us. Then there are people like Liberty and Hallgarten in the background too.
What kinds of wines are floating your boat at the moment?
I’ve always drunk lots of lower-intervention red wines from Beaujolais and the Loire. I really like the Loire Valley at the moment. Cabernet Franc is such good value. There are some really, really smart wines there; the Chenin as well. Coming into this time of year I’ll be drinking lots of Gamay and zippy, fresh reds.
We started off to try and not be old-world heavy but very quickly came back to my Francophile roots. France and Spain kind of became what we’re about, really. Argentinian Grenache that’s not massively extracted … I’ve got a bit of a penchant for that at the moment as well.
Do you find it easy to find new stuff to keep refreshing your list?
Ben from Carte Blanche has got some incredible agencies on his list, and we taste a lot of wines that are not on his list. We’re often over in France and Spain together. I do try and get over as much as I can.
I’ve just got back from South Africa, which was fun. My other half is South African, but South Africa, especially Swartland, has always been a big part of Chesters, even before I met Karla. We do a festival every year called Abraiigavenny, which is just focused on South African wines. We get the barbecues going and have some fun.
Does direct importing appeal at all?
We’ve done a little bit. I’d like to do more. But at the moment, it’s hard to see the value with the sheer volume you need to bring in.
Have you got storage space for the wines you buy as it is?
Any space that you can see! Actually, we’ve got a little storage room upstairs, which has become just a sort of dumping ground for all sorts. It’s full of bikes and lots of nonsense.
You recently bought out your original business partner, Ben Southon.
Maybe as the business evolved, we grew apart. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.
We’ve got a good team here, seven people. Joe will be my full-time part-timer, and then we’ve got our merry band of weekend workers. Some of them are customers that just started turning up to work on the weekend. Which is quite fun, actually.
They’re all good as gold. They’ve all gone through their Level 2; some of them want to do Level 3 this year.
How much difference has it made, having a garden?
That was the whole reason for moving down here, to be honest. Just having that massive space for on-trade. When the sun finally shines, which it doesn’t often in Wales, that can make a massive difference. We can fit 40, 50 people out there. We do lots of events out there. We do some small plates as well, which goes well.
How do you organise the food?
We do all the prep here, all of us. No chiefs here, all Indians: everyone takes turns in the kitchen. We don’t cook anything, we just buy good local, high-quality ingredients and plate them in a way that looks decent and tastes great. I love food, I love cooking.
We change it all the time. It’s just dishes picked up from our travels around the wine world, really. I’m off to Greece next week – I’m sure when I come back, there will be something Greek-inspired on the menu.
I can still remember going to La Buvette in Paris and having burrata with lemon and oil, and now that’s a staple of our menu. We do steal ideas.
Tell us about the vinyl.
Music is big part of what we do. We tried to take the deck out a few months ago and people were kicking off: “Where’s the vinyl?” All we play all night is vinyl records, which is really nice.
We used to sell vinyl too and there’s still a little bit left on the floor. I do kind of dump a lot of my stuff there. I’m being told to clear out at home. But I was spending far too long browsing through record catalogues as opposed to wine catalogues.
Do you do a case of the month or anything like that?
We don’t really do a case of the month because I like people coming into the store. We’ve got a pretty active mailing list, with about 1,200 people on it, but we haven’t got anything online yet. We will launch a website very soon. I just need to pull my finger out and spend two weeks stuck in a cave somewhere to finish it. But it’s not far off.
We sell through our mailing list and we do offers or just little producer profiles. Sometimes it works really well. Like, a couple of weeks ago, we sold a pile of dusty Bordeaux: 240 bottles of wine went in a day or two. And then on other days you send it out, it’s a really lovely wine that you adore, and you might only sell four or five bottles.
What kind of events do you hold here?
We always have a tasting on the last Thursday of every month, which is fully attended. The tickets go within 24 hours, 48 hours. We try and keep it around £20, £25. Sometimes we do food as well so that would drive the prices up. If we’re doing expensive iconic wines, then the price goes up. We sometimes have guest chefs to do food things as well. We’ve done some epic nights where we’ve had a Michelin-star chef and turned it into a fine-dining restaurant.
We set them up with an outdoor kitchen, cook over the fire pit and on induction hobs. We’ve done five-course tasting menus for 14 people. We probably lose money, but it’s fun. Sometimes you’ve got to do these things, otherwise it gets a bit boring.
We’re planning a big wine fair and a food festival this year actually. We’re calling it Feast, and it is going to be a feast. We’ve got a really good chef cooking. Its theme is sort of sea, forest, farm … wine. It’s about celebrating local people.
What would you like to do next? Have you got a five-year plan?
Five-year plans are no good for me. My brain doesn’t work that far ahead. Let’s survive the next year, and kick on with the website launch.
We’ll start doing a little bit more wholesale if it’s right for us. And I would quite like to open shop two. I don’t know where that is – I’m not sure if it needs to be closer to here just to split the stock, or we look at developing one of the guys here and opening somewhere further afield.
It sounds like you’re happy with how things are going.
Yeah, I just want to bring my dog to work and sell wine and listen to music all day. So it’s great. I do love it. I’m not getting rich by any means. But I’m happy, which a lot of people are not.