From cheese to crackers

06 April, 2007

Jeroboams started out in 1985 as a fromagerie and has grown by stealth to become the biggest chain of independent wine retailers in London. Graham Holter reports on an understated success story

Jeroboams is a company that appears, as was once said of David Frost, to have risen without trace. There are now eight wine merchants in the group, all in well-heeled parts of the capital; along the way it has also incorporated near-≠legendary spirits specialist Milroy's of Soho, La Reserve, Stones of Belgravia and Mr Christian's Delicatessen.

Still entirely owned by founder Peter Rich, who started out in 1985, the company also encompasses the Laytons wholesale business and has around 100 people on its payroll, generating a turnover of £20 million. Its stores are aimed squarely at City boys with large bonuses and go heavy on the Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. It must be one of the last retailers in the UK to register a big increase in New World wine purchases, though retail director Paddy Magill admits that Chardonnay sales have been "crucified" by a backlash against this Australian speciality.

Shop staff are young and quietly enthusiastic, dressed in ties and aprons "out of respect to the clients", and well-educated - though they're encouraged to tell stories about the wines they sell rather than parrot some textbook stuff about terroir. Magill admits he's never sat a wine exam in his life, but he does understand how to make a sale.

"When you're selling wine, you need a handle," he says. "Grape variety and soil type is so boring. What I feel sells wines is the story behind them: ' This was made by Dennis Lillee's best mate' or, ' You should meet this guy, he's got one eye and his dog's got three legs ...' You'll remember these stories, but most people forget the grape variety and the slopes and soil types because it's not interesting. Wine should be fun, it shouldn't be a stuffy thing."

Events and marketing manager Caroline Copland explains there are regular morning sessions for staff to help everyone familiarise themselves with the stock.

"We get staff in at 8am, which is the best time for a tasting as long as nobody cleans their teeth, and we'll go through 18 or 20 wines. Sometimes the grower will come over and talk knowledgeably about the ch‚teau or domaine," she says.

Staff usually gravitate towards Jeroboams from other parts of the wine trade. "I don't think we've recruited someone from an ad for about two years," says Magill. "We have quite a few people recently who are changing their career completely and have always had a love of wine." Ex-Majestic staff get a warm welcome thanks to their training. "The calibre of people is far higher than from Oddbins, Thresher or wherever," Magill insists.

Further expansion

Jeroboams has closed its Chancery Lane branch following an escalation in rent, and also its delicatessen in Camden Passage ("it was in the wrong area", Copland says) but is hopeful of further expansion this financial year.

"We'd like to get one in the City and maybe Canary Wharf but it really comes down to the right site," says Magill. "We've looked at some sites in the City and the rents are astronomical so we've got to be absolutely in the key area for it to work. We're looking at a minimum turnover of half a million in a single unit.

"I know some companies say 'we will open 10 stores this year', but if we don't find the right sites we won't open any.

"We try to find villagey areas. I personally would like to have one in Wimbledon village. The City would be a five-days-a-week opening. We deal with a huge amount of people in the City. In Chancery Lane we were right on the edge, near the law courts, and I don't know if you know any people in the legal profession but they like to hold on to their pennies. City boys like to spray it around a little."

Jeroboams' one brief excursion out of the capital has persuaded it that London is its natural home.

"We used to have a place in Cirencester," says Magill. "The problem is the communication. Our heart and soul is within central London. As soon as you start expanding out, you lose that feeling of togetherness."

Copland adds: "If we had 10 satellites you would reorganise your logistics, but you're not going to get 10 satellites in one†go."

Jeroboams could perhaps snap up a smaller rival and Magill does not rule this out. "If the right business came along and it fitted with our thinking there's no reason why not . We would never say never. We know we've got to keep growing."

The website is being revamped this year and, although Magill says more and more sales are happening online, some people still phone up the shops having browsed on the internet. "Wine is a personal thing," he suggests.

Not affected by downturn

While most of the wine trade wrestles with the problem of a flattening market, Jeroboams reports no slackening in sales. "The type of people we're dealing with don't really get affected by downturns. They're still going to want to drink wine and we certainly haven't felt it as yet," says Magill, banging a wooden surface for luck.

"We've just has a very good year with 2005 Bordeaux and Burgundy, which we're obviously not going to have this year, so that's been budgeted for.

"Our average bottle price is £8 or £9 but we start at £3.50. The majority of our sales are Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne followed by Italy and Spain, but the New World is growing dramatically.

"We have a few agencies , such as Moss Wood in Western Australia and Stoneburn in Marlborough, and those we're looking to expand - but again, we've got to get the right ones. We don't want to take on an agency just for the sake of it because you don't want to be lumbered with wines that nobody wants.

"Rosť is getting to saturation point. Suppliers say 'we do a rosť now' and we say 'really ...' You've got to be careful and not over-expose yourself. We take three pallets of Domaines Ott every year and sell it for £20 a bottle.

"You've got to be innovative otherwise all you're doing is holding on to the coat tails of the supermarkets. We're selling a huge amount of wine from southern France. That's why people go to independents. We have turned over every single stone in southern France to find these guys. We're always looking for small producers and that's what distinguishes independents."

Buying director Neil Sommerfelt MW spends half his year on the road and Magill reports that 95 per cent of Jeroboams' wines are bought from source. He argues this means that even everyday Bordeaux can be excellent.

"Our claret at five, six, seven and eight quid is extremely good. We deal with smaller producers. Sainsbury's and Tesco or whoever are going to need thousands of cases and a lot of the time you don't get the quality if you've got the quantity. We don't have that problem at all.

"I know Bordeaux is full of crap at the bottom end but there are some bloody good wines there if you're sniffing around. If you're sitting at your desk you're not going to find them."

Cheese still on a roll

"Cheese is still very important," says Paddy Magill. "Peter Rich wanted to introduce Londoners to what you could find on the Continent."

Jeroboams buys cheese from Britain, France and around Europe and employs an affineur (a recognised cheese expert) to source, store and sell the cheese at the peak of its development. Those who don't live near a store can join the Jeroboams Cheese Club for £30 a month, entitling them to a selection of four seasonal cheeses delivered every month.

"We import two pallets of cheese from France a week," says Magill. "When a cheese is right it's absolutely delicious but when it's wrong it's absolutely filthy. We have two walk-in fridges. You don't need run of the mill cheeses from supermarkets. Yes, you're going to pay a premium for it but don't you always when you want the best?"

Malt teasers

Milroy's of Soho deals with some 700 malt whiskies and has put its name to a range of own-labels that are now sold in Jeroboams stores and through Laytons. The smartly-packaged blended Scotch has now been joined by a selection of single malts.

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