Simon Hill and Liz Coombes weren’t on a mission to open a wine shop. But when the chance arose to take on a former franchise of Cambridge Wine Merchants in Salisbury, the stars seemed to align – and Artisan was born
By Nigel Huddleston
When Simon Hill and Liz Coombes were looking for a brand identity for Artisan Wine & Spirit in Salisbury city centre, inspiration came from an unlikely source: the cover of New Order’s 1985 album Brotherhood, a close-up shot of some sheet metal.
“We liked the early-80s industrial look,” says Simon. “The album was an influence as opposed to a direct copy. I’m a New Order fan. I grew up with them in Manchester and I used to go to the Hacienda in the mid-80s. The ‘carpe vinum’ writing in our window was the closest font we could find to the cover.”
The end result is less stark than that of the Brotherhood sleeve. “We want the look to be welcoming, a bit more friendly,” adds Simon. “We don’t want to scare people off. I used to go into Eastern Bloc Records in Manchester and I’d be scared stiff because the staff were so cool. You’d take a record to the counter and they’d look at you as if you were an idiot.
“We wanted people to be able to come in who didn’t know anything about wine and just have a laugh – talk about anything they want, ask daft questions and we won’t ridicule them for it.”
Simon and Liz met when working at the western England wine merchant Tanners in 1995 and have been close friends ever since. After Tanners, Simon went on to have spells in sales with Louis Latour and Peter Lehmann, and ran the European business for Australia’s Wingara. After a break from drinks helping run a family firm that organised the Manchester Marathon, he started a property development business. He moved to Salisbury in 2019 as a result of changing family circumstances.
Liz had already landed in the city some years before. She had been working for Plantation Rum distributor Identity Drinks and had previously been a wine buyer for the Co-op, and worked on the supply side of wine with Paragon Vintners and Berkmann Wine Cellars.
In March 2020, Gareth Thomas decided to call it a day after running Salisbury’s furthest franchise outpost of Cambridge Wine Merchants, and the premises’ availability and track record as the site of a wine shop provided the catalyst for Simon and Liz finally coming together to work on their own business.
“The stars certainly aligned,” says Liz.
Simon adds: “It was one of those where everything lines up and you think, it’s an opportunity that you can’t really let go.
“I wasn’t really looking to run a shop, but at the same time I’d always thought we could do a good job at it, having visited so many others through my jobs and seeing what did and didn’t work. We had a good idea of which way to go.
“We sell some expensive wines but really it’s about finding those more interesting ones at £10-£20. Rather than stocking a £30 Sancerre, let’s go and get a really interesting £12 Sauvignon Blanc from just over the boundary.
“A guy came in the other day asking what we had from California. We only have a limited range but I showed him and he said, ‘no, I don’t buy anything less than £60’. I thought, you don’t need to spend £60.”
From your time on the supply side, you say you saw what did and didn’t work. Can you expand on that?
Simon: Not trying to compete with the supermarkets is a big one. What’s the point? You’re never going to win. They don’t have a great range between the £10 and £20 mark because they’ve got to buy so much.
The £10-£20 range is our sweet spot. Our average bottle price is about 15 quid and we can sell those wines every day of the week. But we go a bit higher, with things like Taaibosch Crescendo from South Africa, which is £30, and it’s such an easy sell. Miles Mossop Chapter One Cinsault is £20 and we can’t get enough of it. It just flies out.
Does the shop have any areas of wine specialism?
Simon: South Africa. I can remember tasting South Africa wines when I was in the hotel business around 1991 and it was the old, dry, dusty South African reds.
I’ve always had a thing about South African wines not being good enough, but then I tasted the range for here and I was converted. Richard Kelley at Dreyfus Ashby came and showed us a really good selection.
They’re just really good value. There are some brilliant wines and we’re fast becoming a South Africa specialist.
What are your personal passions in wine?
Simon: The next bottle! Spanish and Italian: I love eating, and Italian wines are just made for food.
Liz: South Africa and New Zealand for me. I’ve spent so much time being involved with both of them. There’s so much potential, especially in South Africa. It’s really exciting. We had a South African producer – not of one of our wines – who came in before Christmas and said we had one of the best South African ranges she’d seen anywhere. It really made my day. And then gin and rum for me too.
How’s rum doing in Salisbury?
Liz: We can’t get enough of it. We sell more rum than we do whisky, perhaps because I know the rums inside out.
Simon: Whisky’s picking up, as we develop the range and understand where we can get good value whiskies and be competitive. If you’re buying from an agency company, they’ve got to put their margin on and you can find yourself selling things that are £10 dearer than they are on the Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt or Amazon. But if we go direct to the producer we can actually compete.
Liz: Vermouth is important to us. It’s a slow burn for Salisbury. We did a vermouth and tapas night a few weeks ago at a local pub, and that was really cool. We had 25 customers and a supplier who took us through six vermouths, and they all left saying they hadn’t appreciated before that there was so much diversity.
Simon: We’ve got the cocktail ones and the sippers: acacia wood, oak, special limited editions, a Monastrell one from Spain, and the red Montenaro aperitivo. Add that to Mosgaard tangerine gin from Denmark and you’ve got the ultimate Negroni.
Who are your main suppliers?
Simon: We’re part of Vindependents. That makes up a good whack of the range, probably about 40%. Boutinot, Thorman Hunt, Dreyfus Ashby, Hayward Bros and Hatch Mansfield have all been really good.
Being with Vindependents gives us access to some really good Burgundy growers. Burgundy’s always expensive but we can ship directly from Burgundy and get some wines that are good value for money and punch above their weight.
With the spirits we try to go direct, which is very important, because of the margins and because we do a lot of local gins anyway. We also do really well with English wine from Lyme Bay. There’s another great English wine from Danebury Vineyards up the road, a Madeleine Angevine for £12.50, which is really good value. We’re still struggling to find a decent English red.
How do you split roles? Is one of you the buyer or is it a collaborative effort?
Liz: There are roles within the business that have naturally developed. Si’s the business brains and I tend to do all the social media, events and the marketing side. But the buying side is 100% a joint effort across the board. If one of us were to take responsibility for a particular country or category, the other one wouldn’t be invested in it.
Simon: We make sure we taste everything. We had to take a leap of faith to start off with on a couple of wines that we wanted, where couldn’t get hold of samples, but now we refuse to list anything if we haven’t tasted it. There’s no point. We need to be able to say to people, “this is what it tastes like”.
How have you raised awareness of Artisan in the city?
Simon: Events have become a big thing in our portfolio. It gets people to interact with us and allows us to focus on certain products.
Our big spring tasting is in the Guildhall. We’ve sold out and have got 250 people coming. We did a pre-Christmas one at the local grammar school which was 165 people. We only planned to do a Christmas one, but so many people on the way out were asking if we were going to do a spring or summer one, so we have.
We usually come up with a theme and pair wine with food. We did a Six Nations thing where for Scotland v Ireland we paired off two Scotch and Irish whiskeys. Then we did France v Italy with two red wines, and then for dessert we did English v Welsh gin with Welsh cakes and English gin trifles.
The big one is going to be our jubilee event at Arundells which is where [ex-prime minster] Ted Heath used to live on Cathedral Close. It’s an amazing Georgian house. We did a tasting there last summer with food, wine and music in the garden that went down a storm.
What does your other marketing look like?
Liz: Social media definitely works for us. If I post on Friday morning about grabbing a gin and tonic on the way home, people will come in and say they saw our Instagram.
When I do a post I’ll try to make it in front of an iconic Salisbury location. You often get skateboarding outside the Guildhall, and we got one of a bottle of a sparkling wine with a skateboarder in mid air over it. I took a new gin to the cathedral the other day and it happened to be when the BBC were filming Great Expectations up there.
We collaborate with a lot of other businesses and we’re getting approached by other indies as well. There’s a swanky jeweller on the market square [just yards away from the shop] and we linked up with them, a florist and baker up the road for a Mother’s Day giveaway, which generated a huge amount of interest: “If you follow all of us we’ll pick one winner at random.” You would turn on the phone and see them popping up. There were over 100 new followers for the cost of a bottle of Bolney sparkling wine.
Has the city centre returned to normal since the lockdowns?
Liz: In 2021, there were 21 new independent businesses that opened in the city centre, which is amazing for a pandemic. It’s such a good city to be an indie in. There will always be moaners who won’t go into the city centre but generally there is so much support for people like us, and if you can work with the other businesses it grows awareness for everyone.
Simon: It is getting busier. Someone did a measure of increases in footfall last year and I think Salisbury was seventh or eighth in the country.
Having launched in the pandemic, what have been the biggest challenges?
Simon: The biggest is logistics issues caused by Brexit and foreign workers going back to Europe, leaving certain suppliers without any staff.
The increased bureaucracy that the bonded warehouses have had to undertake because of Brexit – you can probably tell I’m not a fan – has led to some ridiculous delays.
We were trying to get some Armagnac for Christmas and LCB had pallets of it but just said they weren’t clearing any more. We could have sold cases and cases of it but they just couldn’t cope at the warehouse and get it booked on the system so it could be delivered out. Another supplier, their systems just imploded.
Vindependents have excelled in tackling these issues. When everything gets shipped in from different countries the paperwork is unbelievable. They set up a consolidation warehouse in France. Everything goes into there and one delivery goes from there into the UK, so there’s one set of paperwork. That’s saved a lot of money and made life a lot easier.
Are you doing e-commerce?
Simon: Technically! We’ve got a website, but there are only so many hours in the day and running a website is pretty much a full-time job. We plug all the events through it and we do get a few bits and bobs [in sales], but it’s maybe something we’ll develop more in the future.
Keeping it up to date is such a hard job. It’s a bit like cleaning your house. If you don’t do it for a few weeks, it’s a massive job, but if you do it little and often …
Is wholesale important to you?
Simon: It will be. We’ve got a few little wholesale accounts. We started off with one range and realised it wasn’t perfect. We completely got rid of it in January and had a clear-the-decks sale of mystery mixed cases for a minimum of a 25% discount.
We did a big tasting of a whole load of new things and, rather than have three or four of something, decided to just have one. You only really need one Australian Chardonnay, or one Australian Shiraz.
We don’t go and have a day in the trade selling to potential customers but as and when they come along, we’ll interact with them. We want people who want to work with us, rather than to strongarm someone into doing so.
We’d really struggle to be the cheapest [in wholesale] because our focus isn’t on the cheapest wines.
We’ve actually found a really good value Chardonnay. We could go and find a cheaper one, but as an Aussie winemaker once said to me, “you wouldn’t wash your dog in it”. I don’t know exactly what that meant but it sounded good. The point is, everything we sell has got to be something we’d happily drink.