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.
Richardsons of Whitehaven
Louise may have been shy and “looked like a rabbit in the headlights” at her interview. But she has gone on to take everything in her stride, from helping to hide celebrity chefs to being presented to the queen.
“In recent months it was Lou who prompted us to go online and open a website,” says owner Gerard Richardson. “There was a part of me that would have rather called it a day than change my business. When you imagine a website, you don’t think of something that’s local – I’ve always wanted to be a local retailer, not someone who sends things out all over the country. But it’s worked.
“I would have agreed with Lou’s advice at some point regardless of Covid, but it would have taken longer for me to see sense. I think had we not sat down and talked it through, we’d probably not be in business now – and instead we have a business that’s flying.”
Before working in the shop, Louise managed Gerard’s restaurant. When that closed, she helped him to co-ordinate his annual Whitehaven festival, a task which she handled with relish.
“It was a three-day event, and we had performers including Katherine Jenkins, Status Quo and all sorts of other celebrities,” says Gerard, “and it’s thanks to Louise that we have kept in touch with so many of them from the festival days because she just gets on with folk.
“She knows bugger all about wine – it’s something we’ll often joke about – but what Louise has got is customer service in bucket loads. I can be a bit of a wine nerd so we complement each other. She’s got her feet on the ground – she’s lovely.”
Louise started her working career after raising her daughter and says she knew retail would be ideal.
“I was in my element with the festivals – I never thought I would be,” she says. “If I’d sat down and thought about it, I would have run a mile, but I was thrown in the deep end and I thrived on it.
“I’d like to think when we get back to normal that we’ll do some more events; the town needs them. I am a people person and I do like to talk, so although the website is great and we needed it, I prefer to see customers in the shop.”
One of the people who have remained in touch since the festivals is Jean Christophe Novelli. When he was taking part in 2019’s Hunted, he turned to Gerard and Louise to hide him and teammate Aldo Zilli. “We hid them for two days in Whitehaven – behind tourist attractions, in offices and old warehouses,” says Gerard.
He is also keen to point out that on a royal visit to Whitehaven, Louise was presented to the queen. “I knew she wouldn’t tell you that herself,” he laughs, “but it’s just another thing that she’s taken in her stride over the years.”
Louise adds: “I always say, ‘do your hair, put a bit of lipstick on and you can face anything’. That’s my motto!”
Hannah arrived at StarmoreBoss with her WSET Level 2 and time working at both Corks Out and Mitchells Wines under her belt. “She had some really good experience, but at the end of the day it’s about the personality and the individual,” says co-owner Jefferson Boss.
“Hannah was a customer of the shop for a while and used to say if ever a position became available, she’d be really interested. At the time it was just me and Barry with a bit of occasional, part-time help.” So the partners took a leap and invited Hannah to be their first full-time member of staff.
“She’s been phenomenal,” says Jeff. “She’s very meticulous and when you have a team member like that, when you don’t need to check up on their work, it gives you the ability to carry on and do your own job.
“She can run the store, do all the online stuff and keep track of systems. As well as being very personable, she has that thirst for knowledge and has that excitement about the products we sell.”
Like a number of merchants, the business turned to online tastings during lockdown and beyond and Hannah has taken ownership of the whole project.
Jeff says: “Hannah developed the platform and everything. It’s like a live studio broadcast that goes out on YouTube – to have that skill set and to do it so professionally is super-impressive. I was rubbish at it! Hannah makes it all look really natural and she puts people at ease.”
“I think it just comes down to me being good at talking,” Hannah laughs.
“I am a bit of a geek – I like knowing everything about wine. I’ve just started my Level 3 with Laura at the Yorkshire Wine School. My wine career really started in 2015 after I finished university,” she explains.
“I had done a photography degree but had kind of fallen out of love with it, and then I started working in the wine industry and it just clicked. It’s such a big industry and there’s a lot to learn. You get to meet some really nice people and drink some nice stuff.
“Barry and Jeff are both so knowledgeable. Jeff could tell you the history of rum off the top of his head, which is pretty impressive, and Barry is really good at knowing exactly which vintage has done well and what’s not so great. It’s fascinating to listen to them. People always say that they are two of the nicest people in the wine industry and I would agree with that.”
Two years into her role at StarmoreBoss and Hannah is running the tastings, she has buying responsibilities (two of the wines she has sourced and purchased are in the store’s top 20 wines), and according to Jeff, she is continuing to flourish.
“It’s been really good to see that progression,” he says. “I would imagine at some point she’ll be picked up by one of the wine companies as an ambassador or something like that. Her future potential is huge.”
Aaron has been at Jeroboams for just over a year and is already an assistant manager, in the midst of studying for his WSET diploma and on secondment to the marketing team. It’s been an inspiring start to his newly chosen career.
“Right from the very beginning he had a real understanding of customers and showed a genuine ability to really look after people,” explains CEO Matt Tipping. “He established himself very quickly in Muswell Hill.”
The secondment on which Aaron has just embarked is a new programme at Jeroboams to allow retail staff to explore alternative careers within the industry. “It also gives them more skills and a deeper understanding of our business, and that knowledge makes us stronger in our shops,” explains Matt.
“Aaron has a desire to immerse himself in everything he’s doing. He asked us whether we would help him do his diploma and we were happy to. He has that natural business acumen and is able to combine it with the wine knowledge, and I think it’s quite a rare thing to find people who can do that.”
Originally from Ohio, Aaron, 34, studied architectural history at Pittsburgh University. London has been his home for the last six years.
He says: “Before Jeroboams, I worked in operations management for engineering and architecture firms.
“During that time I was doing my WSET Levels 2 and 3 just as a personal interest. When I received my results from my level 3, I thought I’d have a go at having a career in wine.
“I’d been to the Hampstead branch of Jeroboams a couple of times. When I saw them advertising the role, I looked into them and got excited because it’s a company that does a bit of everything – importing, on-trade sales, retail – so it seemed like a good place to go to learn about the industry and see where I might fit in, and how I might want to develop my career.
“I’m very happy to have made the change to wine in the last year. Working on my diploma, I think my interest is in meeting winemakers and finding wines that will excite and interest customers in the UK.
“The customers at the Hampstead and Muswell Hill shops are really open and always interested in what’s new and what’s a bit different. I enjoy chatting with them about things they haven’t experienced in terms of wine, and new regions that might be up and coming, and so I’d like to translate that into a buying role at some point.”
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.”