MERCHANT PROFILE: VIN SANTO, CHESTER

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Simon Parkinson adored the 13th-century vault in the heart of Chester when he worked there for Corks Out. As owner of the Vin Santo business that now holds the lease, he loves it even more. could this be the most atmospheric wine shop in the uk? By Nigel Huddleston

Simon Parkinson signed the lease on the premises for Vin Santo, his hybrid store in Chester city centre, on March 13, 2020. Eleven days later, the UK went into lockdown. To rub salt into the wounds, March 24 is Simon’s birthday, and the plugs were pulled by his friends on a surprise party.

“Lots of people ask me why I signed the lease,” he says. “I genuinely had my head in the sand and was convinced that the media were overplaying it. Even when Italy went into lockdown, I just didn’t see it happening here. We were just working hard to get hold of the place and didn’t hear all the noise.

“Of course I wouldn’t have signed if I’d known what was going to happen, but that would have been the biggest mistake,” he adds. “Although it’s been very hard, we have built a successful business. Lockdowns and the subsequent uncertainty meant we had to do things slowly.”

Very slowly, as it transpired. Access to the site was blocked by scaffolding for several months once lockdown started. Vin Santo is in Watergate Street, on the bottom tier of one of Chester’s famous two-story medieval shopping streets that will be familiar to anyone who’s visited the city. A team of specialist conservation carpenters working on a balustrade above the entrance to the store opted to down tools as the first Covid wave struck, putting the premises off-limits.

“I could have done lots of work, like clearing the cellars,” says Simon. “I could even have sold wine because all the licensing was in place. But I couldn’t get physical access to the property.”

Vin Santo eventually opened four months later in the pandemic’s first hokey cokey phase of the on-trade opening and closing again.

There’s been a wine merchant on the site since 1863. The family-owned Quellyn Roberts occupied the premises until 2007, when it was taken by Ruth and Richard Yates’s highly regarded Corks Out chain.

That business closed the Chester site in 2019 as part of a post-Yates era downsizing exercise. Simon and his current general manager Tom Scargill both worked at the store under Yates, then at another notable Cheshire merchant, Whitmore & White, before Simon decided to do his own thing in the form of Vinological in Chester’s indoor market.

Vin Santo and Vinological traded side by side for a time, but the latter has now closed to give greater focus to Vin Santo, where quirky stuff from eastern Europe rubs up against great names from Bordeaux, Burgundy and elsewhere around the world. The likes of Felton Road, Masi, Ridge, Grange, Unico, Hill of Grace and Tignanello can all be found in the vault-like cellar space – Simon uses the term crypt – parts of which date back to the 13th century. 

Was there any point where you considered Watergate Street would be a second branch of Vinological?

I knew that it was going to be a different beast to Vinological, which is one reason I chose to keep Vinological open at first. The customers who went there were very different to the ones who came here. With hindsight I realise that was a mistake. We found if Vin Santo had a busy night, Vinological had a quiet one and vice versa. It became clear we’d have to differentiate them even more.

People went to the market for good quality products and service but they didn’t go for the aesthetics of the market itself, so we could be quite rough and ready. Me and my dad built the Vinological bar out of MDF and the cheapest kitchen worktop we could find. But you couldn’t do that in this building.

Why did you decide to close Vinological in the end?

The market moved into a new hall but what they were planning didn’t suit our business model. We moved to a new site a bit further out of the city but it only lasted about nine months. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t bringing in the revenue and was too much of a distraction from Vin Santo.

What was the attraction in coming back to the Watergate Street site as a business owner?

I’d always been passionate about the building. I loved what Corks Out did and was very disappointed to see it close. From the moment it did I was in communication with the landlord. I explained that we wanted to do something different from Corks Out but still be a wine merchant. He loved that idea, and from day one I think it’s fair to say I was the only one who was going to get the lease.

What’s the story behind the name?

I wanted to use Vin to have an initial connection with Vinological. Vin Santo means regal wine or holy wine, so it felt right with the building and the history. It helped that it’s Italian because we love Italian wine. It was actually my mum who came up with it. It’s one of her favourite wines. 

One thing I really like about the name is that the regulars shorten it to Santo, which I love. You only have nicknames for your favourite places.

What was Corks Out like to work for? 

You couldn’t fault Ruth and Richard’s passion for wine and the work they put in. They had somegood people, like Bob McDonald [now at Salut Wines in Manchester]. 

We had some great wines and the hybrid model meant we got to try almost everything that made it on to the shelves, so there was a genuine knowledge there. We were offered lots of opportunities to go on trips and visit producers.

The thing Corks Out got right was the clear focus on being a wine shop and wine bar first and foremost, so they attracted staff who were really into wine.

It’s very easy to drift into something that you never intended to be, whether that’s pushing cocktails too much or installing draught beer lines. All of a sudden you’re a different business. But Corks Out were very good at staying focused.

What do you think went wrong?

With the greatest respect to Ruth, they just over-expanded. They lost sight of the fact that the business was built on fantastic customer service from very knowledgeable staff, and the more you grow the business the more you dilute the control you have. Heswall and Timperley were very much neighbourhood wine shops. Chester is a city centre location with a thriving local scene. Stockton Heath is a neighbourhood wine bar. You can’t really run all those different models in one business because they all have different requirements.

Then there are little things like having to have more focus on the commerciality of the wine rather than what’s interesting or unusual.

Corks Out was big into Enomatics, but you’ve taken them out.

We took the view they weren’t Covid-safe when we opened. We took the decision to only have staff use them, so they were only being used as a wine preservation system. We got rid of them soon after. Customers love them and they had been a big draw, but there were numerous issues. They were expensive to maintain, and we had an issue with people coming in with Corks Out cards. I’m not a bad guy; I really would have liked to honour them, because people had a lot of money on those cards. We were turning numerous people away.

But ultimately it wasn’t the type of service we wanted. We wanted to do table service and sell customers wine by the glass. If a customer has a question, everyone’s tried the wines, so they can talk about them.

Apart from that, what did you change about the premises?

We changed the colour scheme a little bit, and the furniture. We put in a fine wine cage to push it a bit more. We made it feel lighter and a bit cosier and warmer as well. That’s one of the problems; the building gets so cold. It’s not heated. It keeps a fairly constant temperature but in winter it drops a degree – not a huge amount. But, with the air flow as well, it has the perfect conditions for keeping wine.

Did you change the product offering?

The main thing was getting rid of the Enomatics. We also changed the food. We do a lot of continental cheese and charcuterie, all sliced to order, and so the customers can see us doing it. Corks Out had hot dishes. We wanted to keep it really simple, but really good quality.

Our cheeseboard is cheese, crackers and quince jelly. We don’t really see the need for grapes, olives and celery on a board. I’m always suspicious when you pay for a cheeseboard and it’s loaded up with 10 different things. What am I paying for here? The fact it’s simpler makes it easier but it also means there’s nowhere to hide. It has to be good.

And what about your approach to wine? 

We’re not afraid to put expensive wines on by the glass. Choice is key for us. I know some people shy away from them because they’re worried about the waste or don’t want to be seen as expensive because they’ve got a £50 glass of wine. We try to keep wastage to a minimum by recommending wines to customers, but being honest. We don’t hide the price, but we justify it on the grounds that it is incredible wine.

Is the range all your own work?

It’s pretty much curated by myself and Tom and our passions definitely come through. Tom has a love of Burgundy, and we’ve had some great wines from there. I love Spanish wine. One of my abiding memories from my early days in the wine trade was Vega Sicilia, and the first time I tried Valbuena: I knew I wanted to sell it. I don’t want to shy away from wines because they’re expensive. I want to sell wines because they’re good and Vega Sicilia is the pinnacle of fine Spanish wine. We’ve got a great relationship with Berkmann and we get an allocation and sell it. And because we have those customers we can sell other high-end Spanish wines as well. 

What about the bottom end?

The cheapest wine we sell is £11. We could go lower but under £10 isn’t a market we want to be in. It’s difficult to convince consumers that £9 here gets you better quality than £9 in the supermarket, because that wine was marked up at £18 for one day and they’re getting it at half price. At £11, 12 a bottle, though, it’s a lot easier to talk about the quality of the wine.

Consumers see independent wine merchants as expensive. So, if they’re expecting us to be, let’s use it to our advantage. If we sell them really good quality wine at £15 instead of £9 they’re going to go home and enjoy it and see the value of spending £15 on that one bottle.

It’s the same in the bar. I could buy cheaper wine to sell at £4 by the glass. That’s what I’d expect to pay in a pub – but we’re not a pub, we’re a wine bar.

Did you retain wines from Vinological?

We tried to have a clean break early on. Even though we were sharing some suppliers I didn’t want to buy the same wines. We had what we called Santo wines and ’Logical wines. But once we closed Vinological we bought some favourites over. Vintage Roots was an important supplier there and we continue to buy from them. Vinological was always the more unusual French regions rather than Bordeaux and Burgundy, and a lot of organic, natural and orange wine. We always have an orange wine on the Vin Santo list, and in the summer there’ll be two.

Who else is on your radar?

Liberty, ABS, House of Townend, and we do a little bit with Mentzendorff. Les Caves de Pyrene are coming on board. We do a bit with Fells.

Is it just about wine quality with those suppliers or something else?

It’s quality of wine first, but there has to be a broad range so that we can fulfil a number of criteria: countries, grapes, styles and price points. Liberty and Berkmann both have fantastic portfolios covering many countries, with great quality and good value from each. That’s why we find it difficult to work with suppliers that are skewed to a single country, because they just don’t offer the breadth of range that we need. There are plenty of suppliers we’d love to work with, and where we tried one or two wines that we really loved, but minimum orders made it difficult.

Do you have a feel for how many of your current customers are former Corks Out ones?

I don’t think it’s entirely the same base but we definitely have some old regulars. Tom and I were well known in Chester when we worked at Corks Out. I have one customer who says that in 20 years she’s never changed a hairdresser or a wine merchant. She’s bought wine from me at Corks Out, Whitmore & White and now Vin Santo, because I know what she likes.

Now we’ve, hopefully, moved on from Covid, what are the big challenges facing yourselves and the industry?

Energy costs still. When the initial hike happened you had businesses who were coming out of contracts who had immediate increases. Our price was fixed so initially we didn’t take that massive hit. But our contract expired and the cheapest new one was 60% higher than we were previously paying. 

I also sense that people have less disposable income this year. Last year, even though there was this crisis, it felt like a lot of people didn’t feel the effects. People were still spending money and getting one nice bottle rather than two cheaper ones. Now, people definitely have less money and are trimming back what they’re spending. 

The other thing is climate change. We are struggling to find some classic styles of wine. We’re trying Pouilly-Fumés and Sancerres that taste nothing like Pouilly-Fumés and Sancerres did 10 years ago. Getting good quality well-priced Chablis is difficult but we’ll get round it by finding the quality and value in other countries.

So, given what you were saying about Corks Out perhaps growing too fast, can we rule out seeing more Vin Santos?

I have no plans to open Vin Santo 2.0 in Chester or any other city. What defines Vin Santo is not just the people or the wine, it’s the building as well, and the history and heritage. I’m genuinely not looking. 

But as a businessman I might do something that complements it, that has exactly the same customers. I’d love to have a really good deli, but I don’t want to dilute what we do here. If we added a deli to Vin Santo, for every customer who was excited about taking home a really great French cheese we’d lose one who was confused about whether we were a wine shop or a deli. 

People come to Vin Santo with absolute confidence that when they spend £15, £20, £30 on a bottle they’re getting something good – because they know Vin Santo is a wine merchants, and we know what we’re doing.

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