Merchant Profile: Dorset Wine Co

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In 1993, the then Prince Charles took a gamble on an ambitious Dorset new town, and 13 years later Jonathan Charles did the same thing when he opened his wine shop in the centre of the community. As Poundbury starts to properly bed in, Charles is seeing some returns on his hard graft, and beginning to think about some modest expansion for the business.

By Nigel Huddleston

 

The Dorset Wine Co got a new landlord recently. Sort of. The business is in Poundbury, which sits on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, just outside Dorchester.

When the Queen died last September, and Charles became King, the Duchy passed to his son William. “For a brief period the King was our landlord,” notes Dorset Wine Co’s owner Jonathan Charles.

The farmland on which Poundbury was built lay vacant until 1993 when construction started on a pet project for the then Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall, a showcase for traditional and classical architectural styles in response to the austerity of post-war modernism and brutalism.

There’s no mistaking Poundbury. Viewed from the A31 as you travel east-west between south east and south west England, it looks something between toy town and fairy land, and has divided opinion for 30 years and counting.

Even those who live and work there don’t seem to know what to call it. “It’s definitely not a village,” says Charles, though he’s reluctant to plump for town, as the population is only currently around 4,000. Even Wikipedia sits on the fence, running with “experimental planned community”.

Charles set up the Dorset Wine Co in 2006, and moved within Poundbury to its current site in the community’s central Queen Mother Square – alongside Waitrose, a pub and numerous other independent traders – on its 10th anniversary.

It’s now on the ground floor of a palatial film set of an apartment block in a site that provides high ceilings and lots of natural light to make for an inviting hybrid wine retailing space.

“It means you can have lots of dark wood and natural materials without it feeling too gloomy,” says Charles.

He previously worked for local brewer Eldridge Pope in its chain of wine shops, and spotted an opportunity to start his own business when Pope pulled out of retail.

“Initially, we were a few hundred yards down the road,” Charles adds. “This didn’t exist when we first moved to Poundbury. When we started out, we were right on the edge of the development. The houses opposite hadn’t been built and the road stopped at our corner.

“We saw it grow up around us and decided we wanted a bigger shop, with on-site storage and room to do tastings.

“We put the feelers out with the Duchy for something in the square, which is the centre of Poundbury. If we were going to go to the expense of moving it had to be here really, or it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s got pretty much all of our storage on site and room for 25-30 people for tastings.”

 

 

What was the attraction of Poundbury, rather than starting up in the middle of Dorchester or elsewhere in Dorset?
The Duchy is pro-independent business and it’s quite nice to have someone who’s actively looking for smaller independent businesses rather than the big chains. The rents are much cheaper than in town and the rates were more reasonable. The redevelopment of the old Eldridge Pope brewery is the other big development in this area and the rents are significantly higher than they are here.

It’s all free parking here as well and I felt that would be a really good draw for us. There’s a growing number of apartments being built on our doorstep, and it’s reached a tipping point where there are enough businesses to attract more people to come and shop from outside.

So how much of your business is people who live in Poundbury?
It’s growing as the population increases, but I’d still say that it’s probably 35%-40% [of sales]. The population’s about 4,000 now, and ultimately it will be 5,000. There’s a mixture of ages and the demographic is still relatively old, but it’s come down a lot since we’ve been here. We see a younger clientele moving in.

It is really different. People who live here love it, but there is still a bit of a stigma about the place – the fact that it is Poundbury and has the royal association. We just try to ignore it.

Are there restrictions on what you can and can’t do that you wouldn’t get elsewhere?
The design brief [of the development] was nothing modern on the façades. There are no road markings, traffic lights or crossings, and the roads widen and narrow to slow traffic naturally. It’s very pedestrian friendly.

We have a licence for pavement seating in the summer but I would love to have more of a garden like they have in the pub next door. We’ve asked many times but it’s a flat “no”.
We do an event once a week over the summer with a mobile pizza van and commandeer the car park for seating.

It’s a generous space you’ve got to play with.
When they build the big apartment blocks they focus on what’s up and not a lot of thought is given to underneath. It’s more of a case of whoever takes it will have to work with it, rather than it being thought-out as a retail unit.

We had our eye on a corner unit on the other side of the square that had a basement which we could have used for cellar storage and a bar, but the Duchy wanted it for a collaboration with a luxury spa, so what was three retail units is now a spa and a café. Those sorts of things are slightly frustrating because it’s a little short-sighted not to insist on more shops and restaurants in the square. They could have made more of it, reduced the parking and given the square a more open piazza-type feel.

The parking must be handy though.
It is – and it’s great for deliveries. Drivers like it because there are no traffic wardens shaking their heads. And because it’s free parking people don’t feel under pressure to shop quickly.

 

 

Have you ended up with what you set out to create?
No. I had in my head five or six years of hard graft and a chain of shops throughout Dorset. A lot of people probably start off like that and realise it’s a lot harder than they think. I wanted somewhere where people could come and get expert advice and where the people in the shop really knew and had faith in the wines they were selling – and just to put together an interesting and eclectic range of wines suitable for all tastes and budgets. We’re still trying to achieve that.

Having started at Eldridge Pope, and knowing their business and clientele, I thought I had a relatively good measure of the people in the area and that there was a great opportunity for a really good independent. There was only Palmers in Bridport and a couple of other people in Poole who were more focused on wholesale. Vineyards in Sherborne opened shortly before us.

How is it being right next to Waitrose?
None of this existed when we started, so it wasn’t there. There had always been a supermarket earmarked for across the road, but that was five or six years down the track. So we had a good head start and there wasn’t a lot of competition. The downside was that, because it was still a building site, no one would stumble upon us, so we had to work quite hard in getting the message out.

How did you do that?
We started at ground zero. We encouraged local people to spread the word and did tastings and events in the shop, even though it was quite small at the time. It was really just a grind of local events, including the county show and some local interest groups. Word spreads quite quickly around Dorchester. But we still have people coming in and saying “oh, you’ve moved” six and a half years later.

People from outside might imagine it’s an area with a lot of money. Is that the case?
It’s not particularly cash wealthy. There are lots of people who’ve lived here for many years and live in the family pile. But when I opened I got the impression it wasn’t as wealthy as I first thought.

Does that profile mean you lean towards the classics like Bordeaux and Burgundy?
Yes, we do. I think that’s because I’ve previously worked for more independent companies – I had a stint at Jeroboams as well – and they were more traditional in their listings, so that’s where my grounding in the wine trade happened. So we naturally lean towards the classic old world, but we have a lot of fun with South Africa, for example. There’s a lot of interest there with producers doing small-batch stuff that’s fascinating and good value. They’re classic grape varieties done in a different way.

Has that customer profile changed as time has gone on?
We’ve noticed an increase in organic, biodynamic and natural wines. In our early days they weren’t at the forefront of people’s minds. That goes slightly hand-in-hand with the average age coming down. The traditional Dorset gent isn’t particularly interested in whether something is organic or biodynamic, whereas the younger consumer just naturally is. We’ve nothing too weird or wacky. We don’t have many customers who want funky, cloudy or cidery wines. We have a couple of wines in crown corks but they’re noticeably slower to move. Trends and fads tend to happen elsewhere before they filter down to Dorset.

How important is the hybrid element in the mix?
We needed an on-licence to do tastings anyway. I was conscious that a lot of retailers who’ve tried the hybrid model ended up being seen more as wine bar than a shop and I wanted to remain a wine shop, first and foremost. We do a few evenings with food trucks that are geared towards drinking-in. I thought there would be a much higher take-up for hybrid generally than there has been. We do have a few people who drink-in within normal retail hours, but it’s not something we’ve really pushed because I don’t think there’s enough space and call for it to justify the extra staffing. We can seat 30 but, realistically, on a regular basis there will be between 10 and 20 max.

How do you structure the on-trade offer?
Normally it’s £5 corkage, but with anything that’s under £10 we make it up to £14.95, so it becomes £6, £7 or £8 corkage – so £8.95 goes to £14.95, and £9.95 also goes to £14.95.
It’s so we don’t have people coming in just for a cheap drink. And so people don’t go to one of our pub customers and say “I can have a bottle of that at Dorset Wine Co for the price you’re charging for a glass”.

What does wholesale bring to the business?
It’s about 25% of turnover. It has been up to 35% but I like to keep it around 25%. Most of the customers are relatively local, so I don’t like to hold too many listings of similar things just for different customers. It’s enough that we can manage it quite comfortably without them being in conflict.

Do you have separate wholesale and retail lines?
No. There are a couple of wines I’d like to ditch from the shop but I have wholesale customers who love them, so I have to keep stocking them. It’s more or less the same list and pretty much everything is online as well.

A lot of prospective wholesale customers used to be wary of the fact that their customers could see wines on their list and then online on our site at a third of a price, but I think these days people are much more au fait with restaurant wine mark-ups. They understand about the overheads.

Where does your retail pricing tend to fall?
It’s been increasing over the past three or four years. The sweet spot is probably about £12-£15, but for a long time, before we moved, it was £8-£12, so it’s gone up a notch.

We were fortunate during lockdown that a lot of people decamped from London and brought their budgets with them. We’re selling much nicer Burgundies, Italian wines and Bordeaux.

It’s also partly being in this more prominent location – and the word has got out among a certain set that it’s a good place to come and shop. It’s a combination of little factors but certainly we’re selling better stuff.

Tell us more about the wine range.
We’re at 700 and there’s wine on tap as well. That’s been very successful for us, both on-trade and off-trade. I’m really pleased we did it. We bought a stand-alone machine with three taps in it. We buy kegs from Uncharted, Graft and Caves de Pyrene, and some through Vindependents.

It’s easy when we do by-the-glass over the summer, because there’s zero waste and the kegs are easy to switch over. We do two glass sizes and carafes, and two sizes of bottle to take away and refill. The eco aspect of it is really good, it’s cheap to install and it captures people’s imaginations.

Who are your favourite suppliers?
We do a lot with Vindependents, mostly old world stuff and just a little peppering of new world. It’s easier to manage old world lead times. We use ABS and Bancroft, both of whom we’ve been with since the beginning. We use Alliance, and Astrum for Italian stuff, a bit with Armit, and Sommelier’s Choice – we really like them. It’s just a nice little smattering of different importers that give us a good range.

It’s a very good-looking shop with a lot of attention to detail.
All the cupboards were built for our initial shop and the racking was shipped from the States. They came flat-packed and we put them together. The big ones hold 480 bottles and the smaller ones 144, and they provide display and storage all together.

I first came across them in a wine shop in New York. I took a photo and asked a carpenter friend if we could put some together for me and he declined. So we tracked the manufacturer down and imported them. We then designed the rest of the shop, the platforms and the like around the racking.

There’s a decent range of spirits on one of them. How do they go for you?
I’ve always done a small selection. In our last shop it was literally a cabinet behind the counter. We did quite well out of the gin boom which made us realise we could sell interesting spirits. There’s been a big tail-off in gin, possibly to do with subscription clubs that people can sign up to. Before people would be rushing in to find something they’d heard of for £40-£50, but now it’s all done for them. It’s fine. I don’t want to spend my whole life talking about gin.

Do you still hope to open a chain across Dorset?
Not 100%, but I would like to have something else, whether it’s another branch or a wine bar. It’s just a question of finding the right place and the right people to run it for you.

What about web sales?
Online went bananas in lockdown. The first one happened just before we were planning to launch our new website. That went on hold, but at the beginning of 2022 we started with a new one which is integrated with our tills. It makes everything a lot easier, with one point of updating, whereas before we were juggling three different systems – for trade, retail and online. It was a lot of work but I’m really glad we did it. I think we could spend more time on it now and push it to work a bit harder but it’s about 10% of our turnover.

A substantial part of the business is still good old-fashioned walk-up retail, then?
We are sticking to our original vision. We’re lucky. I think customers here are pretty loyal. We’ve got many who’ve been coming for well over 10 years on a regular basis … so we must be doing something right.

 

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