Alex Edwards joined York Wines in 2018 and soon spotted the potential for the business to evolve beyond its existing wholesale-focused horizons. After buying it from Stuart Vass, Alex recently relocated to a farm. It’s given her the space she needed to broaden the range and increase the retail element of her trade to something like 50%. By Nigel Huddleston
The first thing to note about York Wines is that it’s not in York. The second thing to note is that neither is it quite in the North Yorkshire village of Sheriff Hutton, 10 miles north of York, where Stuart Vass founded the business 35 years ago.
Alex Edwards, who bought York Wines from Stuart in August 2021, moved it and her team of 11 from YO60 to YO32 last November.
Despite the seemingly dramatic change of postcode, the move was actually only a mile and a half down the road, from the tiny village’s centre to Moor Farm. Where the neighbours were once the village pub, a post office and a deli, they’re now a livery stable, a cricket club and a camp site.
The original shop was essentially an extension of Stuart’s home, and for a while after handing the reins over to Alex, he was her landlord. When he served notice on the arrangement, Alex was sparked into activating ambitious plans that had been fermenting since she first joined the company in 2018.
“The original plan was that I would buy equal chunks over five years and gradually increase my involvement,” she says. “But then Covid happened and everything accelerated, which was probably good all round.”
Alex and her family moved to rural Yorkshire from London, where she’d worked in advertising and local government.
“I had a longstanding interest in wine, socially and informally,” she says. “The first day I came up to look at the house that we ended up buying, the estate agent drove me round and said there was a wine shop.
“Quite quickly after we moved up I went into the shop and got to know Stuart and it went from there, really. I heard that the deli was being sold and it got me thinking that the wine shop might be an opportunity. Eventually I approached Stuart and asked him if he had any plans.”
With Stuart now retired and the relocation complete, York Wines is being reinvented in Alex’s image.
The new York Wines is approached by a freshly landscaped track from the main road that links Sheriff Hutton to the bigger village of Strensall. A farm gate opens automatically to grant access to the wine shop forecourt.
York Wines’ share of the farm complex includes a large warehouse and dedicated parking. Inside, the retail element is set in a high-ceilinged space with natural light bursting in from a skylight, an island counter and offices that are reached via a spiral staircase. A second room houses the big French regions.
“The main criterion in looking for a new place was having a bigger retail space,” says Alex. “I always felt, from when I joined the business, that there was potential in that.”
Why buy an existing wine shop rather than start afresh?
Buying an established business had a lot of positives because of suppliers, customers and systems being in place, but on the other hand you can’t change things overnight and you have to get to know why things are done as they are.
That was quite good for me because it made me take time to consider what changes would be good to make. The move was the big thing.
How did you find the farm?
When I started looking, I explored every possible avenue I could think of. I visited all the local industrial estates and asked around as many people as I could. I knew the people who own Moor Farm through the horses and the livery yard. I spoke to the owner because she used to be a letting agent and I thought she might know somebody who had a building or a piece of land. She said, “why don’t you come and look at what we’ve got?” I was familiar with it, but really at that point I couldn’t envisage it.
What was here before?
This was a brick stable block with horses living in it. They’d got planning permission to turn it into a holiday let but said we could change the internal plan and that it could work as a wine shop. It was available and the builders were already booked to start [doing the holiday let conversion].
You obviously saw its potential. What about the design: did you bring people in to do it?
I worked with Carole Whitby, who has an interior design firm in York [Upside Down Design], and who I’ve worked with before. She came to the old shop and we talked about other places we’d been to in terms of look and feel. Carole talked about vineyards in France and little châteaux where you have a tour and come together to taste: somewhere quite friendly, inviting and warm.
I was quite clear from the outset I wanted to be able to accommodate tastings. Carole had the idea of having the counter and till in the middle. One morning I had a call to say she was at the Newark Antiques Fair and had found the barrels to create the space at the front of the till. From those central barrels it sort of evolved.
The original idea is that the counter would be built out of empty wooden wine boxes. I gathered enough together and we built it, but it wasn’t going to be stable enough, so we’ve used them as support for some of the shelves.
What was the thinking with the island counter?
It was almost that it could act as a bar top to serve from. For a couple of events we’ve had stools there and sat at it as if it was a bar. The shelving is all birch ply that’s stained, which gives it an aged look. It was all made offsite at a shopfitter’s. I transported the bulk of the units in a horse box to save costs.
The old shop was a little bit Dickensian. It was small and everything was on display, but it was crammed in. It was very quirky and characterful. At first, when I was looking for a new site and visited industrial estates, the units were very functional and had great access but were just a bit soulless. Once I came here and could picture it, it meant we could keep some of the character of that side of it but create something from scratch that was purpose-built.
What has been customer reaction to the new shop?
Overwhelmingly positive. They really like the bigger space. I’d begun work about nine months before on expanding the range. At the last count there were about 200 new wines. I always felt with the retail there was an opportunity to make the range more interesting and fill any little gaps we had. People have responded to that. We’re buying more products from existing suppliers or finding new ones.
How have shop sales been so far?
The pubs are either closing completely or restricting their hours to save costs, and I think we’re getting a knock-on from that. During Covid, people couldn’t go out and people upgraded the wines they were buying. Over the cost-of-living crisis, people may not go out as much again, and realise what you can get by spending less in a shop than in a restaurant. Just from my back-of-envelope calculations, the shop in December played the biggest part. You assume after Covid everything’s drifting the other way.
Have you managed to hold on to old customers?
We did a flyer. We gave one to anyone who came into the shop from the time we knew we were definitely moving, to get 15% off at the new shop on their first visit. We opened on November 1. It turned out to be the ideal time to move. At one point it looked like we might not move until January 1, which would have been better from a being-less-busy point of view, but we would have missed out on the Christmas trade.
A lot of people who upgrade their wines in the run-up to Christmas visited us, so that worked really well. There was a bit of curiosity with people wanting to come and look at the new place – and then they’ve got their voucher to get a bit of discount.
Your website talks about buying more wine direct to cut out the intermediaries. Was that a steep learning curve, coming from local government?
Yes, it was, but that model was already in place. The majority of the French wines are shipped direct and a lot of the relationships are quite longstanding. The process was quite established, so I’ve just continued with that. We used to do a tiny bit of groupage but haven’t continued that after Brexit because of the cost – you get charged double for the paperwork and transport – so we only ship full pallets from individual producers.
As part of the range expansion, have you sought out new producers?
I was fortunate to be part of a trip to the Loire Valley with The Wine Merchant in 2021 and one of the producers we visited was Eric Santier in Chinon [Clos du Saut au Loup] and I went on to ship some of his wines.
We’ve also brought in a range of wines from Extremadura in Spain. They’re great and it’s not that well-known a region: it’s on the Portuguese border above the Algarve. It’s regularly 40˚C-plus through the summer and we have a fantastic producer [Evendria].
Who are your favourite UK suppliers?
I have to say they’re all good. Richmond, Alliance … Winetraders is a relatively new supplier. New Generation, ABS, Kingsland, Hayward Bros.
Do you consciously avoid the bigger players like Boutinot and Liberty?
I’ve not consciously avoided anyone; it’s just the way it’s worked out. I’m always up for meeting suppliers. A lot do visit. Winetraders were here yesterday with a producer. I’m trying not to leave anyone out … Condor Wines; Hatch Mansfield. We’ve had a few producers from Europe coming over. A Barbera d’Asti producer came over in November.
Is the range France-heavy?
The portfolio I inherited was predominantly French and directly imported. We do import a lot of Spanish wine that we sell, and we import a good chunk of Italy. In terms of what we sell by volume, Chile and Romania are very big. It’s a value-for-money thing.
We have wines starting at £6.50 and going right up to £200. I’ve expanded the top end. I think people do see us as a genuine alternative to the supermarkets but with the added bonus that they can chat to us.
The Yellow Room is all Burgundy and Bordeaux. It was going to be the fine wine room. There were a few articles around in the press about “what is fine wine?”. We had our own internal debate about that and what the cut-off would be. If we picked £30, would there be enough wines to go in that room? There would then be the whole thing of categorisation and maybe only having two or three from Australia or New Zealand at that price. The whole thing would really be Bordeaux and Burgundy, so in the end we just went for those regions for simplicity.
Do you think the “fine wine” idea is out-of-date?
A lot of people wouldn’t go in there if you called it fine wine. Apart from Bordeaux and Burgundy, all the other expensive wines are dotted around in their country sections. If you’ve got a super-Tuscan at £200 and all the other Italian reds alongside are at £20, they suddenly look like very good value. It’s very good to have that mix to contextualise for people who may only be familiar with supermarket prices. We haven’t had any complaints yet about the way it’s ranged.
We had people coming in and saying they were splashing out for Christmas and wanted to spend £10 a bottle, and others who say they’re splashing out for Christmas and wanted to spend £50 a bottle, and I think we genuinely cater to both.
Is it because of your location that you can do that? People don’t have supermarkets to go to … or do they?
There is a Tesco in Strensall [four miles away] but if you’re from Sheriff Hutton you’d have to drive past us to get there. A lot of people have said we’re so much more handy now because the parking’s better. I hadn’t seen that as a barrier but it really was. People would also say they used to drive past and not stop because they could see someone was in the shop already. Oh my god! Wow! Fair enough, I suppose.
There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t create parking or a bigger shop where we were. But I’d never thought about it before.
The people who come in tend to buy at least six bottles. In London, where it’s a parking free-for-all, you’d just stop anywhere, but here everyone has a drive, so if you go somewhere and you can’t park, it’s seen as a big no-no.
The development here includes quite a big warehouse which suggests that wholesale is quite important.
When I joined wholesale accounted for 85%-90% of the business – then Covid hit. The positive side was that it showed what I thought was possible was possible: that we could a do a lot more retail and we had the portfolio of wines to do it.
It’s levelled out at about 50-50 and retail is growing significantly. Wholesale has also grown, but just not as much.
We have a really diverse range of trade customers, from little post offices to big restaurants and bars, and farm shops. The farm shops all carried on trading during Covid and were busier than before.
We find that, as opposed to having a fixed list like a pub or bar, they are interested in having a more diverse range that offers something different to the supermarket and that mirrors their food offering as well.
You said the new place had to accommodate tastings. Has that ramped up yet?
The previous space was tiny. You could literally get one person serving and two customers in the shop. We couldn’t do those sorts of events there. I had run a few at Sheriff Hutton Castle and for other local groups, and customers used to ask if we did them. So I knew the demand was there.
We had our first Wine Wednesday in January. They are on the last Wednesday of every month between 5.30pm and 7.30pm, for £5 a ticket, or you can buy 12 tickets [for the whole year] for the price of 10.
We’ll open at least five wines, and you can come along and find out if you like them with no pressure. It’s informal, you can come with a couple of friends, try some wines you’ve never heard of, or that you would never risk buying a whole bottle of if you saw it on a menu when you were out.
We had 12 people in the shop for the first one and every single person bought something on the night. I think we’ve got half a dozen people who paid for the whole series of 12 evenings.
Is there still a big to-do list?
We’re moving to a new software system and have a new website that’s nearing completion. The old one is fine but the three bits of the business – the shop, the wholesale and online – are all totally separate on it. The new system will be centralised and hold all the stock, so if somebody buys something through the website it will update the stock across the business.
The range is still evoIving. I tasted some wines yesterday from two producers I’d never heard of. One of them has vineyards overlooking the Colosseum in Rome. There’s a white from Bellone grapes and the red was Nero Buono. You never stop learning.
Do you think your background outside of the wine world helps in the quest to make wine feel less stuffy?
It’s probably quite fair. At the old shop we had grape labels in three different colours – red, white and rosé – that went over the neck of a bottle and a rectangle that had a flag with a country, the price, the coding, dry to sweet, and then a quite lengthy description. I’ve changed that. Now we have little magnet tags that go on the shelf, not on the bottle, so the bottles are clean and clear and the descriptions are very short and to the point. Some of them are as simple as “a real crowd pleaser” or just “fantastic”.
Did the advertising background inform anything in your approach to this business?
I was a strategic planner. We sat between the account people and the creatives and wrote the creative brief. We would have the meetings with the client and strip everything down to a one-line proposition from which the creative would work.
It was about stripping things back to the single most important thing about what you’re selling. Ultimately wine is a luxury product and people want to feel nice and warm and justified in spending the money and taking a chance.
First and foremost, it’s fantastic wine, but you need to let people know that you offer a service above what the supermarkets do, and can help them. We do glassware, sale or return for parties and events: it’s a whole package.
What would be your own one-liner for the creatives?
We’ve got a little line on the website: “on a mission to find fantastic wine and deliver it to your door”. It sums it up: we do the hard work, we taste everything in the shop. There’s nothing on the shelf we wouldn’t drink or recommend. But if you still can’t choose, by all means go for a pretty label.