In partnership with Pol Roger Portfolio, the Wine Merchant celebrates the team members who are having a big impact for independent specialists across the UK.
Here are some recent examples.
Stony Street House, Frome
Every organisation needs a safe pair of hands and Kent Barker, owner of Stony Street House, says that Sarah Helliwell is the “bedrock” of his business.
“She’s just very calm under fire,” he says. “She is the person everyone gravitates to when things are getting tough on the floor or whatever – she just comes along and smooths it all out.”
Kent and Sarah’s paths originally crossed during his time at Jascots when Sarah headed up the hospitality training – so she wasn’t far from his thoughts when he was planning his new venture in Somerset.
“Sarah is our head of wine and training and has been with us from the start,” says Kent. “She’s incredibly hard-working and very diligent. She’s got a great palate and food and wine matching is one of her specialties.
“It’s terrible to say, but quite often people don’t take women in wine as seriously as men and she has the gravitas for that not to be a factor on the floor at all, and that is a really positive thing.”
For Sarah, a career in wine, while not inevitable, was not totally surprising as she says she “grew up with wine,” with childhood holidays visiting vineyards in Burgundy and Bordeaux.
She explains: “When I finished my Masters I didn’t really know what to do, so I went to work at a ski resort in France. The chalet happened to have a really amazing wine list so I took control of that.”
She had a stint as a tour guide in Carcassonne, seasonal vineyard work followed, and after that she says she was hooked.
“I love talking to people about wine and the education side,” she says. “Making wine less daunting and scary is the part I really enjoy.”
“We try and take a relaxed approach; we don’t want people to be intimidated by what’s on offer. We have some amazing wines – we have around 400 from every price bracket including some really top-end stuff. But we’re about making people feel really comfortable.”
Kent says that Sarah was jointly responsible for “reformulating the whole business to survive during Covid-19”. He admits that emerging from the pandemic has been “turbulent,” but “Sarah is someone I really listen to very seriously – I trust her views”.
And Sarah is raring to continue moving forward and regain some normality. “I can’t wait to get our tastings back up and running,” she says. “Usually we would be doing two a month. We were just about to start teaching WSET courses in March so that’s a project that we’re looking to restart – I think it will probably be in the new year now.”
Taurus Wines, Surrey Hills
After outlining the ups and downs of the wine industry to Callum Edge several years ago, Rupert Pritchett at Taurus Wines didn’t expect to see the teenager again. But his frankness obviously left a lasting impression.
Rupert explains: “Callum first visited the store as a fresh-faced 18-year-old asking for careers advice.
“He was interested in joining the wine trade so I explained the realities of the industry, ie that it’s enormous fun with great opportunities for travel once you hit a certain level, but that’s balanced out by long hours, low pay and probably a bad back and a slightly dickie liver by the end of it all.
“Off he trotted, I presumed for a career in the City so he could actually afford to buy fine wine. But, lo and behold, who should return a full seven years later but still vaguely fresh-faced Callum. Clearly my careers talk hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm.”
At this point Callum’s CV included a degree in theology, a stint as a sommelier in one of Dubai’s top restaurants, editorial experience at John Brown Publishing and some WSET qualifications.
“I had thought about being a lawyer,” Callum says, “and I was looking at conversion schemes with a glass of wine in my hand and realised that I much preferred the wine to looking through the legal papers.
“I remembered that Rupert had mentioned WSET, so a week after my finals I was doing the Level 1 to 3 intensive course.
“I moved to Dubai for a year and the opportunity to try some amazing wine out there was unparalleled and I’ve never tasted wine quite like it since. People were drinking Petrus out of teacups because they couldn’t be seen to be drinking. That was a surreal experience.”
Restaurants and food continued to be a major focus. On his return to London Callum worked in hospitality and restaurant PR before landing an editorial role on the Waitrose magazine.
“The lure of wine always pulls you back,” he says, “and I was moving back to Surrey and I thought of Rupert and what a great company Taurus would be to work for.”
Rupert says: “He joined the team three years ago and is now our marketing and events manager. In his time here he has seen the business move from a shed attached to an assortment of shipping containers to a state-of-the-art store and has been studying for the WSET diploma.
“He’s also reinvigorated our brand, started our monthly and one-day wine schools – which are a huge success – and, despite a penchant for orange and natural wines, has a fantastic palate and is a valuable member of our team.
“It goes without saying that I’m grateful I didn’t put him off the wine trade too much.”
The Vinorium, Kent
First impressions really do count for Stuart McCloskey, owner of The Vinorium. The fact that a young woman had “the balls” to turn up with her CV earned his respect from the get-go.
“I didn’t actually have a job for her,” explains Stuart, “but I liked that level of enthusiasm and courage. I think if someone has character to hand-deliver their CV you should give them an opportunity.
“So for the first three years the position she held was a fairly loose admin role, but the thing with Magda is that she gets stuck in and works bloody hard. She never, ever moans. She showed real flair with wine, so I took her under my wing and she became a part of the sales side of the company.
“In the first year, she absolutely smashed it. She’s phenomenal, a relentless hard worker. Now she looks after not far off 3,000 private customers throughout the whole of Europe. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and I would say she is pretty much the best person I’ve ever worked with. She’s on target to be sales director next year.
“She’ll be a big part of our new HQ build and the development of our new vineyard. She’s outstanding. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a few more years she actually takes control of the whole company – that’s pretty much Magda in a nutshell.”
High praise indeed for the 28-year-old who says it was her original visit to the Vinorium shop just five years ago that prompted her to ask for a job.
“Everything about food and wine has always fascinated me, and then walking into the Vinorium shop, was just wow!” Magda says. “I was bowled over with the whole concept. There was no snobbery, they were very welcoming and immediately offered to walk us through the wines and everything I tasted was amazing. It made me realise I could actually work in this industry and get involved.”
Magda left Poland for the UK before completing her business degree when she acquired a lot of skills that prepared her for her career. “Anything to do with analysis, operations or statistics, that background really helped me,” she says.
“There’s not a single part of my job that I don’t enjoy. From looking for wines and making the first contact with the producer – the whole buying part and those responsibilities are pretty exciting, to writing about the wines in an article for our private clients. I feel like I’m a link between the producers themselves and the private customers. I never have difficulty in approaching people and talking wine – it’s one of the subjects that connects people.”