Merchant profile: Noble Grape, Cowbridge

Land of my fathers

Four years ago, Richard Ballantyne returned to his south Wales roots to set up Noble Grape. Cowbridge may not be the biggest town in the area but it’s a place where independents thrive – and where the Ballantyne family have a tradition of selling quality wine to the locals

July 2021

Richard Ballantyne is one of a small number of Masters of Wine involved in running an independent wine shop in the UK. His happens to be in Cowbridge, a rural Welsh town a short drive from Cardiff, which he has called home for most of his life.

“I have lived here since 1975, since I was a wee kid,” he says. “I have had a few sojourns to other places but have always come back here. The population is only 4,000 and we are surrounded by greenery.”

The family wine business, Ballantyne’s, had a branch in the town, as well as in Pontcanna, until 2011. That was where Ballantyne cut his teeth before a period working for Matthew Clark, Armit and Vinexus.

Noble Grape opened in 2017.

Last year Ballantyne spent time seeking out “empire building” wines which sold surprisingly quickly

What sort of place is Cowbridge?
In the old days we had some beautiful shops and people would come down from the valleys, or from Cardiff, to do their shopping. It’s kind of still like that but there’s not the same buzz in the town anymore.

In terms of real estate, it is the best place to buy a house. It’s one of the best postcodes in Wales. Cowbridge is an old market town. We have some lovely shops.

There was a very important cattle market here which has gone now. It is pretty much a farming community but we are only 10 miles from Cardiff so we have lots of commuters now.
There are 300,000 people in Cardiff, which is a great place, so lots of people work there and they will live here to get away from the big city. There are several million-pound houses here.

Was it the right decision to open a wine shop here?
It was definitely the right decision. I live 90 seconds from work now. I still drive in because I have deliveries to do, so I load up the car at the end of the night. My main motivation to start here was because I got sick to death of the travel. Before, I was doing 40,000 miles a year wasting my life on the M5 and M6. I thought, “is there something better I can do with my life?” I have absolutely no regrets and it’s great to be my own boss again.

We have also been very lucky with a few things. Covid has been incredibly good for the independent sector. Not just the boost that we had between the end of March and beginning of July last year. It has kind of continued on.

How have you held on to the new customers, and who are they?
From mid-March last year we saw the shop business go up about 50% straight away, and the internet, which was a small part of the business, went up about fivefold. The internet was and still is a minority part of the business, but it went through the roof.

I don’t think I’ve retained a lot of those customers because they would buy Villa Maria or Louis Jadot from me and now they can get it at the supermarket again and they won’t bother coming back to me. But we have managed to retain a lot of people that we consider as being Noble Grape type customers.

Quite a few of them are local and they will buy Priorat or Chianti Classico and they will get it from me now because they have tasted the difference and found what a good wine tastes like, and don’t necessarily have to pay a lot more for it. I haven’t analysed the figures, but I would say we have retained about 75% of these customers.

There is this caricature view that the people who don’t buy from wine shops have this fear of being exposed: they won’t have enough knowledge, or they won’t be able to afford the wines and it will be unwelcoming or intimidating. What are people feeding back to you?
I am hearing all those things come back in the positive. It doesn’t have to be more expensive. People have got the confidence to come in here and say something as vague as “recommend me a good red wine” and we will find something for them.

We try to make it as easy as possible and hopefully most of the time they will come back. I don’t really consider it a sale unless they come back.

I am not really scared of harder brands. So I do stock Villa; I’ve got Errazuriz. I’ve got the attitude that I’ll sell at market price rather than going for a target GP and that has seemed to work for me. People see a Villa Maria and they say, “I love Villa Maria,” buy it, and off they pop.

How does your pricing on this compare to Waitrose round the corner?
I charge £9.75 for a Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, which is pretty competitive. Waitrose will put it on offer for two months of the year and sell it for £7.99. At this point I probably won’t compete but then I do my own offers using a theme, which might be putting New Zealands and Australians together at 20% off. This makes me look super-competitive and we will sell stacks in that period.

Are you getting support on that from suppliers?
I have a good all-year-round price on things like Villa. My rep looks after me very well and gives me all the support he can and it’s all in the yearly price. Nothing beyond that. Anything else I do in terms of price matching, it’s down to me.

I don’t put the pressure on Hatch, it’s almost as if they come to me before I go to them and say, “Hey Richard. I’ll give you the best price on this. No promises but I’ll do what I can for you.” This seems to work.

Hatch in particular are a very independent-friendly company considering their size. I have found them very helpful in getting to the price where I need to be.

I also have a bit of history with Gaia and they feature quite well within my range; not brilliantly within my sales, as they are bloody expensive wines, let’s be honest. But I’ve done OK on them. I also take some Cune, the whole Villa family and Zuccardi. We work quite well with them.

When did your relationship with Italian wine start?
My dad was a wine importer long before I joined in. He started in the wine business in 1978. He was bringing in mostly fine Bordeaux and Burgundy and was a traditional 1980s wine merchant.

Around the late 80s he started discovering Italian wines but the stuff he was into isn’t really the stuff I am into now. Most people’s path into Italian wines in those days was via super Tuscans. I first went to Barolo in 1994 and I fell in love with it then. Ever since then it has dominated my path; it’s the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.

When we closed the business in 2011, I spent a year and a bit with Matthew Clark, which was fun. I was their wine development specialist for London. I didn’t get too bogged down in all the beers, spirits and softs and looked after the higher-end restaurants.

I joined Armit in 2012 and ever since then I’ve got switched back into Italian wines. In 2016 things started going wrong for Armit and I joined Vinexus Wines who are now a major supplier to me. So that’s my Italian roots. I also did my RP [research paper] for my MW on single-vineyard Barolo – what else? So I’ve always made that my speciality.

Noble Grape is happy to stock branded wines like Villa Maria and Errazuriz

What prompted you to do your Master of Wine?
I had always admired MWs. Nick Belfrage and Mark Savage are the guys who really know their way around a bottle of wine.

In 2007 I happened to be reading the exam papers for the MW practical exam and I saw the wines they had put in there and the questions that were asked of the candidates. Either it was my arrogance or hubris but I thought, “yeah, I could do that!” So I set out to prove that I could.

I leapfrogged the diploma straight on to the MW and for the first year I was completely out of my depth. I started from ground zero in getting my theory up to scratch. I was doing two hours of study every day before I started work and the first time I took the exam I passed theory but failed the tasting, which I thought was going to be the other way around. So in 2009 I came out with the bare minimum you needed.

The following year I passed the tasting as well but then it started going a bit wrong because I was in the dissertation/RP phase for six years! They told me to go away and make my dissertation better.
I still wanted to do something on Barolo and single vineyards but I had to look again at the angle I was going to take on it. Originally I wanted to create a classification on the vineyards based on the ex-cellar values of the wine and come up with an 1855, if you like, of the Barolo Crus. That really clicked for me and four years later, in 2016, I passed.

Has this been published?
It has been published but you have to request it through the IMW. Dissertations are not particularly enjoyable reads because they are academic documents, but they are interesting.

It was my intention to draw up a document listing the great vineyards based on the ex-cellar value of the wines, to gather all that data and triangulate it.

There are certain characteristics about the vineyard which make it particularly desirable and we looked at four things: soil type, elevation, aspect and vine age. We were looking for trends in the data and found that the common perception was straight-south was the most desirable aspect for the vineyards. However, what came out of my data was it was actually south west that was the most desirable.

Turin University was carrying out a separate study at the same time which proved the same thing. We were crunching big numbers of data and we found the aspect was not the most critical factor in the valuation of the wine, it was actually the elevation. Anything above 450m is not so good in Barolo, and this is not specifically down to the elevation. It is more down to the fact that those particularly high bits of Barolo are the not- very-good sandy bits.

You have obviously got both a romantic and a scientific, objective side to your love of wine which most of the great winemakers have. Your customers are not going to ask about Barolo elevation but for you this stuff is important. How do you rationalise that?
Barolo is important to me personally, as a wine region, and it also really motivates me in wine. I drink rather a lot of it, I must admit.

In terms of it being important to Noble Grape, it’s not my best seller and it’s not the category that I have the most of. I probably have more Montepulciano at the moment. But I think it’s enough for people to know that they are talking to an expert, and I try not to bamboozle them.

Are the reps coming into your shop terrified of you, being an MW?
I don’t reenforce it, no, and the reps that I have, I play softball with them. I have to build a relationship with them and what it should be is that they are the expert on their wines and I will ask for their advice.

It was only yesterday I was asking my rep from Liberty, “Simon, tell me about this wine, I quite fancy this,” and he said “Yes. It’s pretty good, a pretty typical Barbera. Do you want me to send you a sample?” And I said, “no, don’t worry. Send me a case and if it’s good I’ll buy more.” So, I like to build relationships with suppliers and it’s they who are the experts on their wines, hopefully. I speak to most of my key suppliers every week.

There are lots of different preferences about how often indies like to see their reps. It’s difficult to get it right for everyone.
It’s impossible. In the last 12 months I’ve seen almost nobody and that’s pretty normal. We will call suppliers regularly, and that’s great.

There’s one guy who has been here four times. Apart from him I’ve seen one other rep in all this time. He’s Richard Kelley from Dreyfus Ashby. He’s actually the owner of the company and loves filling his boot with bottles and asking if he can pop in.

He’s always on the phone and I know what’s coming up in his range. He’s a key supplier and there is great compatibility between us. He’s a specialist in lots of areas. He’s Mr Loire and Mr South Africa.

What are the wine-producing areas you are most excited about?
It’s really boring and I’m probably a bit like a stuck record but I can’t seem to get my head out of Italy.
Everything is geared up to Italy at the moment but there is one overriding strategy that I have for buying wine. I don’t really mind where it comes from but more than anything the wine that we stock here has to have what I call this authenticity of style.

If it is a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, make it taste like a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, let’s not have a pretend one. Let’s not have one that’s trying to be a super-duper Bordeaux or something like that, because I’m pretty sure that’s not what my customers want.

It’s the same with the Argentinian Malbec or it could be the southern Italian Primitivo, it could be anything. So that’s really what I’m looking for.

I’m probably not like a lot of people you will interview who will be into organic and biodynamic. It’s great if they are, but it’s not my path. I’ve succumbed a little bit in the fact that I’ve just bought some Gravner, who is probably the daddy of all natural producers.

Rosé is also absolutely massive nowadays. Trying to stop rosé sales at the moment is the thing!

What’s your issue with rosé?
I am sort of bored with the whole Côte de Provence thing and I’ve sold so much Whispering Angel I’m sick of the stuff, to be honest with you.

I’d be more inclined to offer some more interesting rosé. It’s all about the palest and driest rosé at the moment and you get a little bit tired of that. So I’m more inclined to go the other way around and say, “why don’t you try a Cerasuolo, this lovely deep rosé from the Abruzzo?”.

There could be a campaign for real rosé to get away from this salmon-pink template.
Let’s start it! It would be great to get people back into what they are buying rosé for. It started off that people couldn’t decide whether they wanted white or red, so they went in the middle. Let’s treat rosé as being a flavoursome white, if you like. Let’s get more flavour into our rosés.

If someone wants a really good rosé, I would prefer to point them in the direction of Sancerre or a Chinon, full of that lovely juiciness and crisp palate, rather than that flat, literal thing that you get from a Côte de Provence.

Do you do any direct importing? How has that been affected since Brexit?
I do a fair bit, mostly Italy. I don’t think I placed my first ex-cellar orders until about February. We saw straight away how long things were going to take.

I used to have pallets outside the shop and hand-walk them in but I’ve opened up an account now with EHD so I am getting most of my direct imports into there.

In the old days, which was only last year, I would place an order with one of my Italian suppliers and I would have the order within two weeks. Now we are looking at anywhere between 10 and 12 weeks to actually get the order to the shop.

So that’s the main hassle, those lead times, but also it’s getting more expensive. We have the EX1 and customs clearance to pay for. If I was shipping a pallet out of Italy before, it would be roughly £240. Now I’ve got to add another £140 on to that.

To mitigate that I have been doubling up on my quantities. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to do that as it’s doubling my stock, but for the time being that’s worked out for me.

So far I have not increased any prices on my direct imports. The increases coming through from UK suppliers have been minimal. I haven’t suffered the full brunt of it yet.

Photo by Troy Squillaci on Pexels.com

Presumably some of your wines won’t necessarily fly off your shelves but they’re there because of your love of Italy.
Covid hit and that gave us a huge rush of cash flow. That also gave me huge amount of confidence because you’re always nervous when you are starting a business and you have sleepless nights.

Then we stopped paying business rates, saving £800 a month. We also got the grant because I was a business rates payer. So I thought, we have got to spend this money wisely, in the right way. It’s got to be cash generating wine like Whispering Angel, or they’ve got to be empire building wines. So I started investigating going direct to some really good Italian wineries.

I paid for them up front, so the wine is in the cellar, not cash in the bank, and I thought: if it takes me a year to sell them, I can still afford it. Do you know what? They sold, and some of them are on to fourth shipments already.

It has reshaped the business into where I really wanted to be and that is selling beautiful, handcrafted, fantastic wines from globally recognised producers. The most important of those is Quintarelli. Prior to Covid, I would never have been able to afford to shop and pay for Quintarelli in advance. It just gave me that confidence to ship those in.

Do you think you’ll ever go for a second shop?
I don’t think a second shop is on the cards. I have run out of space a little bit, but I am happy with this.

I don’t want to build a massive retail empire, just enough to make a living would be great. Where I plan to go for the next couple of years is definitely the trade, absolutely. We are not going to carpet bomb. We are going to pick and choose good places.

I intend to keep on growing the internet. I predict that at some point this year the internet will become more important than cash sales. Internet is about a third of my sales at the moment but it’s a quarter of my GP.

The internet is pure organic growth and at the moment it’s a little bit of bunce on top of the shop. But come the end of the year, the shop will be the bunce – and the internet the core.