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Q&A with Tim O’Connell, DesignWine

This week the drinks business talks to Tim O’Connell, the American founder of online Italian wine merchant DesignWine

Why the name? I chose DesignWine because of my passion for both wine and design. I used to work in the design industry, and as with design, good wine is made by dynamic people putting everything they can into a product. Fine wine isn’t a commodity, it’s a work of art, and its makers are craftsmen, so I liked the idea of “designer” wines. You can buy Ikea wines in the supermarket – our business caters for those seeking occasion wines. The people behind the wines are very important to us; there has to be a story to tell. We aren’t interested in wines from faceless co-operatives, but small growers keeping their business in the family. I make a point of getting to know the husbands and wives of the winemakers – it’s a lot of work, but incredibly rewarding.

And why Italy? I really wanted to specialise in one country, and I live in northern Italy, so it made sense. We’ll never cover the entire Italian market – we’ve just scratched the surface. To expand to other countries would be to be work on a superficial level. We want to dig down deep and really get to the heart of the market, educating people about wines they’ve never heard of. I’m passionate about unearthing hidden gems made from indigenous Italian varieties like Cannonau and Vermentino, which we try and explain in a digestible way on our blog. I want to keep the range a manageable size so we stay quality focused.

What drove you to be an online operation? The online business model is the best way to reach a wide audience and get our wines out to people. Not having a physical shop means our overheads are lower. We wanted to keep things as simple as possible and work directly with consumers. We never request to be exclusive, but a lot of our wines aren’t available anywhere else in the UK. We started out just selling in Italy and launched in the UK this summer, offering next day delivery and the option of three-bottle cases to encourage people to experiment.

How do you think Italian wine is perceived in the UK? There’s too much focus on cheap Italian wines at one end, and experts honing in on a handful of exclusive wines at the other. The gap between the Super Tuscans and supermarket plonk is enormous. There’s huge opportunity for growth in the middle of the market, and that’s where we come in.

Tell me an interesting fact about yourself… While studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was roommates with one of the founders of satirical newspaper The Onion. I remember hanging out with him and coming up with some of the first stories for the paper, one of them involving a photo of the Governor of Wisconsin in an uncompromising position and a suitably lewd caption, which nearly resulted in a law suit.

What’s your ultimate food and wine match? Neapolitan pizza with buffalo mozzarella, Prosciutto and olives, and Amarone. We have regular pizza and Amarone nights with the staff. Some people might be snobby about the idea, but trust me, it’s the most divine combination imaginable.

How about your ideal wine and music match? Brunello with ACDC.

Speaking of music, what’s on your iPod? This is going to sound really geeky, but the last thing I downloaded was a philosophy course from Yale University from iTunes U. To chill out, I listen to everything from Alicia Keys and Outkast to The Cardigans.

And finally, what’s your life philosophy? To live. We spend so much time thinking we forget to live.

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