Trading from a converted farm shed in rural Scotland, Kate McDiarmid stocks an impressive range of New World wines. Alice Whitehead visits
Though she trained as a radiographer and left her native Australia for Britain in her early 20s, Kate McDiarmid's McLaren Vale upbringing is clearly still in her blood. Some eight years ago she met and married a Perthshire farmer and turned an ancient Aberfeldy cattle shed on the Castle Menzies farm estate into a bright and spacious Aussie wine store called the House of Menzies. Today, it remains the only wine merchant in Scotland with all its stock dedicated solely to New World wines.
Were you always interested in wine?
I've never forgotten my childhood, growing up around the vineyards in Australia. Although my family wasn't making wine themselves, winemaking was part of everyday life, and right up until my late teens we would regularly visit wineries for a day out. On my 18th birthday I tasted my first bottle of Cloudy Bay. I guess you could say I was hooked.
Did you have any problems setting up?
Converting the old farm building was a long process - it was derelict when we started but we had to get planning permission because it was listed. It was important to us to design the building so that the wine could be stored and displayed correctly, and it cost £100,000 turning it into a useable space.
We have under-floor heating and insulation, which keeps the wine at an ambient temperature, as well as a dedicated temperature-controlled cellar. We've been influenced by the wineries back home too; all the wine is displayed lying down and there's a load of steel work and corrugated iron.
With a 100 per cent New World list, are you limiting your market?
We started off with an Australian-only list but then expanded to include all New World wines. A lot of people thought it was risky, but I didn't believe it was limiting my market to stock only these wines, as there is such a huge range. I adore European wines but don't have the knowledge and don't feel comfortable selling them. I think it's best to stick to what you know well and we've never been tempted to change. We've stuck to our original aim while others have changed around us.
How big is your range?
We've got 350 wines on the list and none of them are the kind you'll find in the supermarket - these are wines from smaller boutique producers and unusual regions. We have also shifted away from entry-level wines and only stock the top-end ones that have taken their place on the world stage.
What's your target customer base?
We are a unique boutique and our customers expect unique wines. We stock some wines here that you can't get anywhere else but Australia, for example. The price range is quite a big jump from your average off-licence too. Our lowest price is £5.99 and the average is £9, but we're in the central belt, and a day trip from Edinburgh, which is an affluent area.
What makes you different?
As an independent, we can concentrate on particular areas that interest our customers and us. We can specialise where the chains and supermarkets can't. We'd never dream of, or want to, compete with the big boys as a lot of the supermarkets stock New World wines that are based on price and not on quality.
We have a really strong emphasis on regionality, which people don't necessarily put together with New World ; I have a strong belief that this is the key to New World wines just as it is for European wines.
Some would say the popularity of New World wines has waned after a bumper decade - what would you say?
Our sales continue to be strong, but the biggest change we have seen has been in the styles we sell. A decade ago people wanted big and brash New World wines but now they are looking for a more refined style, particularly with regard to Australian wines. We have seen a steady increase in sales of the more delicate, elegant wines with a European feel and lower alcohol.
Any plans for expansion?
My husband Mike and I have always joked that we will set up an Old World-only shop! But maybe not ... we have decided to expand the business as a whole, though, which already includes a restaurant, coffee shop and gallery, and we are planning to convert some more farm buildings, perhaps to create a larger wine shop.
Top tip for a wine display with a difference
"I must admit I would sometimes like to make my life easier and cut the number of suppliers I deal with, but our range just wouldn't be the same .
"Instead, we took the decision to display the wines by grape variety rather than region or producer and this has made it much easier for us to sort the wine. It works especially well for New World wines. I think customers were a bit shocked at the start because they were used to a conventional layout - by region - but over the years they have learned to appreciate the way it works.
" These days customers understand hundreds of different grape varieties and, with our system, can go straight to the type of wine they like."