Profile: Grape to Grain, Prestwich

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Tom Sneesby’s background is rooted in spirits and the on-trade. He has no formal wine education and has had to hone his retail skills as he goes along. He’s obviously a talented student, because his Grape to Grain business in north Manchester, which opened in 2016, has established a devoted following.

By Nigel Huddleston


It could have been very different for Tom Sneesby. A pre-university gap year in South Africa convinced him that he wanted to be a game warden. Lacking the A-level grades for a degree in zoology, he enrolled at Salford University to study wildlife and practical conservation.

“I turned up thinking this is going to be my launchpad,” he says. “I’ll be the guy with a rifle over his shoulder wondering round the Kruger National Park at dawn – but instead I was in a Lancashire forest looking at lichen on trees.”

Disillusioned, he ditched the course and started working in Manchester bars, “waiting tables, slinging cocktails and that kind of carry-on”.

He founded an on-trade consultancy firm called The Liquorists with a friend, and they soon started doing consumer-focused events as well because “the general public will actually pay for stuff, whereas the industry people are just used to getting things for free”.

But it was as a wine shop customer that he experienced the epiphany that led to the establishment of Grape to Grain, the hybrid he now sole-owns in north Manchester’s Prestwich suburb.

It was a visit to the first incarnation of Harvey Leonard’s in the Peak District town of Glossop that provided the spark.

“I loved that place,” says Tom. “It was liked being tucked into this little ergonomic snug. Everything was piled up around you and you sort of fit inside it – whatever they could squeeze into this spectacularly impractical space. It felt like this wonderful tapestry of wine that was constantly changing.

“You turned around and you were knocking over Portugal, and over there you’ve got Burgundy. It felt really cosy, homely, with delicious wines and super-friendly service. That was the inspiration to open this place.”

Tom opened the Prestwich store in June 2016 with Joannes “Barry” van Goethem, and they added a second at Ramsbottom, 10 miles to the north, in December 2017.
Barry has since left to work for Morgenrot, but is still a frequent visitor, as Grape to Grain is one of his accounts.

The Ramsbottom outlet closed earlier this year as a belated casualty of the pandemic.



What was it that grabbed you about wine, having been in the cocktail bar trade?
I love wine because it’s exceptionally egalitarian. With cocktails, somebody presents you with it, and it’s “look how good I am, I’ve made this fancy cocktail for you”. Whereas with wine, if you open a bottle and you have anything about you, you pour for everybody else before you pour for yourself. It’s the great leveller. You share a bottle of wine, but you make a cocktail to have for yourself.

You can sometimes have that exclusivity of the maroon-trousered brigade, but I don’t have any particular antipathy to them. We wouldn’t have this section of the wine world if it wasn’t for that section of the wine world. I can’t compete with their knowledge and decades worth of contributions to the industry. It’s just quite unrelatable to people of my generation. Wine doesn’t need to have this standoffishness.

So what’s your approach?
You can start talking about malolactic fermentation, reverse osmosis and hybrid barrelling and most people will glaze over because that’s about “wine is exclusive, wine is expensive and you’re too stupid to know about wine”.

The complicated stuff is there, and if you want to nerd out, I’ll nerd out with you, but I’m much more fascinated by the stories … the fact that the Bordelaise hated Napoleon and didn’t want to be part of his French experiment because it meant they couldn’t sell to the English who bought more claret than anyone else, and then the Dutch sold to the English and made all the profit, so the Bordelaise hated the Dutch as well. Those sorts of things are most fascinating.

Most people in this industry know more about wine than I do. I’ve no qualification in it. I went to my first WSET and said I tasted something and they said, “no you don’t”. I thought: “I don’t need to be here.” I bow to other people’s depth of knowledge, but the ability to pass on that knowledge is our job, working in wine. Trying to translate WSET into human.

Why did you think a wine shop would work here in Prestwich?
There wasn’t one … but there was everything else. A good harbinger is quality coffee. If somebody is prepared to pay four quid for a flat white, or invest their time into watching someone using a V60 pour-over, or interested in the blend of coffee they’re drinking, they’ll also invest in a better-than-bin-end wine. There was a place here – and in Ramsbottom actually – that did city centre quality coffee, which was a signifier.

And that could easily be applied to craft beer or craft cocktails, or something where the provenance of food is important … but coffee is the best example.

How important is the “Grain” bit to the concept?
Grape was first in the name and first in the concept. The main focus is giving people the opportunity to try delicious wines and do it with them. With backgrounds in hospitality, we always knew there was more than just wine to go at and, for a long time, the business was propped up by gin and tonics, but that’s faded away. The background with The Liquorists was always focused around spirits and cocktails, but we tried here to offer people a friendly, unassuming introduction to the incredibly varied and exciting world of wine. If you don’t know about wine, don’t worry – that’s why we’re here.

Why was being a hybrid important?
Because getting the planning on opening just a bar would have been too difficult, complicated and expensive.

That would have been the preference, would it?
That was our background. Retail was always difficult to get our heads around. Even now, it’s still a learning process. Dressing a venue for retail is very different from doing it for hospitality. Impulse purchases and pricing structures have been 100% learnt on the fly. We continue to make mistakes all over the place. I’m sure someone with more retail experience could walk in here and tear us to shreds.

What gets a wine on the list?
Barry, who remains a great friend, was always the wine guy and I was the other guy. So what we stocked used to be very much on the whim of what the managers fancied having in.

I’ve moved to a more stable stocking policy to try and be consistent with the offering. Maybe some of the guys who worked here liked the churn of always having something new, but customers would come in and ask for things they enjoyed before and they weren’t there anymore, so they were immediately disappointed. The exclusive wine experience is shoved right down their throat again. That was the liferaft they were clinging to: “I remember that wine; I remember how it made me feel when I drank it with my partner or my friends.”

That always infuriated me because I put myself in the shoes of that customer who’s plucked up the courage to come into a wine shop and they’re presented with a blank face.
I’m striving for a more consistent offering and to upskill all of the people who work here to be better able to talk about it, rather than be reliant on a couple of people who know a hell of a lot about wine, and a few who don’t know anything.

How’s the team looking now?
People complain an awful lot about Gen Z being lazy or uninterested. Most of the time it’s because employers don’t take any interest or invest in them. The kids who work for me are some of the hardest-working, most conscientious, diligent and loyal people you could possibly hope to come across, let alone have the privilege of having them work for you. If you just invest in improving how much they know, you reap the rewards enormously. It’s impossible to provide that level of investment if you’re changing up the stock every three months because you’re bored with looking at stuff.

Is there any wine that’s absolutely not on your radar?

Why’s that?
Because I’m a child and the tannin is too abrasive for me. I’m just not sophisticated and grown-up enough to have matured into Nebbiolo.

So what does excite you?
I like Tuscan wines. I went to Tuscany last year, to Fontodi, Poggio San Polo and Fattoria dei Barbi in Montalcino, all of which were gorgeous. So much of Tuscany is wild land. I love wine countries that are beautiful and landscaped but there’s something about Tuscany that is a little bit more wild.

Do you have go-to suppliers?
Liberty is the main portfolio we work with, swiftly followed by Morgenrot because of the connection with Barry who obviously knows the business very well. He was able to work with us to fill the gaps that Liberty has with some really cool, interesting stuff. Liberty has a big range of producers of excellent, reliable wines, like Mitolo, Rolly Gassman and Bodegas LAN. You can be confident that what you pick up and open is going to be delicious.

What was the story behind the Ramsbottom closure?
Barry left last year because the business couldn’t support us both. It’s all a hangover from Covid. We were able to be fairly agile [in the pandemic] and switched to an online model, but Ramsbottom remained closed for months. We traded at Prestwich from the front door when we were able to.

We did tastings online and probably crammed in 500-600 individuals in 2020. We were shipping wine all over Europe because the investment bank Nomura had their new influx of interns spread all across the continent. Then Brexit hit and we could no longer ship anything to Europe. That which had been going very well shrivelled to nothing.

Ramsbottom itself has died an absolute death. It’s really painful to watch. You take it all very personally: how could we have handled this situation better? But there were some genuinely outstanding operators there closing at the same time as us: Levanter and Baratxuri, two outstanding pinxto and tapas places, that were featured in the Observer Food Monthly.

The only reason we closed Ramsbottom two months ago as opposed to 12 months ago is because I was able to reduce opening hours to two and a half days a week, do it all myself and not pay myself a wage. If I’d had a kitchen brigade, a team of full-time staff, we just wouldn’t have been able to do it, because the turnover in Ramsbottom reduced to zero.



Does Prestwich benefit from an evening drinking circuit?
Prestwich thrived when Ramsbottom nosedived because there, the gravitational pull that justified people ordering an Uber and going in disappeared after Covid. There are loads of good places in Prestwich, like Wine & Wallop over the road. The idea that too many places can open up and take business away from you is a fallacy. You need to have enough to drag people in there, because people don’t always want to go to the same place week in, week out – and they certainly don’t want to go to only one place.

Did the Covid experience change your attitude to the off/on balance?
During lockdown it was much more important to have the retail element to the business. Part of the reason we got into trouble was we didn’t adapt enough. We were still staffing at a hospitality level when we should have been doing so at a retail level. If we were being really frugal and ruthless we would have told everyone to stay at home and get all of the furlough that was coming to them. But these were our friends as well as our colleagues and we didn’t want to see them languishing away at home, bored to tears, living a miserable life, so we dragged people back to do stuff.

Has the experience put you off expanding?
There’s always a desire for growth. The direction of that? My attitude has slightly changed. I want to get this place as slick and streamlined as possible with a stocking policy we stick to and a consistent level of knowledge for everyone who works here. If we did want to open a second site it would be with a less fluid, more stable model that we could build on to.

Has online remained important?
It’s faded away because we were in a desperate attempt to keep chins above rising waters on the bricks and mortar side. It’s a shame, but our customers’ purchasing habits shifted from online to in-store and wanting to have human interaction. Even though we did some good numbers online during lockdown and a huge number of tastings, the Amazon effect is that people expect an order to arrive the next day and that’s incredibly expensive to sort out logistically, without ripping your margins out. How are we supposed to deliver free on orders nationwide when a delivery through UPS can vary between £7 and £11.50 for next working day delivery?

You have some interesting wine quotes on the walls: Ernest Hemingway, Basil Fawlty, Tyrion Lannister …
Tyrion Lannister’s from Game of Thrones. Even our young staff give you blank looks these days if you talk about Game of Thrones. It’s already ancient history. And they have no idea who Basil Fawlty is … but my demographic of customers do.

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