MERCHANT PROFILE: THEATRE OF WINE, LONDON

Merchant profiles

Daniel Illsley ran away from showbusiness to pursue a career he ended up finding far more fulfilling. There are now three theatre of wine stores in London, and more could be on the way. By Graham Holter

If you were meeting Daniel Illsley for the first time, you’d probably guess that he is or was an actor. There’s a thespian lilt in the voice, a theatrical flourish to his storytelling, a love of the word “fabulous”. 

His hair is neatly cropped, his frame lean and spry, and he’s bemoaning the poor quality of John Lewis dressing gowns. As we chat in the splendid surroundings of his emporium in Greenwich, it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which the topic of the interview is a triumphant opening night at The Old Vic or Donmar Warehouse. But we’re here to talk wine, a career choice that he came to find far more nourishing than acting, which left him disillusioned. We’re joined by his son Tom, who studied to be a theologian and entered the business in 2014.

“I’d been working in theatre and TV and so on, on both sides of it,” Daniel says, betraying no sense that he found any of these things remotely glamorous. “Mainly acting, but also writing and directing and doing all that kind of stuff. Slogging my guts out to constantly return to point zero.”

Things came to a head when he was fired from a repertory contract in Leeds, where he’d been working alongside Ian McKellen and Clare Higgins. The roster of productions included Chekhov’s The Seagull – “I mean, god, yawn … some bloody Noel Coward play or something, and then a bit of Shakespeare. It did not go well.”

He clashed with the director. “I got pulled up in front of the board and they sacked me. And I said, well, you’re gonna have to pay me for three months. So I walked away with 10 grand, which was great, and I didn’t actually have to do the show. So although it was such a humiliating thing, being thrown into the gutter, I was also extremely relieved because I really didn’t want to do it.”

Daniel’s theatrical CV includes a play that was written for him called Persons Unknown, which he performed at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in 1995. I tell him that I’ve also checked out his TV and film credits on IMDb.

His eyes twinkle. “You can go and watch one of my Bill episodes,” he suggests.

I say I’m more intrigued by his character Crazy Man in Street in a 1996 short. I was hoping to somehow shoehorn it into the headline.

He chuckles drily. “You’re about right,” he says. “But I think you’ll only be telling people what they already know.”

How did you get involved in wine?

I was walking past Oddbins in Greenwich one day. I’d always admired their window displays. They were looking for staff and I thought, I’ll just go in and do their windows. So I went in and I got hired straightaway. My first manager was called Sarah and she was absolutely fabulous. It was just like a lightbulb moment. You know, it was so exciting. I can still remember learning the grapes of Valpolicella in the first five seconds.

How much did you know about wine when you walked in?

Nothing. I knew how to drink it. Because in the theatre, you spend a lot of time chatting up older people and letting them buy you dinner. Drinking lots of Champagne and stuff. 

I used to go into Oddbins in Glasgow. There were three Oddbins stores; a fabulous one on Byres Road with the snobbiest staff you can possibly imagine. They all had classics or chemical engineering degrees. There were huge windows and high shelves and they used to have one of those ladders you see in libraries. Absolutely fabulously glamorous. Bloody marvellous.

So I was familiar with the shops. I think for a lot of people, especially people like me that didn’t grow up with wine, that really opened the door. And of course, in those days, we were drinking all the great Australian wines, when they were still incredibly cheap. Oddbins was never associated with French wines, apart from Languedoc, I suppose, which they did do quite well. But it was mainly new world. Italy was also quite strong. And Steve Daniel went mad for Greek wines. That was exciting as well, but it was a disaster, I think, from a commercial point of view.

How did your Oddbins career progress?

I became the assistant manager in, like, five minutes. I was in my early 30s already; I didn’t have time to mess around. I was just eating it up. I was reading everything; I kept winning prizes – trips here, there and everywhere – and I became obsessed. I’m much less like that now, but in those days I was. I became the manager after eight months, I think.

During that period, I met my first business partner, who was a quantum physicist who was doing his PhD. He was down in Exeter, working as a part-time van driver for Oddbins while also tinkering with quarks. 

His wife had graduated as a teacher, and she wanted to come to London to work. So they moved to London and he ended up as my assistant manager. He was very geeky about wine and we had such a successful shop. Fabulous window displays; we built the customer base; ran tastings; started a wine club …  I just did everything to get people excited about wine. 

His wife said: “Why are you doing this for them? You should be doing it for yourselves. You two should open a business.” Of course, I didn’t have a pot to piss in. He came from a good family and there was a bit of money sloshing around. 

Then they closed that Oddbins shop, because the rents went up so much. I mean, it went from like £18,000 to £40,000, and Oddbins just had no appetite for that. So I ended up being transferred to a much higher turnover shop, in Canary Wharf, which was actually very useful for me in terms of planning this business. Because suddenly I was making friends with people in investment banking.

How did you find this site for the original Theatre of Wine, back in 2002?

It had been an office equipment supplier in the days when people wanted Xerox machines and fax machines and stuff. At one point, the value of a photocopier was so great that people used to just drive through the front window and shove stuff in the back of a van and drive off. That was east Greenwich in those days, which is why this has got the security measures of Fort Knox. So that’s quite useful.

People said, you can’t go down to that end of Greenwich, it’s really Rotten Row, it’d be a failure. But we walked in here, and I thought: this is supposed to be a wine shop. It’s got wooden floors, it’s got beautiful high ceilings, it’s got a cellar, it’s got shutters, and it was at the right price. We just knew it was right. I mean, it was just such an instinctive feeling.

What was your vision for the place?

That it would be like walking into like The Old Curiosity Shop or some sort of beautiful antiquarian bookshop. My partner at that time put this fabulous curtain there; he created a lot of the kind of artistic, aesthetic language that was very vital to what we were doing. We wanted it to almost be like walking into a sort of museum. Finding these amazing artefacts.

We were definitely going to do everything that was totally non-high street at that point. The high street was becoming very homogenised: Majestic was churning out two bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for six quid or what have you. We wanted to do the absolute opposite of that. We wanted to be archaeologists of wine.

What kind of wine?

We wanted to get into Greece. We wanted to have Madeira. We wanted sherries. We wanted desperately unfashionable German Riesling. And we wanted to really capture the sort of spirit of excitement that was going on in wine at that time: the big rise of artisanal producers, small producers, organic and biodynamic, all that stuff. We were absolutely passionate about all this.

Did you know where you were going to get that wine?

No, I had to figure it out. We used to buy at auctions; we used to buy crazy old shit. And then we started doing tastings every week. It started with literally five or six people around the table and soon you couldn’t get tickets for love nor money. People would phone us up and berate us. “Is it something I’ve done? Do you not like me?” It got really quite personal.

Tasting seems like a central tenet of what you’re all about.

Without the tasting, it’s pointless. People need to taste the wines; I need to taste them; the team needs to taste them, in order to learn – in order to develop their palates, their repertoire, their knowledge. Their curiosity.

I never had any interest in wine education. WSET: couldn’t give a toss about it. For me, it’s trying to put something that is not only subjective, but so multifaceted, into this sort of little box. That doesn’t really work for me.

The fundamental thing was not only to break away from this idea of snobbery and privilege, but actually to talk about the magic and the mystery. 

You can’t talk about things in terms of alcohol, volatile acidity and sulphur levels. I mean, you might as well go and work for ICI. It’s of no interest to anybody.

There’s a danger we can take wine seriously when actually it’s just a branch of the entertainment industry.

Absolutely. It’s a way of escaping the dull drudgery of life.

Tom: But it does become a higher pleasure as well. It’s emotional. It’s all very well understanding what the parts are. But they don’t actually explain why it’s interesting.

How soon was it before you started making money?

It was such a graft. It was such hard work. We didn’t pay ourselves, I think, for six months. Mates got involved to build everything. I painted the sign myself. We used to do double entry bookkeeping. I mean, it really was like Black Books, and I had quite a reputation for being forthright.

It’s a good story now, but at the time, was it scary?

It was terrifying. I mean, just before opening was like the biggest first night of your life, stomach-churningly scary. It was just determination and belief, being absolutely sure we were doing the right thing. But it really took a toll.

Then things sort of improved. But after that, quite quickly, my business partner realised that having a shop is a constant responsibility. And I really believe that retailing is an art. It has to be consistent. You must open on time, you must always present a professional face in the shop. I think he wanted to go back to his physics thing.

And then you brought someone else on board?

Well, there was a bit of an interregnum sort of moment. I had a friend, Paul Barker, who was an ex-tax inspector, who’d gone into wine. I said, I need someone like you, I need a manager. So he came, and that was just like being thrown a lifeline. He did a few years, which was great.

We had an incredibly geeky wine-mad customer who worked for Majestic in Chislehurst. He occasionally drove the van – I just think he liked to get out and about, and he loved to potter around other people’s wine shops. Jon Jackson. 

One day, I just had this kind of impulse. I thought, I’m going to see if he wants to come and join me in this business. I just caught him at the right moment. He became my partner. He invested and he really put his neck on the line. He really believed in me. We’re so different, but very complementary. He’s just been a wonderful support and I’m very proud of our relationship.

Then you opened a second shop, in Tufnell Park. Having put your heart and soul into Greenwich, how could you possibly be as personally invested in another branch?

Jon was very clear with me. He said, it needs to operate without you doing everything. So I had to learn how to do that. It took me a very long time to actually be able to sleep properly at night. It was a challenge for my innate sort of insecurity.

How did you choose Tufnell Park?

It’s as simple as this: is it big and is it cheap? There were no wine shops around there. It was well located for the Tube. But it was really one of the most difficult openings. I’d never want to go through anything as painful as that again. The landlord was absolutely ghastly.

It turned into the most beautiful shop, but it was absolutely a dump. We spent a lot of money on the interior that time. We had great builders. It’s got Vivienne Westwood wallpaper, which you can’teven get anymore. It’s absolutely beautiful. And a new table that was built by David Whitely.

The problem for a lot of businesses at this point is: how am I going to find the right staff? Was that a challenge?

I think it’s more of a challenge now than it was then, to be honest. There seemed to be a lot more people running around that wanted to change their lives. We still find the best people are the ones that want to get out of the rat race.

Then Leytonstone came a few years after that.

Five years after that. It was another act of madness, but it’s actually turned into a really lovely shop, I must say. I really enjoy going to visit it. I think the area’s taken quite a lot longer to evolve than it might have done. But then, in the economic conditions we’re in at the moment, I don’t think that’s any surprise.

Have you stayed adventurous with the wine range, or has it settled into a sort of pattern?

The big thing for us was becoming a much bigger importer of wines ourselves. I think we were very pioneering in that sense, because a lot of people would find that just too much work and too much strain. But I always wanted to have a direct connection with the project; I wanted to go and find things.

I also wanted to work with restaurants and to have a wholesale business. The Thai restaurant in Greenwich that I’d serviced during Oddbins opened an account with us right at the beginning. 

Then we started shipping, and we continued to build. I think a lot of people stopped shipping after Brexit, but we went further and imported more. We really work on building great wholesale relationships with some very important accounts. And that’s still a direction that we’re going in.

You encourage your team to appear on social media and you send them on trips and to events. It feels like you give people trust and let them take responsibility, which can be a hard thing to do.

Not with the right people. I think it’s vital to invest in them, to send them to places, get them out there. If they want to do WSET, great, let’s support them, if that’s what makes them happy, if that’s what gives them the next part of their own journey.

How much autonomy do managers have in terms of what goes on the shelves of individual branches?

Tom: We’ve changed that recently and given everyone a lot more autonomy. What’s the worst that can happen? You give it a whirl; you suck it and see. 

We meet regularly as a group and go through the list, and axe things and put things on, say what we like and what we don’t like and ask: where are the holes? I think everyone feels that if they go to a tasting and they really like something, they can stick it on the shelves and give it a whirl.

It makes our lives easier, and it makes the range more exciting. You shouldn’t be trying to do everything yourself. You’ve got to trust people. It’s so much more interesting to be working with people who are having opinions.

Are there any violent clashes of opinion?

Tom: Violent? No. But I had a moment. Alex in Leytonstone very merrily wrote to me saying, “hey, I’d like to get some samples of this canned wine”. And I wrote a kind of cri de coeur that canned wine was the end of civilisation and the worst thing in the world. After about an hour, I said to my wife: “I think I’ve just sent a really bonkers email.” The next day I said to Alex: “I’m really sorry mate, I overreacted.” He said: “No, I liked it – you’ve got to have principles.”

Is your hatred of canned wine a hill you’re prepared to die on?

Tom: My feeling is if they put it in a litre can, I’d be open to it. But if you put it in a mini, it’s evidently a single-serve that’s designed to be drunk as you walk along. It’s yobbery. You know, it’s horrible. It’s every bit as horrible as people at Oxford wearing tailcoats, smashing glasses of Champagne. I think it’s bullshit.

How do you think the independent wine trade has evolved since 2002?

Hybrids have become the dominant model. But for me, that doesn’t work as a retail entity. I don’t think you can really have a nice experience finding a lovely bottle of wine where there’s people chattering away, drinking. So you can say that you’re a wine shop with a bar in it, but you’re not – you’re actually going to be a bar. It’s as simple as that, unfortunately, unless you had a property that had enough space. I think that Vinoteca probably tried to do that at King’s Cross, where there was actually a store.

Are you looking at stores number four and five?

Yeah, definitely. We’ll hold on at the moment. But we’ve definitely got our eyes open.

What locations are you considering?

Tom: Obviously it will be more convenient to have them near one of the other shops. But at the moment, it’s not the sort of environment where you want to take big risks. So I think you would have to see the place and say, well, that’s nailed on, I think that’s gonna really be a winner. 

Where is future growth coming from? Retailing or wholesaling?

I think they’re very complementary to each other. One feeds off the other, in a way, because the more retail space you have, the more you can import, and the better prices that you can offer.

We’d like to develop a way of working with more merchants, because we ship so much wine. We’re developing a very flexible pricing model, where you can have in-bond things, you can agglomerate things across the range at half-pallet or pallet rates, and then it can really start to be quite competitive. 

I mean, restaurants are great, and we love to work with restaurants, but it’s quite high maintenance. So if we can cut out some of that cost by working more directly with merchants who know what they want, and work in bigger quantities, and try and be as competitive as possible, that’s definitely an area that we want to grow.

You’ve experienced economic ups and downs. How does the current situation compare to other downturns you’ve been through?

The world situation is so grim at the moment. I definitely think there is an extra layer of doomish anxiety. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And I think London’s the kind of city that works quite well when things are quite difficult. Just manage your expectations. We didn’t go into this business to get rich, right?

Does it change the way you buy? Are you looking for less expensive wines?

We’re always looking for inexpensive wines. That’s a real challenge, especially with the bloody duty situation. Fiasco.

But I think it doesn’t matter what a wine costs, it’s just got to be the right price for what it is. It’s always got to be an excellent experience at the price point – and it must have something to say.

 

 

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