Former RAF engineer Tim Pearce changed course to bring quality wines to a not-quite-so remote corner of south west England. Nigel Huddleston pays a visit to Tim’s Wines
When Tim Pearce decided to wind down his lucrative aeronautical engineering consultancy, opening a wine shop was third on a list of three alternative career options.
The first was a hang-gliding school in Spain, where the climate makes it more of an all-year business proposition than it does in the UK. That idea was scuppered by arcane Spanish property laws.
The second was to buy a golf course in the UK, but there was just nothing on the market that fit the bill.
So a wine shop it was – and Tim’s Wines opened in the Somerset village of South Petherton in the spring of 2017.
“This little shop came up,” recalls Tim. “It used to be a ladies’ fashion shop.
“I didn’t know the village but it looked really nice. We only lived seven miles away in Long Sutton but never came here.”
With its stone-built shops and houses, red phone box and old-school indie traders, South Petherton village centre feels remote, but it’s actually only two minutes’ drive from the A303, the busy road that connects London with south west England via Stonehenge.
“We used to drive past it all the time on the A303 and didn’t even realise it was here,” adds Tim.
He’d done a lot of international travelling during an RAF career as an engineering officer looking after Nimrod, Hawk, Tornado and Hercules aircraft. After realising that his consultancy business was requiring him to be away from home even more than he had been during his RAF days, he embarked on a big career change.
“It took a little while to come down to a slower pace of life,” he says. “It was like chalk and cheese in terms of stress levels.
“I was playing at it a little bit at first, but then I realised I really enjoyed the atmosphere and meeting people and talking about wines.”
What was the attraction of the village location?
There are over 4,000 residents but you don’t realise because it’s so spread out. There are other lovely little villages around here as well. We’ve had a big influx from London and the south east since the pandemic, so house prices have gone sky high. Properties are only on the market for a day and get lots of offers.
When I first looked at doing a shop, there was The Vineyard in Sherborne, a wine shop in Taunton and Santé in Wells but there was nothing in between. There were lot of really well-heeled villages and nothing to serve them.
We used to buy our own wines from Santé. When I told them I was setting up a wine shop [David Schroetter] said he was disappointed because one of his best customers would disappear.
But they were really good in helping me to set up and connecting me with other people.
What is the local business community like?
When I came here I started a business association to try and get shops to see how they could build on what they’ve got by working together, because it was very much everyone doing their own little thing.
It worked for a little while, but they all went back into their shells when the pandemic came. It was a bit of shame. But there are some new businesses who’ve now come in and have a bit more drive. The others are generational businesses that get passed on; some still see it as Victorian times. They’d have a horse and cart if they could. It’s good to have that feel, but it’s also good to have people who are looking at the 21st century and how they can do things differently.
How many people work in the business?
There’s just me really. If we go on holiday we just close. My son Gavin’s a graphic designer and comes in and covers for me sometimes. Other people have offered to help out, but you need to make sure they’re the right personality, to give out the right message and understand the wines as well. We don’t want customers to find someone who doesn’t know anything about the wines.
Gavin’s like a sponge. I talk to him about the wines and he just memorises it all – and he can talk about them better than I can. Everyone says he’s great. I’m lucky he’s a good little sponge.
How does that approach stand up financially?
I can afford to do it. I’d invested in fine wines through Berry Bros way back, so I sold those wines and used that money to stock the shop. I’d bought them as an investment and never touched any of them for 15 years. I even forgot about it to be honest. I didn’t want to sell those wines in here because they’d have been too expensive, especially to start establishing a market.
We had savings as well but thought, why use that if we don’t have to? We’ve made four times what we’ve got from selling those wines, so it was a good investment.
Which suppliers have been supportive?
Initially, I used Fields Morris & Verdin; they were brilliant. They came down and stayed for a couple of days and let us try lots of wines. They were planning to come for a day and they stayed for three days and we got a good selection.
Unfortunately, just before the pandemic, BBR cut the legs from under FMV. Lizzy Rudd sent a nice letter but then we were left looking round to search out wines from elsewhere.
After losing a big supplier like that there’s been a bit of churn through the pandemic to get the stock right.
After that, I use Liberty, Ellis Wines, Bancroft, a little bit of Delibo. The rest I shop around and pick wines I like and can wax lyrical about to customers.
There’s a lovely hotel and restaurant at Bruton, nearby, called The Newt, run by the people who own the Babylonstoren wine estate in Stellenbosch. [Koos Bekker] made his money in telecoms and now he imports his wines to the UK. They’re selling really well. It’s another arm that’s local and easy to restock. I don’t need to order lots of wine from them. I just ring them up and say, “we need a dozen of this and a dozen of that”, and they just bring them out.
What about the shop design?
We used a local firm to decorate the place. There’s a sawmill down the road. My idea was to get scaffolding poles and planks and put them round the walls.
They told me I could buy sycamore wood for the same price as a scaffolding plank. He cut and smoothed it down and all we needed to do was put Danish oil on it. We got some oak blocks to put the shelves on. They cut them to the right shape, because it’s a rhombus shape, and I put them in.
And the name – why just Tim’s?
I looked at other wine shop names and think they can be quite corny.
I asked Gavin to do a logo and think about names. He came up with some names and we went through a whole load of them, but we decided to just keep it simple. It works and people like it. It’s easy to remember.
They still come in ask my name though. And when Gavin’s in they call him Tim as well.
Turnover quadrupled in 2020. I’ve kept probably three-quarters of that. I think independents thrived if they moved with the times and did Zoom tastings and delivered to people
Is it rented or freehold?
It’s a lease. There’s a flat above and a flat below. It would be great if I could take over the cellar but they wanted too much rent for it, so I store wine in my double garage. The owner asked me if I wanted to buy the building but I’m 60 now: do I really want to take that on?
We leased for two years initially to see how it went and it’s gone really well. A lot of people said we’d never sell wine in this village – “what’s a wine shop doing here?” We said, “if you don’t try …”
How did you change those perceptions?
When we opened I had the front open and just stood by the railings outside and chatted to people as they went past. It just created the right atmosphere with the locals, to make sure they knew we weren’t too standoffish. I also started putting funnies outside on the board and that got people talking about us. It’s a nice village and people are very friendly.
One thing that’s striking is it that although the shop is small it doesn’t feel cramped.
I haven’t overpacked it with wine. I could have gone a shelf higher and extended things out to cover the space but I didn’t really want to do that. You can have a relatively small selection of wines and cover almost every base.
If someone comes in and says they like a particular wine I’ll go and get it. We’ve had Jordanian, Lebanese, Romanian and Hungarian wine. If they’ve been away somewhere and liked the wine, why not do what you can for them? That’s what we supply, really: individuality.
Where did your own passion for wine come from?
Before the forces I never really enjoyed wine. In the 1970s it was all Piesporter and Blue Nun – the German stuff. When I joined up I went away a lot and you’re always on good rates of pay and allowances for hotels – and you eat in those hotels and they’ve got fine wine. I tried different wines and just got a taste for it really. In every officers’ mess bar you get good wines.
What are your own favourites?
I love full-bodied wines; I love Argentina, I love Australia, I love South Africa, because their reds are deeper and more full-bodied. But there are occasions when I love a fine Beaujolais or Pinot. It depends what you’re eating and who the company is. I’ve got a broad palate. I did WSET Level 3 to learn about wines. I thought I had some knowledge, but you realise how little you know.
So, how have the last two years been for the business?
Turnover quadrupled in 2020. I’ve kept probably three-quarters of that. I think independents thrived if they moved with the times and did Zoom tastings and delivered to people. I see in The Wine Merchant that places have shut and I wonder why, because really the market has jumped up. People wanted to still be able to have something really nice and not have to stand in a supermarket queue. They were willing to pay a bit more because they didn’t have to go out.
How did you make the most of that time?
During the pandemic we did more of a delivery service; we closed at 4pm and did deliveries at the end of the day. The pub was doing takeaway wine and beer at first but that got taken away from them. We were very lucky in that respect.
We were open but it was two people maximum. Ever since we started we’ve been doing evening wine tastings in here; we can get 12 to 15 people in the shop but it’s bit cosy. We did them monthly before the pandemic and after that I brought in Zoom tastings. What started it off was a local company that makes solar panels, who asked me to do one because some employees had been to a tasting here and thought it would be something they could do instead of Christmas party. They had 80 employees and their partners on Teams. It was a first for me but I gave it a go.
There was me and the chief exec in their office and we sent six bottles out to all the employees. After that I did around 30 of varying sizes. I also did a private one at a campsite, for about 50 people sitting around a fire pit. It was face-to-face because it was open air. Overall, they were lucrative.
Will live events return to the shop?
I haven’t done because people are still reticent about being in close company, even though they might have been to the pub and stood cheek by jowl.
We’re doing by-the glass in the shop and we’ve got tables and chairs outside – and I spread out up the steps to the church as well. It’s a little Tuscany-like place to sit.
What is South Petherton drinking at the moment?
There’s a big market for cheap and cheerful but there’s also a good market for fine wine.
The bestseller at the top end is an Amarone from Monte del Frà. It’s deep, almost like a port, 15.5% abv. It’s got real depth to it and people just love it. It’s almost a last-thing-at-night wine after they’ve eaten, like sitting with a glass of brandy.
My mid-range is selling fantastically well: anything between £15 and £20. The customers here are knowledgeable about wines but they want gulping wines for the right time of year as well.
Any plans to replicate Tim’s elsewhere?
We’ve talked about expanding. I’m financially secure so I don’t really need to. I’m happy doing my adult sweet shop.
I’ve tried to get Gavin interested enough to have another shop he could run somewhere else, but, although he likes wines and enjoys it, it doesn’t get his creative juices going enough, like graphic design does.
I like the idea of somewhere bigger so I could have more tables and chairs and more of wine bar, as well as the wine shop. But it would take me away from it all … the payroll and so on. I don’t really want to do that. I’m happy with what I’ve got.
It was a two-year plan to see how it worked. If it hadn’t we’d have had a great cellar and just shut the shop. But it did work, and carried on working, and it’s flown from 2019 onwards, really.