‘I like to know where my wine is coming from’

Small Business Future Proof James Nicholson, Wine Merchant

James Nicholson: ‘I didn’t want to go down the route of trading in undrinkable, very cheap industrial alcohol’

James Nicholson: ‘I didn’t want to go down the route of trading in undrinkable, very cheap industrial alcohol’

 

James Nicholson Wine Merchant has been an integral part of the wine scene in Ireland for more than 35 years. Nicholson set up shop at a time when the wine scene in Britain and Ireland was practically non-existent.

Sensing that there was more to viniculture than Blue Nun and Mateus Rose, the young Nicholson began to explore the wineries of France. He brought back small batches of wine and delivered cases to restaurants in the back of his Ford Cortina estate car.

Nicholson now supplies hundreds of the best restaurants and hotels in Ireland, employs 40-plus well-trained staff, has three warehouses on either side of the Border and a contemporary wine store in Crossgar, Co Down, and dispatches cases through his JN Wine Club to private clients countrywide. He has been awarded the International Wine Challenge Regional Wine Merchant of the Year award more than 20 times.

Starting his own business at the age of 23 and being involved in all aspects of the business gave him a good grounding, Nicholson says.

“There has to be a customer focus,” he says. “If my salespeople are not facilitating, are not civil, aren’t on top of it, even the best wines in the world won’t make us a good company.

“You don’t go out consciously to build a reputation. It’s a combination of things. Have you got a good product? Have you got the right price? Will you deliver it on time? If you’ve got those things right, you will be able to make a profit and pay your way.

Boiled-down model

“In the early days, it was 7am to 10pm, no holidays,” Nicholson recalls. “If you said you were going to do something, you did it. The business model might now be more sophisticated, but it still boils down to having the right product, delivering on time, and having a good relationship with the client.”

From the beginning, Nicholson sought to focus on provenance – something that has now become de rigueur in the drinks and food industry. His company deals with wine producers around the world, including California, Lebanon, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, Austria. Most of them are small suppliers on 10 to 60 acres, and many have embraced organic or biodynamic growing practices.

“A lot of supermarket wines are brought in in 40,000-litre tanks and bottled in the UK,” he says. “There is really no provenance of any description. I like to know where things are coming from. If you see smoked salmon at €5 a side, you can be pretty sure what you’re going to be eating: it’s the same with wine.”

This focus on quality meant a 40 per cent dip in business during the recession as many of his restaurant clients switched to lesser quality house wines.

“I’ve been trading for 38 years and didn’t want to go down the route of trading in undrinkable, very cheap industrial alcohol – selling something for the sake of it. We were lucky that the business was reasonably well-financed, so we didn’t have to panic. We have now regained about 25 per cent of that loss in business.”

Growing up in Saintfield, Co Down, steeled the young Nicholson against adversity.

“As a young person, I grew up with bombs exploding every day. So when you’ve gone through that, recession is a lot less arduous. In the early days, we had vans hijacked, we lost stock, drivers taken out of vans and threatened and vans stolen. A bit of a downturn seems like nothing compared to those issues.”

Wine masters

High-level training of staff is something Nicholson has focused on over the years. He currently employs one of only two female Masters of Wine in Ireland – Jane Boyce MW – as well as several WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) diploma and certificate holders.

His company offers in-house sommelier training to restaurant staff in Cork, Galway, Dublin and Belfast. He says even his drivers have some training in the product they distribute.

Education has been vital in the development of the business, as has travel. Nicholson brings staff on buying trips to vineyards. It is a costly but, he believes, worthwhile, exercise.

“We travel about three months of the year, getting our people to the source so they understand how the wine is made, where it comes from and the philosophy of the different wineries we work with. The training is quite expensive, but the travel is vital.”

Over the past number of years, Nicholson has introduced an apprentice programme and trained four apprentices. Three of them work for the business and the other is establishing her own wine business in London.

“We tried it the first year and couldn’t believe the interest in it, and it’s grown from there,” he says. “One year we couldn’t select anyone capable. It’s a big investment in travel, foreign stays and so on, so you want to make sure you choose someone with the interest, aptitude and energy to go through the course.”

After 38 years in the wine trade, Nicholson says he is now dealing with the sons and daughters of the wine producers he started out with at the beginning.

“I joke that when I start dealing with their grandchildren in the vineyards, it’ll be time for me to leave the scene.” jnwine.com

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