After 12 years as an ITV cameraman, Nish Patel was presented with the opportunity to buy a former Unwins branch in Essex. The shop is now a thriving wine merchant, with a reputation for fine Cognac and Cuban cigars. Nigel Huddleston drops by
The fallout from the collapse of Unwins and Thresher in the 2000s left Shenfield in Essex in the unusual position of having two independent specialist wine merchants just five minutes’ walk from each other. Not bad for a place that Wikipedia considers to be no more than a suburb of Brentwood, which is itself a not-that-big commuter town sandwiched into the gap where the M25 meets the A12.
The ex-Thresher is now Liquorice, and in time the Unwins became Shenfield Wine Co, run by Nish Patel and a team comprising Penny Hollington, Maggie Faiers and Neil “Woody” Wood, with an extra pair of hands in the process of being recruited at the time of The Wine Merchant’s visit.
“Shenfield is the last stop on Crossrail,” says Nish. “You can get on a train and be at Liverpool Street in 20 minutes. Soon you’ll be able to get a train to Heathrow.
“It’s a wealthy town, a lot of self-made people and business owners, and it’s seen as a place for very rich bankers.”
Patel previously worked for 12 years as an ITV cameraman, mainly on factual entertainment programmes, but the glitz of shooting at film premieres and TV costume drama launch parties had become outweighed by the boredom of hanging around for a day to get a couple of minutes of footage with a star.
“People think it’s glamourous,” says Nish. “Yes, I’ve met everyone … Charlton Heston was probably the most famous. Most people don’t know who he is these days. But really it had just become soul destroying.”
A wine shop wasn’t even on Nish’s radar, until a friend mentioned that the people who’d initially bought the store from the Unwins administrators were trying to sell it on.
“I didn’t even drink wine, but I decided it was a good opportunity. I hadn’t done any WSET, but I did a lot of reading and learned a lot from sales reps and going to loads of trade tastings. It took two years before I started shedding all the rubbish in the range and replaced it.”
He was aided in that process by the former Unwins manager, “a wine encyclopedia”, who returned for a spell.
“He had a photographic memory; anything he tasted, he’d remember it. I learned an enormous amount from him.”
Over the intervening years, Shenfield Wine Co has pushed its USP – to distinguish it from its friendly hybrid rival up the street – as the go-to local bottle shop, with Cognac, whisky, cocktail liqueurs, craft beer and Cuban cigars all joining wine in the product mix.
A lean-to at the rear of the shop was turned into a tasting room, with Banksy prints and red leather banquettes, in 2021 and now does a low-key drink-in offer three nights a week.
“We’re really friendly,” says Nish. “Whoever you’re served by will have a smile on their face. They know the wines that are on the shelf; they’ve tasted them. I only employ people who are people-people.
“A chunk of custom is people who think ‘if I can’t find it anywhere else, I know they’ll have it’. It annoys me because, I think, ‘why don’t you come here first?’”
You took over the business in 2006 and then the financial crisis hit in 2007 and 2008. How did that impact you?
Not that much. Although we’re in a town full of people who work in the City, the business grew year-on-year until 2010, then plateaued in 2011 and 2012. That was when it was less fun. We had to work really hard on how to progress, and education has been the key to it.
I’m very much in favour of formal training for the people we employ. It’s only a recent thing but it’s got to be the way forward. However, I’m self-taught and sometimes you realise you know more than you think. I did The Wine Merchant Top 100, where you taste blind, and I was surprised how much you can go toe-to-toe with people who are formally trained.
I still don’t drink a lot of wine, but I taste an awful lot. As a team, we taste everything we sell.
Does anywhere in particular excite you at the moment?
I think Italy is going through a golden age in terms of the quality of wine it’s producing. When I do a tasting that includes a Malbec I describe it as the international megastar of the wine world. Everyone loves it – but it’s become a bit boring to sell. We now need to push those people to try other things that are similar but different: Californian Zinfandel, Australian Cabernet, and then of course Italy will give you Primitivo, appassimento wines, ripasso wines, Negroamaro – slightly jammier, lower-tannin wines, which are easy to drink, with or without food. We’re now selling copious amounts of Primitivo.
France takes up the biggest space but I just don’t understand the pricing of French wine: it’s either “we’ve had a fantastic harvest, everyone wants it, we’re going to put the price up”; or, the next year, “we’ve lost all the harvest, there’s very little of it, we’re going to put the price up”.
Some of this stuff is now way out there [on price]. We stocked the Gevrey-Chambertins and Montrachets last Christmas but the majority of people who are buying this top-end stuff are buying the name. I know it’s good … but really? However, we’ve sold all of it, so maybe I’m wrong.
I’m always looking for value, and, as a team, we have to truly believe in a wine.
Which suppliers give you most support?
Liberty are just a delight to work with. We’re looked after by a chap called Mark Duce and nothing is ever a problem. Sometimes I think I’m pushing my luck but he always surprises me. The quality of their products and the depth of their range is immense.
Some of the other big names are Mentzendorff, Armit, Louis Latour and Hatch. Our everyday wines at £10-£12 are from Walker & Wodehouse and Ehrmanns. Ehrmanns were one of my very first accounts; they’re nice people to deal with. We use Seckford and ABS for South Africa and Australia. Then we have specialist accounts, like Hispa for Argentina.
All of those are regularly coming to see me or ring. You need to have that communication. We closed some other accounts because we weren’t being looked after and were never shown new products.
What do you aim for in your wine range?
We’re not really eclectic. We’re not doing Croatian or Slovenian wine. We don’t have an organic section; we don’t have a biodynamic section. We just stock wine we really like. We have all the things you expect and slightly quirkier versions of that thing. My core principle is we must be stocking what is typical of that grape from that region and it’s got to be value for money. Our average bottle price is approximately £13. Our average sale is £35-£44. It’s fluctuated in the past 18 months.
What was lockdown like for you and the team?
I bought the freehold just before lockdown; the first payment on the loan was on April 1, 2020. Business tripled; we are going to be free of the loan maybe in five years.
We barely coped. Neil ended up working four days a week instead of his usual one and Penny ended up working full-time. I was here every day, and even Woody’s wife, who has a very good job working for a big bank, and who was working from home, came in on Saturdays.
We only let one person in at a time. We locked the door and asked them to stand on a spot and we would be the personal shopper, getting things for them, bagging them and opening the door for them to leave.
On average, we were doing one customer every three-and-a-half minutes from 11am to 7pm. At one point we had to close in the middle of the day because the shelves were half-empty. We were sometimes doing three times what we normally do in a week.
Although things [generally] are nearly normal now, there are still a lot of people in this town working from home and, on average, we’re 50% up on where we were pre-Covid.
Certain things have changed from before the pandemic. Those people don’t want to go back into the office full-time, so they’re coming out in the middle of the day to break it up.
Come 7pm, it’s tumbleweed. Normally, in the past, they’d be off the train having had a couple of pints in the pub in London and that gave you evening footfall. So, footfall is down, but if you look at the till …
And all this was without having a proper website?
We just have a landing page, but most people find us through Google. When the writing was on the wall that lockdown was coming, we listed a random bunch of stuff on the landing page to give people an idea of what we had. The phone just started ringing constantly. I was doing deliveries every day, 20 deliveries a day sometimes.
There were all of these supermarket customers asking what we’d got for £4. “Nothing, the cheapest is £7 but it’s good”. There wasn’t a lot of margin in it but we were exposing ourselves to people who weren’t customers of ours. They were meeting us on the doorstep.
You built the tasting room at a down time when drinking-in was difficult. Has it had a chance to have an impact?
We built it last year because we had the space, we had the money and it meant we could finally have our own tasting location. That is the prime purpose. Previously we were using other local venues.
Really we are a shop, and the only reason this is now a wine bar three nights a week is that we’ve got it and we might as well use it – and it’s separate from the shop. We don’t want tables on the shop floor.
We do wines by the glass and wine by the bottle, anything from the shop. We encourage people to buy by the bottle even though we make less money on it, because it’s about the experience.
People love it; it’s like have their own private cellar. Whatever you pick it’s the shop retail price plus £12 corkage. If you’re buying a £10 bottle it’s not going to be worth it, but you can buy a bottle of Amarone at £32 and it’s more attractive. Where are you going to get a bottle of Amarone for £44 in a pub or a restaurant?
Other than wine, what drives business?
Cigars have become very important. They generate more than spirits and more than craft beer. Over Christmas we sold more individual cigars than bottles of Champagne and the value of sales was higher as well.
We are a Hunters & Frankau habano “point”, which is their name for a specialist retailer. If customers come here they will be met by knowledgeable staff with a humidor that’s been kept properly with a minimum of 45 SKUs of Cuban cigars. A lot of places have a humidor but it’s not looked after, they don’t have a good range, and there are all sorts of issues.
I’m big on detail and at first I became obsessed with the hydrometer, but I learned very quickly that hydrometers are useless. You’ve got to open the humidor, pick up a cigar, get a feel for it … you’ll know if it’s right or not.
We built up, very slowly, a reputation for selling cigars properly and we now have regular customers who come back again and again. It’s now just shy of 10% of turnover.
How does the margin compare with wine?
It’s a bit below wine. Our margins generally are 35% POR. I’m slowly moving to 38% [on wine] and anything that over-delivers is 40%. Cigars from Hunters & Frankau are about 30%.
We’re also doing new world cigars [anything not Cuban] – mainly Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and the US. We have traction with those, we’re doing OK, but the majority is Cuban.
Any other trends in Shenfield?
We’ve seen a big increase in sales of Cognac. After gin exploded, everyone said rum would be the next big thing. But it won’t be, because no one is going to spend £35-£40 on a bottle of rum and put Coke in it. More people want to drink Cognac.
We have a lot of customers who love whisky too; we have the best whisky selection for miles. We’re launching a whisky bar in the tasting room. Once a month the room will be given over to serving whisky, everything from everyday whisky to quite expensive Japanese whisky and Macallan 18.
I’ve got an 18-year-old Yamazaki which is £850 that we’ll be opening, and I’m thinking of opening a 21-year-old Hibiki which is £1,200. It’s a bit of risk because once you’ve opened that bottle you’re in for the cost of it, right? If you build it, they will come. I dunno, we’ll see. I may be completely wrong.