Sixteen years ago Buckingham Vintners chairman Cliff Roberson opened a fine wine shop at the unfashionable end of Kensington High Street, near Olympia. Today Roberson Wine is turning over some £1.4 million a year from a range dominated by vintage France and other classics, but with some more eclectic choices thrown in. Nick Burton has been managing the shop for the past six years. He joined Roberson's after a year at Oddbins - but before that spent 10 years playing guitar in Oxford indie-rock band the Candyskins, whose biggest hit, Monday Morning, reached number 34 in the charts in February 1997. Burton tells OLN about Roberson's range and his plans for the business.
How does running a wine shop compare to playing in a rock band?
I was a musician for 10 years and stumbled into the wine business. Working with Cliff Roberson is definitely not the norm, he looks like Keith Richards so it's quite rock 'n' roll. I haven't worked for that many people, but here anything is possible - a lot of the time we just try ideas and see if they work.
Were you interested in wine before you got into the trade?
Very much so. I love going to restaurants, I spend my spare time eating out with friends or cooking. My wife is in the restaurant business, so most of our money seems to go on food and wine. The worst thing is that since I've started working here my tastes have got more expensive - I used to be happy with a £9.99 wine, but I crave fine Burgundy now.
Tell us about your range.
Where we differ from other independents, especially London shops, is we've got a real depth of range - 1947 Pétrus, Cheval Blanc 1961 and 1963 ports for example. We have a full range of French and Italian wines, and a large selection of half-bottles and magnums, which you don't usually find in shops. Our most expensive wine is a 1947 Cheval Blanc for £2,000. The cheapest is a Chilean Cabernet for £4.50.
Have you made any changes to the portfolio recently?
W e went wrong in the past trying to be all things to everyone, so about four years ago we sat down and looked at what we sold. We sold fine French wine and Champagne, so we set about reducing some of the New World wine and putting more depth into our Old World vintage wine selection, which has paid off - sales are up massively, by about 20 per cent year on year. We don't need a wine from every single country - it is not a wine museum, it's a shop, and at the end of the day we have got to sell them.
I'm the man who bought the Ukrainian sparkling red. I thought that was going to sell, but it never did - we had a party when the last bottle sold . You can get it right, but you can get it really wrong sometimes. You also have to realise people's tastes change - you can't keep doing the same as you've always done, people's palates become more sophisticated, there are better wines in supermarkets and restaurants now, so you've got to try and move with the times a bit.
What other changes have you made to the business?
We want to do everything to grow our business and the last two years have been incredibly successful . We decided to look after our customers a bit better. Recently we've made some big changes - we launched a website in June - a fully interactive e-commerce website so you can buy a bottle of Mouton Rothschild even if you are in Aberdeen . We do a full calendar of tasting events and are planning to open our downstairs room as a wine library where people can sit in an armchair and read wine books . As a smart tasting room we can invite customers in to talk about wine investments.
What has been your best business idea?
Getting our customers on a mailing list so we can contact them. That affects everything we do - selling wine, tastings and monitoring what it is they have been buying so we can offer them more of the same or something we think they might like. It is a fantastic way to get offers and news around to people, and they seem to like it, too. We do a monthly newsletter by e-mail and a series of fine wine offers to people who have expressed an interest .
What other sides are there to the business?
We have a big on-trade business - we supply Gordon Ramsay, Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons and other Michelin-starred restaurants. That is why we keep such a large range - and it's constantly being added to. There is a brokering side to our business which we launched three years ago, which is hugely successful as well.
Do you have a typical customer?
They vary, but tend to be male professionals . Because the area is quite eclectic you can split it down into several groups. There are a a lot of American bankers here , renting houses in Notting Hill, and they like to drink European fine wine while they are here. Then we have got 30 to 50-year-old guys, people who earn a good wage and come in because they enjoy spending money on wine, it is very enjoyable to pick up a bottle and talk about it. They want to tell you what they have got in their cellar, what they have been drinking, and they want to be reassured.
We get a lot of Middle Eastern guys as well who love fine wine, guys from Dubai, Bahrain and places like that. It is the spending of the money, the coming into the wine shop, putting the cases in the car or selecting a mixed case of the good stuff, having it delivered - that's the fun part for those guys.
What works for your customers?
People love recommendations. When we put out an offer it is generally snapped up because people hate to think they are missing out. The world of fine wine is a finite thing, you might only have one case of something. It is a fun thing to buy and it's fun to wander around. I love walking around other people's wine shops, stealing a few ideas along the way.
You have mentioned your fine wines. Do you sell any cheaper bottles?
We like to think there is a bottle of wine for everybody here. One of our challenges is to find the best bottle of wine under £10. If people are going to be drinking a bottle of £10 Italian red with a pizza on a Friday night I want it to be the best. Selling things under £10 is as fun as selling more expensive stuff - as things are getting more expensive there are fewer amazing bargains out there, so it is like the quest for the Holy Grail. There is some amazing stuff coming out of the south of France and the south of Italy now.
I think we are the complete opposite of the high street trend - we sell hardly any Australian wine and absolutely case-loads of French, but also a lot of Argentin ian and New Zealand.
What is your biggest challenge at the moment?
There are several issues that might worry you when you are dealing in the sort of high-end products we sell. When there is any instability in the financial markets the ripples tend to go out to sales of high-performance cars, fine wines and luxury holiday destinations, but that affects the broking and trading side more. People in a crisis always reach for fine wine, as they do when times are good.
Our main problem has been that they put a camera on a pole outside our shop, where there is a loading bay, and if anyone parks outside they get a parking ticket. Transport For London is unsympathetic to a small shop's needs. It is a bit like Big Brother - people pull up to pick up a case of wine and get a ticket. We try to inform our customers that we will deliver, we will carry cases to cars, we will do everything to avoid them getting a parking ticket . We got 14 tickets on our vans before we even realised this camera had gone up.
How can independents compete with the power of supermarkets?
I think people like the idea of using an independent - they like the idea that the wines that are sold here have been bought by us because we like them. We have to work really hard to compete, especially as a couple of our competitors have closed down - Handfords in Holland Park and Corney & Barrow in Notting Hill. People who work here tend to be people who love food and wine - they are the bon viveurs of life - and we like the challenge of food matching. One lady had Lord Rothschild over for dinner and we matched all the wines to the food for her. That is the kind of service you get from an independent - independent staff who know what they are talking about.
A selection from Roberson's wine range
Simcic Pinot Noir Réserve 2004, Slovenia, £26.95
Grüner Veltliner Stadt Krems 2006, Austria, £11.95
Rustico Nino Franco Prosecco, Italy, £9.95
Reinhold Haart Riesling Spätlese Dhronhofberger 2004,
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany, £14.95
AC Bourgogne Pinot Noir Domaine Digioia-Royer, Chambolle-Musigny, £9.95