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Top London wine merchants: Modern classics

In the next of our top London wine merchants series, we take a look at five modern classics, those founded within the past 50 years, and who have established a niche for themselves for the long term.

These merchants have secured a position in our line-up not only by building a firm-footed business, but by continuously working to predict consumer trends and adapting their services to ensure they align with the demands of the market.

This ability has never been more crucial, with those merchants with a strong presence online and grasp of social media more capable of remaining buoyant throughout tough trading conditions, not least the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the most part we have focused exclusively on retailers that have a bricks and mortar element to their business, with two exceptions. We felt there were two merchants that despite not having a fixed retail unit had established themselves as modern classics in their own right, and deserved to be included in this round up.

As before, here we have taken a look at the turnover of each merchant, their range and approach to selection, as well as how they are working to meet the challenges of the future.

Click through to see our pick of London’s top ‘modern classic’ merchants…

Click here for our top five classic London wine merchants.

= 5. Goedhuis & Co Fine Wine Merchants

Founder and chairman Johnny Goedhuis

Founded: 1981
Turnover: 2019 £23.1m, vs £20.6m in 2018, up 12%

Goedhuis & Co was founded by chairman Johnny Goedhuis in 1981. Before that, Goedhuis had been employed by Corney & Barrow, and later set up Harrison, Cliff and Goedhuis in the mid 1970s, “selling screw top bottles of Cavitello from my light-blue Vauxhall Viva”. He later went into business with restaurateur and entrepreneur Mark Birley, of Mark’s Club and Annabel’s, prior to setting up Goedhuis.

Nearly 40 years later, Goedhuis & Co operates from its head office in London, offering private and commercial clients wines from producers from all around the world as well as working with the most famous established estates’ First Growth Clarets and Grand Cru Burgundies.

“We seek quality and individuality,” explains David Roberts MW, buying director, on its selection process. “We look for the very best from a given appellation reflecting overall quality and depth in style. For example, in Chablis we appreciate there are merits in and demand for both oaked and unoaked Chablis. One is not better than the other, and we seek to select the very best growers making each style.”

Working with family estates is paramount with a view to cultivating long term relationships, adds Roberts, who cites the company’s ability to ship directly from its suppliers throughout the Covid-19 crisis is a “reflection of the strength of these relationships and the producers’ willingness to go the added mile to support us”.

“The fact that many of the leading global estates, including numerous Bordeaux chateaux, are prepared to send us new release samples shows the mutual respect we enjoy. We never want to stand still.”

This year, company highlights include the release of the 2008 Champagne vintage, which was an “extraordinary success”, according to Georgina Crawley, business development director, thanks to the merchant’s close relationships with many of the major Champagne houses. Crawley also highlighted its combined campaign on Brunello 2015 and Barolo/Barbaresco 2016, and the expansion of its range with wines from Spain, USA, Australia and South Africa.

While founder and chairman, Johnny Goedhuis, continues to be active in the business, CEO Tom Stopford Sackville and managing director, Justin Randall, head up the board. The merchant also has a separate storage business, Private Reserves Ltd., based in Northamptonshire, and in 2008 opened its first international office in Hong Kong.

= 5. BI

BI’s founder, Gary Boom

Founded: 1997
Turnover: 2018 £99m, vs £80m in 2017 up 24% (NB: Most recent records available on Companies House)

BI was founded by South African-born Gary Boom with the aim of making the “world of fine wine accessible to a broader audience”. Today the company has offices in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Los Angeles, and in 2009 launched LiveTrade, the world’s first online wine trading platform.

While BI is particularly strong on Bordeaux, which has accounted for a third of its sales this year, it also offers a diverse portfolio of wines from other regions. In the first four months of 2020, sales of its Italian wines have risen by 38%, which follows on a from a 30% increase during 2019, while in the last month demand for US wines has increased by almost 50%, it reports. UK sales of rare wines and spirits increased by 32% during April, after a cautious March period, where investors “digested the impact of the coronavirus”.

“Currently there is good momentum behind US and Italian wines (the best performers in the last six months, particularly Tuscan wines where the 2015 and 2016 vintages have been very strong), so we would allocate slightly more of the portfolio than usual to these regions, alongside Bordeaux as a core backbone (including taking advantage of the current market opportunities), Champagne, and also Burgundy where we continue to see performance potential in the prime segment e.g. Rousseau,” says Matthew O’Connell, BI’s head of investment.

Whisky has also fared well with sales rising by 110% in the first four months of the year, driven by The Macallan and Bowmore as well as Japan’s Karuizawa, with the prices of top whiskies achieving gains of almost 10% so far in 2020.

On the current pandemic, BI has been largely insulated from impact. “We have easily adjusted to moving to remote working and utilising the available technology,” adds O’Connell. “Given were already online with LiveTrade, we were ahead of the transition precipitated by the pandemic.’

4. Jeroboams

Jeroboams in Knightsbridge

Founded: 1934
Locations: Knightsbridge, Belgravia (Elizabeth Street and Post Street), Holland park, Notting Hill, Kensington, Hampstead, Muswell Hill
Turnover: 2019 £25.8 vs £24.2m in 2018, up 6.9%

Jeroboams was born of Laytons, a wine merchant founded “by restaurateurs, for restaurants” in 1934. Under Laytons, the company built a strong reputation as wine suppliers to the on-trade, but expanded in 1985 to include private customers under the name Jeroboams. There are now eight bricks and mortar Jeroboams shops across London, with Jeroboams and Laytons formally merging in 2007 to create the Jeroboams Group.

Of the company’s successes in the past year, Hugh Sturges, managing director, said: “Prior to the recent turmoil caused by Covid-19, 2019/20 represented the final year of a four-year investment plan. Over this period, with strong shareholder support, Jeroboams has invested in latest generation systems, the refreshment of the brand and its look and feel, its people (in terms of training, development and career opportunity), its shops (including two new sites) and its product range. This culminated in 2019 with us having the confidence to host our first major consumer tasting at RIBA in the summer and in 2020, last week in fact, the launch of our new purpose built and mobile friendly transactional website.”

As for its wine selection, the team’s approach is firmly based on building relationships, some lasting over 30 years, and retaining exclusivity on certain labels as much as possible.

“As the majority of our range is imported into the UK exclusively by us, we mostly choose to work with smaller producers as they tend to be a better fit with our business and have values that align clearly with ours,” said Peter Mitchell MW, Jeroboams wine director. “There are clearly exceptions to this small producer ethos, notably in Champagne and Bordeaux, but the majority of our sourcing involves seeking out smaller producers whose scale makes it more difficult for them to find a home in our market and yet who are making some of the most exciting wines out there.

“We want our range to offer different producers to others and those with a real passion for what they do and a story behind the label. Whilst we have a thriving business in fine mature wines, especially from Bordeaux and Burgundy, we have a real focus on wines from Italy, as we believe this to be one of the most exciting and dynamic producing countries in the world right now. We have recently also been looking at California and South Africa, where there are any number of rapidly improving wineries not currently in the UK market.”

The merchant also offers a fine wine portfolio which is “quite fluid as it relies on what is available at a keen price, from both our contacts around the globe and from our own client’s reserves”, adds Mitchell. Often parcels selected can be as few as six bottles.

On the challenges faced by the current Covid-19 pandemic, Sturges notes the pace at which the company has had to adapt, looking after its employees while also protecting the business. Most of its shops are now open but opening hours have been restricted and reduced to a five-day week, while also introducing social distancing measures in store.

“Our business with the hospitality sector has obviously taken a terrible hit with sales down by 80%+,” he said. “Necessarily we are taking advantage of the Employment Retention Scheme, but we are also keeping on some people whose primary role is to communicate with the trade customer base, seeing how we can help or just having a chat.

“Finally, and very importantly, we have increased the resource available for building our mobile-led transactional web platform. This was scheduled to be completed in 2020 anyway but we have brought things forward, focusing on this over the last eight weeks, and I am very pleased to say that the site went live last week. I am optimistic that this will help mitigate some of the on trade sales losses as well as giving us the fourth arm for the business once things return to something resembling normality.”

3. Lea & Sandeman

Lea & Sandeman in Chiswick

Founded: 1988
Locations: Chelsea, Fulham, Kensington, Barnes and Chiswick
Turnover: 2018 £11.4m vs. £11.4 in 2017. 0% change. (To 31 December 2018. Most recent accounts filed at Companies House)

Known for its original and diverse selection, Lea & Sandeman was founded in 1988 by Charles Lea and Patrick Sandeman with the aim of bringing the “full service” of a traditional wine merchant to the High Street. In addition to offering wines for immediate drinking, it also offers Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and Italian wines en primeur and offers a range of other services to clients including cellar-planning and brokering.

Its first shop opened on the Fulham Road, with its locations since expanding to include Chelsea, Kensington, Barnes and Chiswick. In 2018, the merchant was granted a Royal Warrant of Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, which coincided with its 30th anniversary. 

Lea & Sandeman is about wines to drink – not just wines that impress at tastings,” has long been its mission statement, and it has succeeded in bridging the divide between everyday drinking and fine wines, offering value for money in either spectrum.

“More important than meeting price points, Lea and Sandeman is about value for money,” it adds. “From the very beginning this meant sourcing wines direct from growers. Although many of the domaines and growers on our list today are the same as when we started, our range has developed over the years, reflecting the introduction of both traditional and innovative producers. We are not name-buyers, we are quality buyers.”

While all Lea & Sandeman shops remain open, the merchant has recently overhauled its website, making purchasing wine online a more seamless experience, which in times such as these is more welcome than ever.

2. Philglas & Swiggot

Founded: 1991
Locations: Marylebone and Battersea shops
Turnover: Not publicly available

Philglas & Swiggot was founded in 1991 on Northcote Road in Battersea by Mike and Karen Rogers, and over the next 23 years expanded to include shops in both Marylebone and Richmond, and later Battersea. In November 2018, O’Briens Wine purchased the business, having already established itself in Ireland with 34 stores to its name since 1973. Philglas & Swiggot is now managed by Marcus O’Brien with Justin Knock MW and Lynne Coyle MW (wine director for O’Briens in Ireland) overseeing its range.

According to Knock, prior to the current pandemic Philglas & Swiggot had been enjoying its best ever trading months, “every single month this year”. In the past year, the company had worked hard to improve its online offering, which has paid off given this year’s challenges, while Knock has had more time to expand the company’s focus on its private clients, an area of the business that he says has “grown substantially” this year.

“The team has grown, adding skills and experience in areas that have improved the business and enabled existing people to focus on their competencies – business management, commercial positioning, fine wine buying and sales, on-trade – and this has made a huge difference,” says Knock. “The areas of biggest impact have been online, which has had a full upgrade and now links seamlessly with stock in stores to be more comprehensive and more accurate.”

It also carried out an extensive refurbishment of its Marylebone store into a wine bar, entering the on-trade at a somewhat difficult period. “While its completion came just before the virus crisis it means the business has a new sales and marketing channel when things begin to normalise,” adds Knock.

On its range, Knock works to place particular focus on New World wines, particularly Australia, South Africa, California, with a “distinctive character”, alongside Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Greece, the latter being a personal favourite.

“As a retailer it’s not only important to have great wine quality, we want wine that has fantastic presentation too – customers want to be proud and excited to have the bottle at home – and in a world of endless choice we have the privilege of being able to ask for both,” explains Knock. “It means that if you see a wine with an horrendous label in our store the wine quality must be absolutely spectacular.”

The business has been able to continue trading throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown “except for a few days in March,” says Knock. “We’ve very quickly upgraded the online store which has been incredible the way it has grown.”

Extra staff have been hired to make more deliveries and in-store perspex screens have been installed, along with floor markings and restricted access to three customers at a time. “That hasn’t affected daily turnover at all but makes everyone feel more comfortable,” says Knock. “Trading hours have been slightly reduced while staff have been provided staff with gloves while Downton Distillers have very donated a bottomless supply of hand sanitiser for use by everyone on the street.

“It’s become evident that many people will continue to buy online and we expect that to become more and more important over time,” adds Knock.

1. Hedonism

Founded: 2012
Locations: Mayfair shop, Hide restaurant
Turnover: 2018 £29.4 vs. £20.7m in 2017, up 42% (NB: Most recent accounts filed on Companies House)

A behemoth of wine retail, Hedonism has very quickly established itself as a firm fixture on London’s wine scene since its founding in 2012. Not least due to its impressive wonderland-like retail space in Mayfair, a space that is as much of pleasure to peruse as it is to purchase its wines, but for its recent foray into the on-trade with the opening of Hide.

The shop was closed for a period during lockdown, however the team continued to work behind closed doors, hosting online wine tastings, which have become an “instant hit”, while also offering click and collect orders and deliveries. The shop has since reopened between 12-7pm Monday to Saturday and 12-6pm on Sundays, with social distancing enforced.

In the past year, the business has redeveloped its website making online shopping more “seamless and intuitive”, says Tatiana Fokina, CEO of Hide and Hedonism. “The timing of it was perfect as we managed to launch the site just before the pandemic. April online sales have been 4.5 times the figure this time last year.”

With regard to its wine selection, Hedonism is renowned for having one of the most diverse and coveted collection of wines and spirits under one roof, with wines priced from the sub £30 category up to £100,000. (Currently a bottle of 2015 Petrus is on sale at £108,000, and a 1847 Yquem for £95,000).

“We pride ourselves on the breadth and depth of our range and the knowledge of the team that is able to source all these amazing wines and spirits,” says Fokina. “Quality is paramount. It can be an obscure wine from a new producer – if the quality is there it will make it to the shelve. We offer something for every budget having over 600 lines under £30 and every taste. From entry level, approachable and affordable products to complex rarities, collectible and unique bottles.”

On the current challenge faced by wine merchants, Fokina is counts Hedonism lucky to have retained the support of its regular customers. “As we have our own small fleet of electric delivery vans and have over the years finessed our logistics and warehousing systems we could continue our London and UK deliveries as usual,” she said. “We do still ship internationally and although there might be slight delays, these are minimal. We are down to a core team in the store as safety of our staff is crucial and currently we are putting together a plan to hopefully re-open our doors once it is prudent to do so.”

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