Simon Thomson may be an Everton fan, but the way he’s structured his Talking Wines team bears the hallmarks of the great Ajax side of the 1970s. Everyone is happy to slip into any role that’s asked of them. Graham Holter reports
If you were to design the perfect premises for a medium-sized independent wine merchant, you might well end up with something resembling the building occupied by Talking Wines in Cirencester.
The location is easy to find, on a small trading estate on the edge of the Cotswolds town. There’s parking right outside. The shop is large and airy, with big arched windows letting in just the right amount of south western light. Adjacent to this is an office that comfortably accommodates the entire team. At the back, there’s a tidy-looking warehouse, large enough to cope with the day-to-day requirements of the business.
Simon Thomson was born in Liverpool but moved to Oxfordshire as a small child, losing his accent but retaining his loyalty to Everton FC: he still makes the regular trek to Goodison and chats at length about his hopes for the coming season.
He started Talking Wines in 2013, originally in far more modest surroundings than the ones he currently enjoys. Wholesaling is the main thrust of the business, but online sales are growing, and the shop makes a small but useful contribution. There’s no manager, and no need for one – there’s always someone in the office or warehouse who can attend to the needs of customers.
How did you start the business?
I was a keen amateur and I’d done some courses and found I had a bit of an aptitude for wine. I was working for a phone company that was being taken over by Vodafone and I got an opportunity to take redundancy. That gave me the capital to start the business. I spent six months in a garage. We’ve been here since 2012 and this is ideal for us.
We’ve got another warehouse across the yard that we store full pallets in and then we can replenish the ground floor level. We’re quite efficient and I think that’s the beauty of me coming from a background of supply-chain management.
How big is the team?
We don’t get much staff turnover – we have great people, and they all work really hard.
There’s a part-time driver, a full-time driver, a credit controller and five of us on the wine side. I say that, but there’s not anyone who will say “that’s not my job”. I’ll jump on the forklift and pick orders, and so will everyone else.
What’s the local market like?
Cirencester wasn’t a great place to eat out for many years, but we’ve been lucky that there have been a lot of openings over the past 18 months to two years and we have picked up a lot of the accounts. Whether that’s due to a lot more people holidaying in the UK …
We were supplying Jeremy Clarkson’s Diddly Squat farm shop, the restaurant there. He bought in an outside catering company and they used us. But I think they are having planning issues. Doing the deliveries, the queues down those country lanes, you can see why the locals could get upset by the traffic. I’m not a fan of his, but it is a good programme.
Have you been shipping less wine in recent years?
No, if anything we ship a bit more. Some of it is with Araldica from Boutinot, Manzanos in Spain from Alliance and we do quite a lot with Daniel Lambert ex-cellar – so we actually place the order with Patrice Tournier in Burgundy or with Calmel & Joseph in Languedoc. Sometimes we share shipments and post-Brexit, with shipping costs, that helps.
What’s prompted you to import a little bit more than you were?
I think we are growing on the things we ship. We have some unique wines that nobody else has – for example, we have Champagne from Yannick Prevoteau, a very tiny grower-producer. He makes just over 100,000 bottles but the Champagne is absolutely fantastic. Every Christmas we do a blind tasting in the shop, and it wins every year across anything you compare it with.
We don’t really do the Champagne brands at all and people trust us. The established house that we have is Joseph Perrier, so that is our brand, if you like, and we try not to do any of the other big names.
Who’s on the buying team?
I generally do the buying and in terms of selection, there are five of us on the wine side who will taste and we make a joint decision.
Are you aligned in your tastes?
We all like freshness in wines. We tend to find that anything that is slightly confected or commercial doesn’t get through, so we are similar in that sense. Some of us like full-bodied reds and some prefer whites, so there is a mixture and we all come to a consensus.
Is there a place you specialise in more than others?
Not really. South America … we do a lot with Condor Wines and that has given us a great offering there.
Is it harder to get quality around the £10 mark these days?
I’d say in the shop our sweet spot now is the £10 to £15 mark. But because we wholesale a lot, we have things that transfer to the retail environment where we can start at £7.50. So there are still quality wines you can get under the £10 mark.
We do our pricing once a year in March and since we did it this year, our transporters put a 11% surcharge on. There’s a fuel surcharge of 3.5% and now DPD suppliers are coming in with increases as well, so this may be the year that we do another price increase. We’ve never had to do that across the board before. We’ve done it on odd things, like New Zealand Sauvignon last year.
How are you finding availability from France and elsewhere?
Lead times are all longer and the biggest reason seems to be the availability of glass.
Is France worse hit than other places?
No, bottling in Spain and Italy is also an issue. Dry goods are the problem, rather than wine, and then transport. We use Freight Transport from Portsmouth and they are superb. Post Brexit their service has been just as good as it was before. We are very pleased, as we’ve been using them for a long time, that they didn’t take on any new customers post-Brexit. The fact they are coming in from Portsmouth helps. I think the more Dover-centric you are the more difficult it is.
Is the retail range a mirror image of your wholesale range?
Yes, there are a few wholesale lines that we don’t have in here but it’s pretty much the same. We operate at roughly 35% retail, 25% wholesale margins.
Where we group ship and we have a wine that is unique to us in this area we can sometimes edge it up a bit more, and I’m quite cautious budgeting for exchange rates. I usually buy a bit better than I’ve budgeted for and that can give us a bit more margin.
How many wine come through the Rolleston wholesale buying group?
It’s not that many, it’s the entry-level volume lines really, so about 10 ranges.
How is Rolleston structured these days?
There’s a committee of five. I’m the secretary and Charles Eaton from Nethergate Wines is the chair. We employ Alexander Nall from The Southwell Vintner as the manager so he deals with suppliers and generally does most of the legwork.
We’re fiercely independent and even though we meet, everyone does their own thing: we generally buy independently, apart from if there are areas that people don’t ship from, like the south of France, where members would buy from me. You’re not obliged to take the whole range.
We’re always looking for new members. We’ve just added Wright’s at Skipton. Julian [Kaye] is a great guy, very experienced in the trade and a volume wholesaler.
What other suppliers do you work with at Talking Wines?
We have quite a tight supplier base and the ones we work with we do a lot with, and try to go deep into their list rather than pick up a few wines from here and a few from there. We have to bear in mind the logistics side of it too. There’s no point diluting our range from places we already direct import from.
What trips have you most enjoyed?
We went with Condor to South America, that was a great trip. We went to South Africa with Boutinot a few years back, that was good.
Have you got a personal favourite wine?
Christmas Day I normally drink red Burgundy. Unfortunately it’s more expensive now. It’s been a funny experience, lockdown. In retail and wholesale, we are selling more and better-quality wines. Whether we can maintain that with the economic turmoil we are about to see … we’ll see how it goes.
Your website is looking good and is simple to navigate.
That’s nice to hear. We had it ready to go just when the first lockdown came and I said, let’s just do it. I write the tasting notes and we link through to the producers’ websites. We’re probably not the cheapest and there are always people doing deals, but we don’t chase it.
I’d say 85% of our business is wholesale, and about 12% here [in the shop] and 3% online. It’s all growing. Wholesale for us had a similar reaction to retail during Covid, in that people questioned the suppliers they were using, and we offered a personal and friendly service. We had a different approach to the nationals.
Would you say that approach was always appreciated by your wholesale customers?
It was appreciated some of the time, sometimes you’re taken for granted.
We provide training for our wholesale customers. The problem with the on-trade and hospitality is that there is such a turnover of staff, you are going back six months later to do another session and all the faces are new.
Our customers trust us, so if we have a container stuck halfway across the ocean, they tend to be understanding.
How’s the business performing financially?
We are growing and over the last couple of years we’ve grown very nicely, and profitably as well. I had spent a lot of time wondering if we’d ever make any money out of this business but now we are seeing a decent return.
Last year the turnover was just short of £1.8m. That was our best year. Because we’ve got such good staff who have been here so long and are so efficient, we can increase in turnover without putting extra overheads on.
It’s lovely to be able to pay them proper wages and reward them for their efforts and they are all incentivised on commission with no ceiling. On a Monday when we’re all in, we have a team meeting where we talk about sales opportunities, new wines, any supply issues, and it’s all very collaborative.
What’s next for the business?
We’re not very good at following fads and we’ve never had an outside investor. We know what we are and we’re not planning to do anything radically different. It’s a question of doing the right things all day, every day and just looking after people.
That’s what we try and do. We’d like to have extra vehicles; we’d like to get the floor above, which is vacant. We’d then like to put solar panels up, that’s a project that would be very beneficial. We might push the geographical area out a little bit, but nothing massive. We’d like to do a bit more online. Nothing dramatic, just incremental growth.
I’ve looked at having a second shop and I’ve done the sums, but I struggle to see how it would be profitable. If we did, it wouldn’t be Cirencester. We’re happy doing what we’re doing here.
Someone once told me that the way it works economically is to have one premises, seven or 30. With seven you can put in a regional management structure and you’ve got enough economies of scale to make it work, but two or three don’t really work.
The independent trade must seem a bit more crowded than it was back in 2012.
There is more competition, but as long as people operate on the right principles then the more the merrier, I’d say. The more diverse the market is, the more interesting it is.