Set in Stone
Staffordshire turned out to be the ideal location for Francis Peel, who arrived at Whitebridge Wines via Chichester and Oxford. The business operates from a large warehouse on an old industrial estate, and counts surgeons and parish priests among its core customers, as Graham Holter discovers
Like so many people in the wine trade, Francis Peel joined its ranks “when I graduated from university and realised I didn’t want to get a proper job”.
He recalls: “I used to drive up to London and buy a couple of cases of wine from the cash and carry under London Bridge, and Wigmore Wines, who were in that neck of the woods, and sell it to our local pub and my old college at university.”
Peel graduated from Oxford with a degree in theology. “My father was a parson and it was something I was interested in, but more as an academic subject,” he says.
“After three years of studying it I decided I definitely didn’t want to go into the church – though it has always been an interest. One of the big things we do is communion wine. We supply about 3,000 churches with communion wine – which is one of the things that isn’t going so well at the moment.”
How did Peel come to settle in Stone, a small market town south of Stoke-on-Trent?
“I was born in Blackpool; my father was a school chaplain up there,” he says. “He retired to the south coast near Chichester, so I spent a formative 10 years of my life there, then we moved to Oxford.
“When I originally set up, I had a business partner and he came from Stoke-on-Trent. After the Oxford company had been going for three or four years, we saw this company, Whitebridge Wines, was struggling and we bought half of it and a year later bought the other half.
Then I moved up to run that and left my brothers to run the Oxford business, which was called Value Wines. Whitebridge became bigger so we concentrated everything up in Staffordshire where there aren’t so many wine merchants.”
The premises is situated on an old industrial estate on the edge of the town. By Peel’s own admission, it’s nothing particularly special to look at. But inside there’s a useful 7,000 square feet of space to work with – roughly the equivalent of 10 squash courts. At any one time there’s likely to be something like 750 lines on display.
“It’s quite TARDIS-like,” says Peel. “We’ve laid it all out with the wine bottles laid down; they are standing up around the sides. We have a lot of surgeons, and they like to take their wine quite seriously – they like to wander around and stroke the bottles.”
How much wine is directly shipped and how much comes from UK agents?
Probably more comes from the UK agents. I love Champagne and we have two small growers that we ship from.
I remember shipping a very tentative 25 cases thinking, “gosh, will I ever sell it?” and we’ve carried on selling their wines ever since. We ship from Burgundy, from Italy and increasingly from Spain; we do a lot of Cava from Castillo de Perelada. I’d just shipped three pallets over when lockdown hit – it was supposed to be for my daughter’s wedding, but that got postponed.
In the UK we deal with North South Wines, Boutinot, Milestone, Seckford and they provide me with the stuff we are not shipping, and for the rest I would rather go out and source it myself.
Are you worried about what will happen after January with Brexit?
We have to try and make people listen. My local MP at work is Sir Bill Cash and my home MP is Owen Pattison and the two of them don’t respond to my entreaties to try and get some sense into the whole thing.
I think it’s going to be very, very difficult. The pound was 1.17 at the beginning of the year and it’s now 1.10, and that’s only going to get worse if we don’t get a deal.
What’s your plan?
What we’ve done each time we’ve come close to the cliff edge is ship a whole load of stock in. It’s not ideal and January 1 is not when you want to be sitting on a whole load of stock, but I think we’re going to have to do that unless something is resolved. I always had this belief that the government knew what it was doing but the older I get and the more we go down this route, you think, well, actually they haven’t got a clue what they are doing.
How much of your business would typically be retail versus wholesale?
Probably about 70% wholesale. It’s always difficult to know what you’d count as wholesale. Probably about 15% communion wine.
How has your trade been over the past few months?
I would say down by about 10%. When lockdown started, if someone had told me I’d be down by 10% I’d have snapped their arm off.
We’ve had a very good response from the general public. We’ve been sending out a newsletter every week with special cases on it. We’ve sold over 500 cases like that. It’s something we should have been doing ages ago – it’s focused our minds. We were too busy with the trade and everything else. We have felt that we’ve done something good and helped people out.
We’ve got two vans and they’ve been pretty full on, going out to addresses that we’ve never been to before.
In our recent reader survey, you said you are hopeful of retaining about 75% of your new customers.
I may be being slightly optimistic. It depends what you mean by retain – if you mean retain them in the same way, possibly not.
They might not be buying on a weekly basis: they may buy once a month or once every six months or they might just come to us for weddings and parties.
I think, of the people who have come to us, there seems to have been a genuine feeling of wanting to change their buying patterns. Had lockdown gone on for only two or three weeks, then I don’t think people would have changed their buying patterns.
Have you seen an increase in sales of wines under £10?
I think often people didn’t realise that we do supply wine at a fiver a bottle. I’ve always been quite keen on going to my big suppliers in the UK and asking if they’ve got something with a bit of tartrate crystal in it or whatever … it might be that we can sell it to people.
We had a wonderful one once from Boutinot – a Pinotage that had Chenin Blanc on the back label and so we managed to buy a couple of pallets of that. If people are having a dinner party, they love to say, “I’ve got this, it’s got Chenin Blanc on the back – it was a real bargain”.
I find it much more interesting to find something that I can sell at that price. We do a lot of Loire wines at about £9 a bottle. You can’t re-invent Mouton-Rothschild, can you?
I once had an exciting moment when sadly one of my customers died and his children asked me to look through his cellar. There was loads of absolute rubbish like some Cinzano magnums and things and then I found a little lock-up bit underneath the stairs.
I got down to the very bottom rung, pulled out something and started to scrape of the dust and found two bottles of Mouton ’45, just sitting there – that was a very exciting moment. It was very difficult getting someone to buy it because of provenance. I knew it was genuine. Bonhams took it on but Christie’s wouldn’t touch it!
I’m not really in the fine wine market. For the first time in years I have just bought en primeur claret because I think it was looking like good value for once. Selling something that I can find and pass on to my customers for under £10 is much more interesting to me than selling first growths.
You seem to be enjoying making the Facebook videos for customers.
It’s the thespian in me I suppose – I’ve always enjoyed the sound of my own voice! It’s quite fun, and people seem to enjoy it.
It was tricky when we couldn’t let people into the warehouse – that felt very wrong. But we are blessed to have such an enormous space and we’ve made some changes and removed some of the bottlenecks so we can easily have 20 or 30 people in at a time without compromising the social distancing.
How many people work for you?
We bubbled. I’ve got a friend who runs a nursing home up in Yorkshire and I remember talking to him right at the beginning of this and he said you need to split your team into two. So my wife [Patti] and I work three days a week and I have three others working the other three days. I’m happily sitting here at home working in the office, but not in the office.
Are customers being as diligent with their Covid precautions?
Most of our customers are pretty good. The ones who are most at risk are generally the least careful – when they wear their masks they tend to wear them around their chin. The only other people who seem to be a bit careless are the surgeons!
In terms of what you like to drink – what wines excite you at the moment?
I’ve always been a Francophile at heart and I love Champagne. I have a lot of time for Spain and Italy. I’m quite keen on Chilean wine. Not too keen on American – when Rees-Mogg told us from the House of Commons that we don’t need to be drinking European wine because there’s plenty of Californians … they don’t really float my boat. Too expensive and too full-on, really.
What about spirits?
We do a range of spirits. I prefer proper spirits – whiskies and Armagnacs, Cognacs and things that have been aged properly. We haven’t gone down the gin route. To me most of it is flavoured vodka. Danny Cameron [at Dyfi Distillery, in Wales] makes proper gin.
We do have a wall of vintage Armagnacs but it’s very difficult to get hold of vintage Cognac. The reason we’ve done Armagnac is that it’s anniversary vintages and it’s my pension fund. We’ve always worked with Frapin on Cognac.
Tell us about the communion wine.
I was fed up with the quality of communion wine. I was the server in our church and if the vicar doesn’t finish it the server has to glug it down – it all has to be finished – and there was some pretty ropey stuff.
Back in 2007 I asked Ehrmanns, because they were big into Fairtrade, if they could make a communion wine. It has to have 100g of residual sugar and you have to have red and white because the Roman Catholics prefer white – it’s all down to transubstantiation – a long story there.
I tried to get the South Africans to do it initially, but they weren’t interested. There was a cooperative in Chile that agreed to do it for us, but the minimum order was 10,000 six-bottle cases.
If you ship 10,000 six-bottle cases of Chablis and you can’t get it to market, it’s fine, you just reduce the price. But if you have something with 100g RS and a crucifix on the front, it’s not so easy to sell if it doesn’t work out.
It worked really well until unfortunately the cooperative in Chile went into receivership in 2008 and luckily Stellar agreed to take it over and actually, they are a much better producer. So the quality of communion wine has got markedly better.
Is it big business for you?
We’re selling about 40,000 bottles a year. That was increasing but that has dropped off because they have withdrawn the chalice.
This is exactly what happened with swine flu, we lost it for nine months, but this is going to be worse.
I can’t see when it will come back properly. It all has to come out of a single chalice – the Methodists have little shot glasses and I think that’s the only way. I keep writing letters to the archbishop, who doesn’t respond.
How do you begin to wholesale to the Church community?
The Church has absolutely no centralised buying whatsoever. We just go to the churches direct.
If you make a commitment to be Fairtrade, then you buy Fairtrade wherever you can. Most churches are Fairtrade and we are the only Fairtrade communion wine.
We’ve been doing it for over 10 years so we’ve built up a good relationship with Stellar. We’re just going to have to suck it and see, and hope that the Bishops Council come to a satisfactory conclusion that allows people to go back to church and take communion.
Do you have it on your shelf as communion wine?
Yes. People come in to buy their case of what they call Father Ted, because they like it.
The red is made from super-ripe Ruby Cabernet and the white is made from Muscat and Chenin Blanc. We’re selling it at £7 a bottle and if you like a sweet wine, it is pretty drinkable.
I’ve put it on at a blind tasting dinner and surprised people by telling them it’s a communion wine.
Is there any ritual involved in making communion wine?
No, all the ritual happens in the church. All that you want is that it will be sweet because of the longevity thing. Initially it was 15% because it was lightly fortified.
Once you go over 15% you are paying the extra duty. The South African authorities said that if it was fortified it had to be up to 16% – so we had to reduce the alcohol level to about 12.5% and I was worried because in a small church, if you are opening a bottle of communion wine you need it to last for a couple of months. I was worried that dropping the alcohol content would affect the longevity.
It’s the sugar that’s the antioxidant so we keep opening bottles and assessing them over a few weeks. The winemaker from Stellar came over a couple of years ago and I asked him to taste and guess when a bottle was opened. He said, “two weeks ago”, but I’d opened it five months previously.
Is it possible to plan ahead just now? Where might the business be in five years?
The trade is gradually coming back at the moment, but I am worried about wedding venues; they are really up against it.
We will concentrate more on the public. I’ve got a very good team and my landlord’s son has just joined us on the sales side. He was at Majestic in London, and Avery’s.
My children have all got their own jobs and none of them will come and take over.
I’m certainly not retiring just yet. When you’ve done this job for 35 years, you want a bit more free time and this is something that the whole Covid-19 thing has done.
I’m now working three days a week from home – I enjoy that, I find I get more done. It’s been an interesting lesson to learn. I might do a little bit less over the years. Since the children grew up and left home, we’ve been able to travel more.
How are you handling trade accounts and credit terms?
We have a lot of our trade accounts paid for by credit card – you try and help where you can, but you certainly keep a closer eye on it.
It’s going to be a challenge but I’m quite impressed how the on-trade are coping at the moment. Even the small restaurants are now beginning to come back and they all seem to be relatively positive.
How are you discovering new stuff – are you able to keep an eye on trends?
We’ve found quite a lot of new wines at tastings before things started to shut down. The UK suppliers are pretty good at sending samples if you say you’re interested in particular things. Despite lockdown we’ve brought in quite a few new wines.
I think tastings are possible if you limit the numbers and even give them time slots and maybe go round the room in a certain direction. I can’t see why that can’t be managed.
You can manage for six months – that’s not a problem, but if next spring if we can’t go out and taste, that’s going to have an impact.