You would only open a specialist wine shop in the county town of Shropshire if you were planning on doing something completely different to Tanners, one of the nation’s most revered merchants. That’s exactly what Robin Nugent has done with Iron & Rose, based in the upper reaches of the market hall, specialising in sometimes funky wines that share his personal philosophy of an ethical, sustainable approach to everything in life.
Not everybody loves Shrewsbury Market Hall. Its grand Victorian predecessor was torn down in the 1960s to make way for a building that, at street level at least, looks far less interesting than the black-and-white timber framed buildings for which the Shropshire town is famous.
Inside, it’s much more invigorating. Natural light floods into the buzzing ground floor area, where you can find fresh fish, Indian and Thai street food, flowers, meat, produce, books, vinyl records … pretty much anything that would help somewhere like this get voted Britain’s favourite market, as Shrewsbury’s was in 2018. Provincial market halls can feel quiet and unloved, but this one seems like a genuine centrepiece of the town.
Upstairs, on the balcony area, Robin Nugent has a good view of the bustling trade below. His Iron & Rose wine shop began its life at street level but now occupies a position up in the gods.
There’s a colourful space adjacent to the retail area known as PetitGlou. It’s the baby sister of GlouGlou, Nugent’s wine bar located a short walk away, near the station. Here, shoppers can pause for thought and enjoy any of the wines on the shelves, most of which are natural, organic or biodynamic, or are at least heading that way.
Nugent began life in the UK wine trade at Oddbins, before spells at Lay & Wheeler and Shrewsbury’s most famous merchant, Tanners. From there he joined Alliance Wine, looking after national agency sales. Sensing a change of direction was needed, he enrolled on an MBA course.
“I wanted to do an MBA, rather than an MW, partly because I wasn’t necessarily in a good position to do all the tasting and stuff,” he says.
“This MBA has a specific focus on strategy. I think the wine industry, with all due respect to it, can be very navel-gazing and introverted, and not looking to see what other people do.”
Nugent thought about leaving wine. “I considered doing something where I was going to get paid lots of money for my opinion,” he jokes.
“Then I thought, actually I’ve spent a long time building connections and building knowledge. And I just felt that Shrewsbury was ready for something like this. I thought the market for organic, natural wine was something I could really tap into.
“Tanners are here and they’re really good at what they do. But they tend to be much more traditional and they’ve got a 150-year head start.
“We came along with something that was a bit of a niche, a bit different. It started in the market because there’s no long-term commitment.
“We launched Iron & Rose in 2016, just two days a week, as a kind of side hustle in a space that a fishmonger sublet to us. We had that space for about six months until we got a permanent spot downstairs on the main market floor, and then we moved up here in 2021.”
When did you sense you were onto a winner?
It’s been very gentle, quite slow progress. The real growth came when we opened GlouGlou in 2019. That bumped things along quite a lot. And actually Covid bumped things along again, on the retail side of things. When the first lockdown happened, I tried to turn everything back into cash. I just tried to sell all our stock, get rid of it. Then people kept on ordering.
Kitsy had joined just before Covid as assistant manager of GlouGlou. She wasn’t on the payroll so I couldn’t furlough her. She’s really good. She spent the first four months of lockdown putting everything onto a new website, finding out all the details and just building an e-commerce site that we should have had before, but never had the time or the urgency to do.
Tell us about the range and how that evolved.
I came from doing quite a lot of stuff in multiples, and I really fell out of love with that. A lot of it was just about coming up with wine that was always going to be consistent – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It just does not light my candle.
What I loved, and what got me into wine in the first place, was wine with a sense of place, identity, individuality. Small-scale wine.
I have quite a strong personal thing about ethical, organic, sustainable produce and that way of living, so I wanted to start something like that. I’d been to a few tastings like RAW and Real Wine Fair; I just loved the vibe, that kind of atmosphere. It’s exciting and enthusiastic. Some of the natural stuff is too far out there for me. But I just love that enthusiasm for exploration, and like that authenticity.
So I wanted to give that go. It’s not something that multiples can do, because by the time you’ve got it listed, paid the listing fees and sorted out the promotions, the vintage will have changed and the wine will have changed.
And that is both the benefit and the problem. Wines can take a couple of months to settle down, then go through a phase and six months later they’ve gone back a little bit.
Did you sneak any of those kinds of wines into your selection?
We’ve got some more funky stuff, yeah. You just need to be careful about who sell them to and how much explanation you give. We have people who seek us out because we’ve got some really funky stuff. But I’m more interested personally in natural wines that are clean and pure and well made. The funk doesn’t get in the way of the fun in that expression. Shrewsbury’s not Shoreditch, and we need to tailor our offer accordingly.
Some people argue that natural winemakers can get away with making bad wine.
The natural winemaking process amplifies the realness of the wine, but it also amplifies any faults, and any issues like mildew taint. There is definitely some poor winemaking, but there’s also poor winemaking involved in the more mainstream agrichemical stuff.
There were a few wines we bought where there’s been just a bit too much bottle variation. You open one and it’s amazing; you have another one that is just shocking. The real worry of that is that a person buys one bottle and it’s the shocking one, and it’s the first time they’ve bought from you. They just think all your wines are weird shit.
Something I did learn quite quickly to explain to people is “this white wine is a little bit hazy, that’s fine, it’s not going to kill you”.
Wine is not naturally clear, it’s naturally hazy, like apple juice, like any kind of juice. But people have been so conditioned into thinking wine should be clear and bright. Even the WSET is teaching that.
You seem to have a good business brain. But are you also interested in the science behind wine?
I worked in Alsace after I left university, for Rolly Gassman – not for very long. I’ve visited quite a few producers over the years and did my Diploma a while ago.
We’re involved now with a winemaker in Shropshire called Commonwood, making the wine and helping manage the vineyard, which is just a hectare of vines producing 3,500 to 4,000 bottles a year: red, white and sparkling. The reds are mainly Regent with a bit of Dornfelder. Some Pinot Précoce was planted last year. The whites are mainly Phoenix.
And you’re not spraying those vines at all?
We just spray them with organic anti-mildew treatment. We try to manage the vineyard well. We’re getting all prunings off the vineyard so there’s no kind of build-up of problems. The grass is mowed.
We actually make the wine on site as well. We’ve got a little crusher-destemmer and a little hydro press. With the fizz we make the base wine, and then send that off somewhere to get made into sparkling wine.
I don’t spend as much time there as I probably should. But the team will get involved at vintage and at various periods through the year to help with the canopy management and stuff. So it’s really cool for them.
Your website looks good. It gives a decent impression of the physical shop.
What we want to try and do is replicate someone walking in here. Ben is spending a lot of his life working on “if you like this, you might like these” recommendations.
Shopify will do them automatically. But some of the things it picks up are a bit random. So we’re selecting things that will either be from the same producer or the same region, or the same grape variety or the same great pricing from a different country. There’ll be some kind of connection. So if someone says, I like Malbec, you can say, OK, so we’ve got these: this one from Cahors, or Argentina, or you can try this crazy Côt from the Loire.
Do you sell some textbook examples of wines people are likely to ask for – like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – that you can then use as a starting point for a deeper dive?
Yeah. We try to offer a classic that ticks the boxes but still conforms to our ethos: better for you, better for the planet. But then have something more interesting around the edges as well.
The area we really struggle with is Bordeaux. We’ve got some really cool stuff from the fringes, like Côtes de Blaye and those kinds of areas. But Médoc, unless it’s hundreds of pounds a bottle, which isn’t really our bag, is really hard.
What new discoveries have you made from elsewhere recently?
Well, this month, southern Spain. In the bars we like to have some kind of focus just to keep things fresh. So we did a sherry tasting last week, which was really cool, with some tapas. It’s things like Bobal from Manchuela and there’s some really cool stuff from Andalusia, and then some of the Languedocy kind of things.
Can you take anything from the shelves and drink it here for a corkage fee?
Yeah, we have eight or so wines on by the glass all the time here, but you can just pick a bottle and pay the corkage. For bottles under £15 it’s an additional tenner, and anything over £15 it’s an additional £15.
How do you find new wines?
Over the years, I’ve been lucky to travel a lot. When we go on holiday we tend to go and stay in places where they produce wine. Not necessarily visit a lot of vineyards but drink some really nice wines and buy as much as we can that’s hyper-local.
We’ve not really got into much direct importing yet. Although because we’re doing more trade business, supplying restaurants, bars and stuff, it’s something we probably will look at.
Which suppliers do you tend to use the most?
I’m still using Alliance a lot, because I’m quite familiar with the range and they’re very good. Indigo; we also use Les Caves de Pyrene a lot. Modal are really cool for organic and biodynamic wines that are really clean, really well made. They’re sometimes a little bit more left field, and their interpretation of by-the-glass pricing is sometimes a bit more London-focused than our by-the-glass pricing. Although that’s creeping up, actually, as people gain confidence in what we’re doing. You know, London is all about 125ml glasses now, but here the 250ml still exists. And 175ml is kind of the standard size we do for pretty much everything.
We can have five shelves of wines around the tenner mark, retail, because that’s what we do. And we do have a monthly case that is, like, six bottles at £82.50 or whatever it is. In order to have enough variety, so that we don’t keep repeating the same thing again and again, we need to be able to buy at a sensible price to make enough margin.
Do you go to tastings very often?
I do actually. I try just to go to tastings where there are lots of producers. We took quite a crew down to Indigo just to meet a bunch of people we work with. And that’s really cool. I tend to go to the Modal ones as well, because I like the way they do it. They sit you down, talk through the wines and then you move onto another table. I think that’s great.
I think it’s important to keep in touch with what’s going on in the market and taste lots of stuff.
I am very unlikely to take on a new supplier just for one or two lines now. It just doesn’t work logistically. I want to work with suppliers consistently over a period of time and build a relationship.
How do your revenue streams break down?
Retail is probably about 50% and the rest is split amongst the rest, I guess.
Where do you think growth is most likely to come from?
I think the bars have room to expand and to be busier. That’s kind of been happening over the last 12 months or so; it’s been really good. I think I’d like to do a bit more wholesale trade business, but just with people who kind of get what we do.
It drives better volumes but it can also create problems; they phone you on Tuesday and want something on Wednesday. But it kind of feeds back. People who eat at Wild Shropshire [in Whitchurch] might get fed back into Iron & Rose or GlouGlou, and that helps build your tribe. It’s about having that identity and individuality.
Where does the Iron & Rose name come from?
My brother is an IP lawyer and says that you build a stronger brand if you have two words that are apparently unconnected. I didn’t want something like The Shrewsbury Wine Company or whatever because it just kind of limits you. I really love Barolo, which has the taste of roses and iron. I thought about Tar & Roses but there’s a book called that and there’s also a very litigious restaurateur in the States. So I thought maybe not.
I told Tony [the designer] I needed a logo like a Nike swoosh that people are going to recognise on its own and become like this thing.
How often do you find yourself explaining the name GlouGlou to customers?
Quite frequently. It’s from Molière, the French playwright. Petits glouglous: it’s like “delicious lovely little things”. It became part of the French language, and got involved in French drinking songs. I guess it got picked up by the natural wine world as something that was super refreshing, easy to drink and you don’t need to take too seriously.
How big is Shrewsbury?
The population is 80,000, 90,000, maybe a bit more. We get quite a big draw of people coming into town from outside because if you go west into Wales, there’s basically nothing between here and the coast. A lot of people come in from Telford, which is quite a big town. At weekends you get people coming in from the Wolverhampton area.
Flexible working has made a massive difference. Increasingly, customers seem to spend a week or a couple of days in London, and come back for long weekends.
What size is the team these days?
It’s around 10 or 11 full time. The students who work here are a mixture: some are between university and going off to do something else and some are keen to do WSET exams. They’re all encouraged to taste a lot and just build up that library of knowledge.
Taste is so personal and we need to find the right things for the right people. I’m pretty conservative in some ways in terms of what I like and if people like YellowTail, good on them. If people like the kind of wines I was selling to supermarkets, why not? But personally, I think increasingly people are getting a bit bored of that, and want to experiment and try something a bit different.
Some people reach a certain point with their wine repertoire and then hit a plateau. Some may only encounter cheap supermarket wine and decide they don’t like wine at all.
Yeah, I think so. Some people try one orange wine and say they don’t like orange wine. It’s a bit like saying they don’t like red wine because they tried maybe YellowTail, for example. That’s one reason we opened GlouGlou, because we want people to be able to come in and have a glass of wine, with the right kind of food in the right kind of atmosphere, and not make it seem like some kind of weird exam.
Before you opened, had you seen something similar that inspired you?
I really love those enotecas in Italy. I was in one last summer, where they had this amazing selection of wine just from Campania. And it was brilliant. It was like a slow food restaurant: you can go in and just have a bowl of olives and a glass of wine. It was really cool. Just sort of making it part of life, rather than being a particularly special-occasion thing. So you could get off the train and go for a glass. If you liked that you could come back for a bottle and then maybe have someone say, “if you liked that, try this”, and getting a conversation going.
What kind of food do you offer?
The wines are international but the food is hyperlocal. The cheeses are from within about 10, 15 miles. The charcuterie is made by Will in his shed five miles north of town and a lot of the bread is sourced from the bakery across the road, using flour that’s milled across the border in Welshpool. We do buy some Mediterranean veg to have a more vegan offer.
How have recent cost increases across the business affected you?
Some have been quite scary. But to be fair we buy all our electricity from Ecotricity and they’ve been quite good actually.
Wine pricing has jumped up quite a bit generally. But I think people are so used to seeing prices going up that actually it’s not too much of a shock.
One big problem is that online businesses have is the cost of fulfilment. You’re paying a courier: that’s 15 quid. And then buying a box that’s courier-proof: that’s another five quid.
Profitability is not great. And then the courier loses it or they break it and they won’t insure it.
Have you seen your wine prices increase across the board?
Pretty much. There are a few producers where, bizarrely, prices have come down. Just the odd producer in different bits of Spain or France, where the cost of distribution has gone back down.
I had a couple of really interesting trips last year, to southern Italy and to Austria, and I heard the stories about the rising costs of glass and capsules, and all that kind of stuff.
Will you open another GlouGlou or another Iron & Rose?
I think I’ll probably do something that is kind of synergistic for all of them. I thought about another GlouGlou in another city. But it’s about managing that distance and having a team who would run it well.
At the moment, because it’s just over the road, we’ve got a kitchen here so we make stuff that goes down to GlouGlou, like cheesecakes and bread. And wine is stored here mainly because there’s no storage down there.
I thought about opening something in Birmingham, but it is about managing that distance.
When you look at what you’ve built up over the past seven years, have you got to the point where you wanted to be?
I’m really pleased with where we are. I mean, it’s not straightforward – nothing goes in straight lines. It would be nice to be a bit more profitable. But it’s fun. It’s a real thing. It’s got value as a business and as a brand. And it’s quite exciting. I feel we’ve made a difference in Shrewsbury. I think people would miss us if we weren’t here.