MERCHANT PROFILE: THE WEE VINOTECA, HITCHIN

Merchant profiles

Starting out in a covered walkway in Hitchin, The Wee Vinoteca has built enough momentum to open a second store, with more likely to follow. By Nigel Huddleston

Some months ago, The Wine Merchant identified a correlation between the locations of independent wine shops and their counterparts in the book trade. In the Hertfordshire town of Hitchin, it was more a case of one or the other, however, when a defunct local bookshop was turned into the Wee Vinoteca by husband-and-wife team Duncan and Hannah Gammie. 

The hybrid had a soft opening in November 2018 and a full one in February 2019, the couple bringing a wealth of experience in hospitality to the project, Duncan as sommelier in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Edinburgh, Hannah from the Cambridge hotel trade, working front-of-house and in events.

“There were lots of things we loved about hospitality,” says Duncan, “but there were some things we weren’t such big fans of. We wanted to find a way to condense it down and take the good bits and remove all the unnecessary bits.”

One of those was long hours (“I was working 90-hour weeks”). Another was the attitude of some of the people they’d worked under.

“We didn’t love difficult bosses, who didn’t care much about the customers or the staff,” he says. 

“The thing we loved about hospitality was that generosity, warmth and making someone’s day. Working as a sommelier at Michelin-star level, when you get it right, you make a customer feel fantastic. 

“That’s something we think about a lot here. We know our stuff but it’s about trying to exceed someone’s expectations. Wine shops can often give off a little bit of a daunting vibe, a bit snobby and unwelcoming. We try to be the opposite of that.”

The Hitchin shop is in a cute little arcade off the main town square – bookworms now have less than a minute’s walk to the nearest Waterstone’s – and serves three-glass flights, wine by the glass and charcuterie and cheeseboards, alongside a small but precision-tooled range of bottles to take away.

“The arcade’s a nice place to be,” says Duncan, an architecture graduate. “We’re a stone’s throw from the town centre but we’ve got that smaller, quirkier vibe, which I like. It’s good to have this cosy space.”

A second site opened at Barton, near Cambridge, in early 2023, and operates closer to a straight retail model.

To date, The Wee Vinoteca has resisted the temptations of gin, rum or craft beer. “We’re unashamedly mad about wine,” Duncan says.

What kind of town is Hitchin?

It’s an interesting place. About 10-15 years ago, when Google were building their headquarters outside King’s Cross, Hitchin was one of the places they recommended that people relocate to. As a result, you have a really strong market of people who work in London and used to live there but have now moved out for a bit of work-life balance, a nice garden and a good bit of outdoor space. You can get to King’s Cross in 30 minutes. 

A lot of our customer base used to live in London and got to experience the wealth of great wine bars, wine shops and restaurants there, and maybe miss that a little bit. Hitchin’s packed with independent restaurants and you could achieve your weekly food shop from small independent businesses. That’s kind of cool.

What was the wine scene here like before you came along? 

There used to be a wine shop [Blue Otter] in the town centre. They were good but started at around £30 a bottle. We had this idea that a hybrid would work. Just as we were getting a little bit of research done we heard they were closing down, and basically within a couple of months it closed and we opened. We felt that there was a gap and if it wasn’t us filling it, someone else would.

What was the appeal of the location? 

In a practical sense it was close to the town centre. We’re in a sweet spot of good foot traffic but with parking nearby. It’s also got this lovely quaintness. One of the things for us is to be welcoming, and it’s very easy to make older buildings with a bit of character feel homely and cosy. It was a near-perfect site for us.

For events we have a maximum of 20 people. It’s a lovely number: it’s big enough to get a bit of a buzz but it’s small enough that you can interact and have time with everyone. It’s like when you buy a house. There are practical reasons why it’s a good house but the main reason you end up buying it is because of something that happened in your heart rather than your head.

How did you go about kitting it out?

We got some things from eBay and charity shops. The comfy chairs are very important for us. We’re debating whether to have fewer of the high bar stools, so we can bring in more comfy seating. One couple spent eight-and-a-half hours here. They came to an event and were enjoying themselves so much they didn’t feel they needed to leave. 

How did you avoid becoming one of the daunting wine shops you were worried about?

One of the things we talk about a lot is this idea of less-but-better. We get a lot of feedback from people that they find the supermarket wine aisle daunting. There are scientific terms for it like “overchoice” and “the dichotomy of choice”. I tend to refer to it as the Netflix problem. When there are too many options it’s really difficult to make a decision, and there’s data that suggests you’re more likely to be unhappy with a decision you do make.

Our job is not to say, “here’s all the wine” but to act as a filter and say, “here’s some great wine and no matter how much you want to spend, or what you like, we have great wines for you”. 

How do you assemble that range?

When we’re picking wines we think about it like a grid with a couple of options for price brackets against styles. We start filling it in and make sure we’ve got every base covered. 

Within that we might have some classic options that people will recognise but we might have some really weird stuff that people haven’t tried before. It’s about having a less-but-better approach and changing it regularly to keep it nice and fresh. 

What impact did the pandemic have on you?

We changed our opening times. We were doing last orders at 10.30pm previously, closing at 11pm. Typically it meant you got home by midnight. When Boris closed pubs at 10pm we barely noticed a difference in our takings. Now, if I’m working on a Friday, we do last orders at 9.30pm and we’re leaving at quarter past 10. Everyone gets to go home at a reasonable hour.

How did Barton come about?

We’d been having conversations about number two for a while. We knew it was something we wanted to do but we also knew from other people that we’d spoken to in hospitality that going from one to two is harder than going from two to three, or three to four. We also knew we didn’t want to jump at the first place that came along. We knew there would be a factor, something we couldn’t quite tangibly point to, that made us go “yeah, this is the place”. The location had been a wine shop for 20 years, and the guy was looking to quit. We shared a wine importer and he knew we were looking to expand, so he put us in touch.

How does the Cambridge shop differ from Hitchin?

It’s more retail-focused. It doesn’t have that town centre, drink-in element, so the logistics of running it are a bit more manageable, which was important in making that step from one to two. 

It’s in a lovely wee village just on the outskirts where a farmer has turned his farm buildings into retail units. There are about 17 businesses there. Opposite us there’s a larder with the most amazing butcher and cheese counter. That’s a match made in heaven for us. There’s a lovely synergy, so we can do lots of events together. There’s a great café, a great florist. So, it’s very much a destination location.

Our shops operate very differently. Hitchin is in the town centre and a bar. There’s a lot of foot traffic and the average customer has a glass or two and buys a bottle or two to go home. Cambridge is quieter but someone will come in and buy a couple of cases to fill up the boot of the car.

There are some pretty big hitters in the independent wine retail trade in Cambridge. Was there a worry about going up against them?

There is certainly more competition than in Hitchin, but that just shows that there’s definitely a demand for good wine in and around Cambridge. I accept that people are never going to buy exclusively from us. Cambridge Wine Merchants are fantastic and do loads of things really well. There are some things we do differently, and some people love that and some don’t. I think we’re adding something new to the mix there. Cambridge Wine Merchants is a classic wine shop, like a library, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, hundreds of bottles. Anyone who’s super into their wines and spent decades developing their knowledge could spend all day there and have a great time. But if you’re someone who’s just getting into wine you could feel a bit overwhelmed. A large part of our thing is about making people who walk into a space that could be intimidating feel relaxed.

Are you looking to open more stores?

We probably want to do three, and probably four or five, but it’s not a thing we want to rush into. You’ve got to find the right place and the right people. It’s finding places where people want to support a small local business and have a future interest in great food and drink. 

What’s the drink-in to take-out split at Hitchin?

It’s pretty much 50-50. It changed during Covid. Before, it was probably 70-30 in favour of drinking in. Covid almost swapped that round entirely and it’s just sort of levelled out at a relatively equal split.

Did your architectural training influence the shop design in any way?

Honestly, a large part of it was us being practical and just sticking to a budget. We didn’t want to be one of those places that spent hundreds of thousands kitting it out and the first three years trying to break even. We’d each worked in places that had things we loved about them. There may be less of the Michelin-star environment in how we designed this place but there were other places where we worked that had a real sense of comfort, warmth and welcoming homeliness. We wanted it to be clean, not too cluttered, which helps it appear a bit less daunting. 

How big is your wine range?

We have probably less than 125 at any given time. The aim isn’t to grow that, it’s to try and stay there and substitute things every so often. We stock more reds than whites because that’s where demand lies. We arrange the wines by style: light-bodied reds on one side, full-bodied on the other, for example. If you come in and say you like big, hearty wines we can say, “that’s your section there and if you want help, great”.

Any countries stand out in that 125 or so?

Italy and France account for the lion’s share, but there’s also a big drive to introduce people to more unusual things. That could be a white Merlot from Bordeaux or it could be great wines from places like Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece or the Republic of North Macedonia. With this idea of the grid, there might be a classic Bordeaux but there might be something you’ve never heard of in the same place on the grid. It means we can have really fun conversations. We might have a classic Rioja but a Tempranillo from somewhere else in Spain if you want to be a bit adventurous – and you might get better value for money.

When a new wine comes in, we’re quite excited by it, but when it finally comes to time to say goodbye to it we’re also excited, because we’ve got something excellent waiting in the wings.

Does that mean you don’t have room for regular customer favourites?

In theory everything is up for grabs, but in reality there are some wines that are so popular that it would be very difficult not to have them. One example is the Heilan Coo, an Aussie Shiraz-Mataro, 85%-15% split, which is £12.50. It’s a great wine to introduce new customers to and it’s really popular. We’ve not found anything better in that style. We have a sparkling rosé Pinot Noir from Chile: charmat, fun, fruity and very approachable. If we found something as good at the price we’d swap it out, but we haven’t. There are probably 10 or 12 wines that aren’t going anywhere soon.

And where do you buy them from?

We have three or four main suppliers and we don’t necessarily want to grow that. Somewhere between 60% and 80% of our wines come from Hallgarten – and that’s unlikely to change. We’ve worked with them since the beginning and we get on really well. We then work with smaller suppliers who have specialisms, such as Marta Vine, which has a really great range of Portuguese wine. Portugal is great for us; I get really excited about it from a value perspective and an adventurous one. We also work with Swig, who have some really unusual stuff and are really lovely at the more premium end of the scale. We do quite a bit with Moreno: the Heilan Coo is from them, and our Provence rosé. 

Our customer base is definitely adventurous. It’s not difficult to get them drinking wines from Portugal or Greece or Croatia or Georgia.

Is there a target price range that works for you?

The vast majority of our wines sit under £25. We have a lot in the £10-£14 bracket and they have to be perfect because that’s where a new customer will start with us. If we mess up on a £10 bottle of wine, they’re never going to come back and buy a £20 one. We stock more expensive wines but we’re very picky. Anything over £35 has to be something the team can really get behind because there are so many great wines at under £20. We really need to believe that a wine at, say, £45 is a great wine. We have Jim Barry’s McRae Wood Shiraz, which is just under £50. It’s an exceptional wine. It’s one to save for a birthday or anniversary but, when you do drink it, it’s going to blow your mind. 

Tell us more about your events.

We like to do a bit of a range. Some of them are really informal, like our comedy nights or Paint and Sip. We have a local artist: people get given a canvas and a set of paints and she gives them direction and they sit and drink wine and paint. Then we have more wine geeky stuff. Last year we did a wine and music festival for 500 people at a nearby cricket club. We’re 99.9% sure we’re doing that again this year, potentially on a slightly bigger scale.

What’s the best thing about being a wine merchant?

I get to do a little bit of all the things I love. When we do a supper club I get my little hit of being a sommelier again and seeing people have a lovely time, but I also get to help people have lovely wines at home or help restaurants put together a really nice wine list. And we get to teach people; you teach a WSET course and see people have that “a-ha” moment.

And the most challenging? 

Staffing is always a difficult for hospitality. There are lots of people who view it is as an inferior job. It’s very difficult to find staff that want to be great. We’re very fortunate to have a great team. Everyone who works here has done WSET 1 and is going towards 2, and wants to learn. But we’ve also managed to find people who know who to give good service, to spot when a water glass needs topping up, and who really care. It’s very hard to read that from a CV. We’ve got a fantastic team at the moment, but that will always be a big challenge in this business.

Is that service element the reason you’ve gone for an Enomatic-free hybrid model?

We have Coravin system. I understand why Enomatics work in some big venues but my concern is that an Enomatic would rob us of an opportunity to talk to people. We’ve built up a certain level of trust with people that they will say “I drink A, B, C – surprise me”, and you can’t do that with a machine. It might give you three words as a tasting note, but it won’t listen and help you find your next favourite thing. It’s really important that we have the conversation.

 

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