The Twisted Cellar, Bishops Stortford

Iain Allcott

We don’t scream ‘wine shop’

It’s two years since The Twisted Cellar opened in Bishops Stortford – a little slice of rural French chic in Hertfordshire. From the beginning, the business has tried to put its own slant on what wine retailing is about, as its director of hydration tells Graham Holter

The Twisted Cellar is a wine shop that enjoys looking not very much like a wine shop.

“The layout of the shop is meant to mimic a French vineyard house,” explains Iain Allcott. He doesn’t own the business, but effectively runs it in his role as director of hydration.

“So you’ve got the front garden, then you come in through the living room and you move through to the kitchen where all the wines are displayed on the walls.

“The designer, Jay Cole, is great – he can turn any space in to a gorgeous events spot. He gave so much character to the shop. We don’t scream “wine shop” – you have to step in and then you realise it’s a wine shop. It’s like you are transported into a different world almost.

“It might perplex people at times but once they know we are here, they come back and they tell all their friends. Word of mouth really is the best form of marketing.”

The shop was established in Bishops Stortford in the summer of 2018 by Joe and Sharon Grice. Allcott came on board last year, following the departure of Jonathan Kleeman.

“I’d known Joe and Sharon for quite a long time,” says Allcott.

“When they initially approached me I was running a nice little gastropub with a fantastic wine list. I wanted to have a bit of a break and go travelling and I went off around Europe for a few months.

“It started off more as a shop, but over time it has evolved into mix of a bar space and a retail space. We just saw the demand for people wanting a grown-up place to drink wine.

“It’s gone from strength to strength. Christmas was absolutely stonking and then [coronavirus] blind-sided us a little bit.”

Allcott describes Bishops Stortford as “a traditional old market town” which is populated by commuters thanks to its direct train link to Liverpool Street.

“There’s a good mix of fairly affluent people,” he says. “We are situated on the main high street surrounded by some good bars and restaurants as well as some more traditional high street shops.”

French farmhouse chic

Is the shop open now?
Yes, we’re now in the second week since re-opening. It’s had to change a little bit. Obviously we’ve had to reduce numbers.

Our online orders had done superbly well as people are stuck at home. It has boosted our online business considerably.

What was your policy early on in lockdown? Were you focusing on crowd-pleasing wines around £10 or selling more upmarket stuff?
A good mix, to be honest. Over the past couple of years we’ve built up a regular local clientele and a lot of them know what we do and what we try to achieve with our wine list.

We try to cover most of the bases from £10 bottles to the esoteric quirkier ones.

We’ve been selling a great combination of the more natural or biodynamic wines that tend to be more fashionable now as well as the reasonable everyday wines. Orders of 18 to 24 bottles tend to consist of the reasonably priced wines.

Your job is director of hydration – what does that involve?
I’m the director of sales and buying. I manage the staffing, the buying of the wines, spirits, all the beers etc. I oversee the functionality and the management of The Twisted Cellar. It’s a bit of an all-encompassing title really.

How much are Joe and Sharon involved?
They pretty much give me free rein, within reason. I’ve worked in hospitality for a fairly long time. Joe is an accountant by trade, so he looks after the accounts. In terms of visibility they are here every day, but they are happy for me to have the creative freedom to choose the wines. I’m given quarterly budgets, that kind of thing.

Because of Covid we are going through a transitionary period. We were planning to open a second store over in Epping in June. We’d agreed on premises and met with a designer but we’ve had to put that on hold, probably until next year. So we’ve decided to focus a bit more online. And we’ve got a young man called Hallam Tweddell who runs the marketing and online side of the business.

We’re moving a lot of the stock we had on the premises to a new warehouse. We were running our wholesaling operation out of here so we’re moving that to the warehouse now.

At least for the foreseeable future there is going to be a huge focus on ordering wine online as people still feel unsure about going out.

A lot of merchants have been forced to upgrade their websites recently – did you have to do a bit of tinkering to cope with the new way of working?
We were already pushing the online side of things and we had that up and running throughout Christmas and it grew massively throughout that period.

We had the whole thing pretty much set up. The only thing that’s changed on our website is the stock range. We decided to include more niche products. I’ve extended the biodynamic and natural wines and they’ve been doing really well. I’d say the online range has almost doubled during this period. With the warehouse opening I’m preparing to increase it even more. Hopefully we can continue riding this wave.

Bishops Stortford has an affluent commuter population

Have you been buying new stuff in?
Currently we’ve been using UK importers. We work with quite an array: Alliance, Flint, Les Caves de Pyrene, Bancroft, WoodWinters, Carte Blanche Wines. I’m always on the lookout for new suppliers with good wines that fit our ethos.

Do you import anything direct?
There are plans to get me out a bit and get our importing licence. We’ve just not been in a position to do that recently but it’s definitely something we want to do.

We have to be conscious about the social and environmental impact that we have and that’s a key element of our business – to try and be as environmentally friendly as possible.

How have you managed to try new stuff and get hold of new things, with no trade tastings to go to?
I’m a bit of a geek. I sit at home and my partner Alice probably gets a bit fed up of all the wine portfolios lying around.

I’m a big foodie and restaurant person so I often follow other sommeliers that work in top-end restaurants and see what they are talking about and recommending.

It’s a bit of everything really – staying in contact with suppliers and getting to know them, my own personal research, talking to my team to see what they want to get on the list, getting samples. I’ve not had any face-to-face meetings with reps yet, but I do have some set up.

Do you miss going to trade tastings to unearth new things?
I can’t see them coming back in the foreseeable future I suppose. But they are definitely key for all the staff. At these events you have the opportunity to try a wide array of wines.

The last one we went to was the Alliance tasting in early March. It was already weirdly quiet at that time in London as Covid was already on the horizon, but I don’t think we appreciated how serious it was going to get. I think the tastings are really important and I’d love to get back into them. To mingle and liaise with other people and hear other people’s opinions. I really can’t see them happening until there’s a vaccine. We’ve got to do what we can to keep everyone safe.

Sharon and Joe Grice with (centre) Jonathan Kleeman

What about tastings that you organise for customers?
My colleague Lucy and I ran a few Zoom events during lockdown and I think people got into the habit of getting a bottle of wine and getting together with their mates on Zoom.

It’s tricky – the way our store is laid out we haven’t really got the space to do them and ensure social distancing. I’d love to do them again but until the guidelines on social distancing change, we can’t.

Fortunately it’s not a huge part of the business: what we’ve lost in the tastings we’ve gained in other senses such as the online retail. I’m really keen to do them again though because it’s part of what I love to do.

One of the joys of tastings is to get people to try something new and they talk to their friends about it. It’s exciting and fun.

What kind of marketing do you do?
I’m a social media luddite. Hallam does a fantastic job and does all our social media. He updates it regularly and he does plenty of online marketing. Lucy Wood, who will be taking over the management of The Twisted Cellar here, her brother is a photographer and he’s been producing some videos for us.

What wines float your boat right now?
I’m thoroughly enjoying natural wines at the moment. They are interesting and bit different.

We’ve got some great wines from Partida Creus, which are Spanish natural, funky wines. You can’t beat a good, classic red Burgundy.

It’s difficult, it’s like asking you to choose your favourite child. I think it’s about suiting the wine to the occasion, the food or the person. Each wine has its own personality and it’s about matching the wine with the person rather than trying to push my agenda.

There’s not a huge amount of competition in this area for independent wine shops. It’s Tesco and Waitrose and I find their ranges sometimes quite limited and we offer a really wide selection. We have something for every palate, and that’s key, because people are more savvy about wine and more aware of what the wine world can offer.

How are spirits performing? It seems that gin sales have finally stopped climbing for lots of merchants.
I would agree that gin has probably peaked. I still every now and again get a new exciting product. There’s a relatively new gin from a Cambridge distiller called Linden Leaf and it’s one of the best gins I’ve ever tried. I’d not heard of it until the end of last year and now it’s probably our best-selling gin. You can give it to anyone and it just sings. It’s wonderfully aromatic.

I would say spiced rum, or rum in general, is seeing a big upturn because there’s a wide spectrum to appeal to different palates. Whisky is always on the radar, but that’s my personal thing – I adore whisky. Tequila I think will do something as people are starting to understand it a bit more as a serious, good quality spirit. We did a couple of tequila tastings last year and they were really good but not as popular as gin tastings. Slowly more people will start to explore it.

Henrietta

You’ve been doing a good trade off-site since lockdown started.
We’ve got a lovely mobile bar called Henrietta. It’s an old 1970s Citroen HY van which we’ve refurbed and it looks super cool.

Recently we’ve been given permission by the local council to set up in the park around the corner and in this beautiful weather it’s been thriving. We’ve done it for a few weeks now and it’s been a bit of a lifesaver as people have been keen to go for a socially distanced drink.

Initially the plan for it was to do weddings, festivals and events and we had a few bookings for over the summer, which unfortunately had to be cancelled due to Covid.

What’s the licensing arrangement for the van?
We have a temporary events notice. Hallam managed to get that to allow us to use it up until early September.

We have social distancing markers and we’ve got some waterproof beanbags so people can come down and sign up to the track-and-trace programme on their phone, then come and get a drink from us.

We have a limited selection of around nine wines by the glass. It’s quite a small van, and we’ve got gin and tonic with a choice of six or so gins and we’re working with a local brewery, serving beer on tap.

Everyone, including me, during lockdown was craving a cold pint of beer as opposed to a bottle or a can. It’s been a lovely touch to have that. Even though pubs have been allowed to re-open, it’s just not the same atmosphere and being outside in the park gives it a mini festival feel.

We have another local business that does barbecue, a South African braai-style smoked meat, and they’re next door, so it feels like an event, and with the weather on side it’s been an awesome atmosphere down there.

Is this something you’ll repeat next year, even if things get back to normal?
I think we will continue it. One disadvantage of our current store is that we don’t have any outside space and in the summer months when it’s been so hot, people want to sit outside. The Twisted Cellar is much more of an evening place, it’s cosy and intimate.

Unless we have events, such as weddings, I’m pretty sure we’ll be in the park next year too.

What about longer-term plans for the business? Is it possible to think ahead at this point?
We’d still like to push for our new shop to happen next year unless Covid continues. It will keep the same name as far as I’m aware but we’ll separate them with a unique identity.

The plan for Epping was to have an enchanted wood theme to relate to the Epping Forest location, so we’ll definitely go for a unique design per store.

August 2020