Merchant profile: Sarah’s Cellar

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The East Sussex town is best known for a momentous event that changed the course of English history, but it wasn’t a great place to buy wine until Sarah Truman and husband Paul took the plunge a couple of years ago. The early stages of the shop’s development were fuelled by sheer enthusiasm, with some guidance from helpful suppliers. Now, Sarah has a clear idea of what her customers already like and what they’re ready to explore – and thoughts are turning to what she might be doing next. By Graham Holter


King Harold famously came to grief a little way up the road from Sarah’s Cellar, and taller customers risk injuries of their own when they enter the quaint High Street premises.

It’s not a hazard for Sarah herself, but anyone beyond about 5ft 10in needs to duck on entry and then slot themselves between some of the gnarled ceiling beams if they want to survive unscathed.

“Some people have taken skin off on the doorframe,” Sarah admits. “I have public liability insurance. We’re all good.”

Headroom issues aside, it’s hard not to fall in love with the place, which had been selling wool until coming on the market in 2020 and before that was home to a shoe shop. It’s thought to date back to the 15th century.

“They’ve used the some of the stonework from the abbey,” says Sarah. “Local historians are always coming in, looking at my beams. They’re looking for signs of where they put marks in them to ward off evil spirits and things like that. It’s very cool.”

Sarah is new to wine retail but not the wine trade. “In my early 20s, 20 odd years ago, I worked for The Wine Corporation, which was sort of like a Sunday Times Wine Club competitor,” she says.

“It was great. It was a really fun place to work. They put me through my first two wine qualifications. So you start to understand wine a little bit better. I didn’t work there very long, but it was long enough to get wine under the skin. And then I went and did sensible things; became a maths teacher. I did that for about 15 years.

“My parents never really drank wine, so I sort of had to discover it myself as a grown-up. When I met my husband, Paul, he was working in hospitality and running hotel restaurants, and putting together wine lists. So we had this joint love of wine.

“When we went on holiday, we were going around vineyards and going to wine tastings and enjoying good food, good wine. And then I thought I really wanted to work in wine. But I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.”

When Sarah left teaching in 2019, it was originally to help with the couple’s other company, which teaches martial arts. But the aim was always for her to start a wine business in some shape or form.

“It was probably October time in 2020,” she recalls. “Paul was driving to classes and he had heard this premises was going to be available. He pulled over and phoned me and said, ‘maybe we should open a wine shop’.”

When you first opened, was it terrifying?
No, actually, it wasn’t terrifying. I suppose that we’ve got a confidence, Paul and I, because we’ve had our own businesses and we’ve both had corporate jobs as well as the other stuff. I think what surprises me when I look back is how quickly we turned it around, from application to opening the door. I think we did it in about six weeks. So we made the decision really quickly and just went for it.

Why did you choose Battle?
We live just up the road, we’re three miles away, so it is local to us. We love wine, and in 2020 you couldn’t get hold of wine. We drank through our stash because we hadn’t been able to go on holiday. There are very few wine merchants in this area, so you have to be prepared to travel. I suppose we wanted a shop that we wanted to shop in. There was nothing here: you’ve got a tiny little Co-op, you’ve got a tiny little supermarket. Their wines go up to about £7 or £10, you know. We knew that we could do better than that. We knew that wasn’t going to be our market.

How did you put your original list together?
I suppose you start with what you know. Because when you open a shop and you’ve never been in retail before, you only know a tiny portion of what’s available. The learning curve is extreme.

But we love Burgundy, the Chardonnays as well, and then we love Alsace. That’s probably where we started because that’s what we love. And we’ve completely changed as people have approached us.

I love the quirky stuff. My customers fall into a few different brackets. A group of them love things that they can’t buy anywhere else, that they never
see in a supermarket, or even in Naked or Virgin Wines. I love the Austrian and Swiss stuff and anything slightly off the beaten track.

Alsace wine isn’t the easiest sell.
Yeah. Except when people discover it, then they come back for it. I have people that get very upset if I’ve run out of something like Alsace Pinot Gris. And if they try Pinot Gris from other regions, they say “no no no – it’s not the same”.

How have sales been over the past year?
Christmas was pretty good. December was about 6% down compared to last December. But it’s very different times and I’ve never had a normal year. I was up a little bit last year, but it was only my second full year.

We learned a lot last year. I think in the first year, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re sort of bumbling along, buying wines that you just like. You find yourself looking at the shelf going, “oh my goodness, why do I have three Malbecs, all from Argentina, all at the same price point? Why have I done that?” I have a tendency to panic buy a little bit.

But then the second year, you sort of find your feet, you understand your customers a little bit better, they’re understanding you a little bit better. People often come in weekly and I know what they like, I know what they don’t like, and it makes life super fun. You can hand-sell.

A lot of recent entrants in the indie trade are primarily wine lovers rather than wine experts. Are you in that category?
I would say I am. I love learning, though. I read an awful lot, and the amount I’ve learned since I opened the doors is astonishing.

I send out emails every week to my customer database. I try to keep it quite simple because most of my customers are on their learning journey.

I did Rioja month and lots of people don’t know that Rioja is a place: that’s where quite a lot of my customers are. So I try and share a bit of information with them and sort of get them moving on their wine journey. Some of them, as soon as they see a word they don’t know or a place they don’t know, they’re Googling it, and they’re really starting to love wine. When we’ve done wine tastings, and I have my suppliers in to do those, they’re engaged, they’re interested, they want to know about the wine.

As a maths teacher, are you fascinated by the numbers and facts behind a wine, or is that side of your brain switched off when you’re tasting?
I just fall in love with the wine because it makes your mouth excited. Pinot Noir is one of my favourites. I just love California ones; I love the Chardonnays as well. I love Grenache too. I like my reds to be quite fruit-forward and easy-going.



Which suppliers have you worked with from the beginning?
I still buy a lot from Boutinot. My first account manager was Mike Best: before I even opened the shop, he came to visit me at home with a selection of wines. I could just lean on him and say, “what do I need? What do I want at this price point? What am I missing?” And he just guided me. So that was really good.

Boutinot’s price points are great. Their prices on some of their stuff from places like Chile remain so stable – and the supermarket pricing is coming up to match my pricing now. So that sort of works.

I buy more from Liberty now than I did at first. I wanted Rathfinny, so that got me into Liberty and the rest is history.

I buy more and more from Liberty. Everything I get from them is just absolutely top notch, but they don’t do a great level of wines that would sit on the shelf at about £10. That’s not their thing.

How important are wines at those price points and how are you reading the economic situation among your customers?
My feeling is that I’ve definitely lost some of my customers in the last six months. People that were coming in relatively regularly, I’m not seeing them. Some of them did pop their heads in, in the run-up to Christmas. But it hasn’t been the same.

They’re buying cheap wine from elsewhere. So I’ll be really focusing on that £10 to £15 price point.

When I first opened in the beginning of 2021, the offers that were out there, because there were no restaurants open, were insane. But that’s not the case at the moment. Now it’s gone back to kind of normal, I suppose. But I’ll be really focusing on £10 to £15 for the next six months at least, making sure that price point is really good.

I find that if I open a wine for people to try that’s £20 or above then they’re more inclined to buy it. But I think my average bottle price last year was probably about £20. I’ve got some very affluent customers who come in here and they don’t look at the prices; they just want good wine.

Lots of my customers have cellars of wine and they also have a merchant that they use in London. I’ve got one customer who only buys from me and Hedonism. There’s plenty of people around here who aren’t going to be suffering too much. But there are customers I’ve definitely lost, people that were subscribing. I have a subscription service for regular cases but I don’t have many subscribers. It’s something I’d like to grow.

On your website you say that every wine you sell has to over-deliver; none can be just average. Is that possible, in reality?
That is the ambition. There’s the odd thing that I buy because it sounds nice, and it’s cheap, and then I regret it and never get it back. And I’m really honest with people about things. So when I bought things that I think are maybe unbalanced, a bit too tannic, I’ve told people exactly that.

A good example is a really cheap Barolo that I bought when I first opened. It was on my shelf for £18. I just couldn’t get on with it. I had a customer who kept coming back for it over and over and over again. He loved it. And when I sold out, because he bought it all, he was very upset with me. I had to explain, “I’m really sorry, but it’s not for everyone else – you’re the only one”. He always wants to see the same wines on the shelf, which is not my thing. You’re unlikely to come in and always see your favourite wines.

Do you have a hardcore, mainstay element to the range or is nothing sacred here?
The Waldschütz wines, which I buy from Alpine Wines: they’re pretty much a mainstay. They will always be on my shelf. The rosé that they do was my best-selling rosé, which is £18 a pop, so not inexpensive. I really like their wines; they’re my kind of go-to.

Some of the Italians, which I’m out of, and some of the Spanish that I get from Boutinot are just great. I sell a lot of passimento wines. They’re pretty much staples.

What about English wines?
I sell a lot of Henners [based just nine miles away]. They’re really great and they support me brilliantly. They’re currently my house choice of sparkling. I sell more English sparkling than Champagne. When you’re in the middle of Sussex, I don’t see why you wouldn’t focus on English sparkling wine.

Do you do any wholesaling?
I’ve only been selling to restaurants locally, and it’s pay when you purchase. I can’t afford to do invoice terms. I just can’t. So I keep that really small. I just do a few guest wines in a restaurant over the road. I was selling to a restaurant in St Leonards but they’re closed as of the beginning of January. So they are one of the casualties, and there will be others, I’m sure. Right now it’s better not to be focusing, I think, on wholesale business.

Tell us more about your extra-curricular activities: the Australian evening, for example, or Drink & Draw.
The Australian evening is the day after Australia Day. A lot of the artist’s work is abstract landscapes, but it’s based on Australia. So it kind of all works. I’m going to be doing Australian wines, and he’ll show off his latest exhibition. We have a big overlap in terms of our customer base; his artwork is very expensive.

With Drink & Draw, he teaches: we have life models and things like that, which is interesting. We’ve only had four sessions so far, and they were in here, but it’s a little bit tight. So we’re going to do it in the Memorial Hall, which is like a Tardis.

Is that where you do your big wine tastings?
Yeah, it’s really good. We did one in July and one in November. This year we might change the format a little bit, have fewer suppliers and have people spreading out a little bit.

What you learn from going to trade tastings is how it feels to be that person, having to wait to get something in a glass and having to use your elbows a bit. This is not a student bar; you want it to feel like a quality sort of evening out.

I charge quite a lot for my tickets: it’s £27, which just covers the hall and glass hire and the food. I make sure it’s good-quality nibbles because otherwise my customers are gonna be on the floor, because they obviously don’t spit. So I might do three of those this year but make them smaller.

If you invite too many suppliers, then you have a lot of orders to place and then you end up with a lot of invoices to pay all at the same time. I learned that, but it took me two sessions.

What other events have you done?
We’ve done a few meals where we’ve had up to 80 people in the Memorial Hall, and we get a caterer in and do paired wine and foods. It’s five courses. The first two were really, really popular; we sold out very quickly. And then we did another one in October; it was a tiny bit more expensive, but for what people were getting, still really good value. But I sold less than half of the tickets, so we had to use a smaller hall. It was still a great night, probably my favourite of the three events that we’ve done, but we didn’t make money on the tickets for that. And it’s hard work.

What about in-store tastings?
I’ve done quite a lot of those in here. Usually just me, jabbering about the wines and nobody listening. But it’s a really lovely environment in here with 12 people standing around a barrel with their wines and cheese and meats.

It’s what you see when you go to vineyards in France. You go into the cellar, and they love telling you about all their wines. I absolutely love that. That’s what I had in my head when I was thinking of my own shop.

I avoid using any of the proper wine words. If you start using words like “violets” and “floral” and “lychee”, for example, people have no idea what you’re talking about. Just keep it really simple. Assume you’re talking to somebody who just likes wine. Who doesn’t have that vocabulary.

People seem to get quite worked up on social media about the use of certain wine terms. But sometimes describing a wine as “smooth” makes perfect sense.
Speak to your customers the way they want to be spoken to you. Because the problem is, when someone comes in here for the first time, they sometimes look like they’ve walked into an underwear shop. They look alarmed, they just stare at the wines, they see the one label that says a price that is out of their budget. And then they think that they can’t afford anything in here. And they have no idea what they’re looking at.

So you have to reassure them; you have to talk to them in their language. And they’re often buying a gift for somebody. What’s your budget? How old is the person you’re buying for? Are they a traditional wine drinker? Or do you think they want something a little bit quirky? That sort of thing. And then you’re picking on label a little bit, because it’s got to look the part. You can’t have something for an 80-year-old that looks like it’s aimed at a 25-year-old. And then away they go, and they’re very happy. Then they say, “my friend loved it, can I buy one for me, please?” That’s the game. They come in next time and they’re not so worried.

Does Paul ever make an appearance in the shop?
If you come in December, you’ll see him. He’s always at the events that we do. He’s the one setting up the hall and putting out the tables … doing all those things takes him back to his hospitality days. You see, I think he secretly likes it. But no, he’s usually doing the martial arts side of things. He will do a lot of the admin stuff in the background. We are a really good team and he’s very much part of the business.

You’ve hinted at possible expansion. Is that something for the short term or medium term?
Probably medium term. Short term, I need to focus on just making sure that we’re OK for the next year, because we just know that the high street is going to take a hit. We’re not worried at all, and I will be here, but this November there will be a decision about whether I stay here, if they’ll let me, or whether I want somewhere a bit bigger. And if I did go bigger, I stay on the high street.

Do I want to go with something more hybrid? I think I’d love to have something where I had some comfy sofas, some nice glasses of wine, a bit of charcuterie … there’s places like that which we’ve seen on holiday and you just can’t get them out of your head. So I might go that route, or I might have a second shop somewhere else.

Is being a wine merchant as fun and fulfilling as you hoped it would be?
I don’t think I’d really thought about how much I’d enjoy it. But I really love it. I really like people. I have such random conversations in here all of the time. And I love that. It’s kind of like being a bar person, but only working in the daytime.

I’ve made lots of friends of my customers. I think I could hold a party with my customers and it’d be the best party ever.

They’re just so much fun. All of them. So yeah, coming to work doesn’t feel like work.

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