There are many ex-banking and City folk in the UK wine trade, but whilst many have looked to make their own wine, Richard Ellison is very much focused on selling other people’s. The idea of setting up Wanderlust Wine to source new producers from off the beaten around the world is not exactly new, but his focus on using IT and technology to drive both his e-commerce and on-trade businesses certainly is.
Wanderlust Wine has quickly found its place amongst other similar specialist independent wine importers for the on-trade, thanks to both the personality of founder Richard Ellison and the technology that is helping drive the business forward.
If you have ever started up a new business one of the hardest things to get right is what to call yourself. It might sound like the most obvious thing to do, but most companies rarely call themselves by their first choice. For in this increasingly online world you have to find a name that has not already been registered and alive and kicking with a website, or social media feed.
So the first thing that strikes you about Wanderlust Wine is what a fantastic name it is for what it does. Importing wines from off the beaten track. Luck was shining brightly on founder Richard Ellison when he came up with the Wanderlust name. Not only had nobody thought of it before, but he was even able to register it with a co.uk URL.
It’s not as if he is not doing something that a host of others have not done before him. Setting up a small wine importing business and looking to find wines from previously undiscovered wineries around the world has become the go to business model for seemingly any new wine distribution business these days.
You only had to look at the long line of tressle tables in the Esoterica section of the London Wine Fair this year to see what a competitive market place Ellison and his Wanderlust Wines have entered.
Finding its niche
But it is fitting he was able to find a part of the internet that nobody else in wine had discovered before for his name, for the world of online and technology is what potentially sets Wanderlust Wines apart from much of its competition.
The fact that Wanderlust has a full time team of just three, plus two part time IT programmers and developers, says you a lot about where this business is set.
But before we get in to that, understanding Richard Ellison’s past as a corporate banker is also important in understanding what Wanderlust Wine is trying to do.
Ellison takes up the story: “My career in banking was spent working in commercial and corporate finance where I used to lend money to businesses. So I have come across my fair share of good and bad business plans over the years.”
One of the lessons he learnt was to take your time and get the business model right. It is why it took him around two and a half years from coming up with a concept for Wanderlust Wines to bringing it to market. Primarily because Ellison was trying to protect his salary by continuing his career in banking whilst setting up the wine business. “I formally started the business in September 2015 and left the bank in March,” he says.
“The business has spent a lot of money on coding to get our e-commerce model right. It now means someone can order a bottle of wine from my site and have it delivered to their home and the business does the absolute minimum,” he says. “That’s a scalable business model.”
Wanderlust’s system consists of electronic efficiencies combining website orders, warehouse and stock management, order fulfilment, CRM and accounting automation. Outsourcing basic services is also a key feature of the Wanderlust Wine model. “It means we are straight away able to offer a different kind of service. That’s why I think there is still enough room in the market for us. ”We looked closely at e-commerce models and then looked at what steps we could cut out and automate,” he explains. “We’re bringing hipster tech in to wine.”
Rather than see the logistics side of the business as the means to get the product to your customer, it is central to the success of Wanderlust Wine, stresses Ellison. So much so that he has a desk at its logistics partner’s London offices.
Ellison certainly seems to have a different way of thinking about business than many of his competitors. That might come from his degree in food and wine technology and initial career spent as a food scientist at Unilever and working on brands such as Pot Noodle.
But it is during his time working at Barclays that he was able to sharpen his business skills. “It was a massive learning curve. You were constantly having to make 50/50 decisions and get to learn new industries and business models very quickly. You were doing market analysis across a lot of different sectors.”
His own love of wine actually came via an old university friend who despite being on student rations managed to have an obsession for white Burgundy. “So he stubbornly started my interest,” recalls Ellison.
From there he went on his own voyage of discovery and it was more through his love of travel and spending quality time in various countries, noticeably Australia and the US, that he slowly started tasting and seeing different styles of wines.
His banking career included a short spell living and working in New York where he was able to discover even more about American wines.
It was from then that the concept of Wanderlust Wines really started to take shape. He looked at the UK market and other than a couple of specialist felt there was room to import some US wines to the UK.
So armed with sample bottles of the initial list of producers, he spoke to sommeliers and restaurants in the trade to see what they thought of the wines he had come across. “You need a degree of confidence that your business model is going to work, feedback is a gift not a hinderance”
No risk approach
As for the producers he was and is offering them a “no risk” opportunity to get listings in a market they had not previously even considered.
That “no risk” option has not surprisingly been an offer other producers around the world have been happy to take up. But Ellison is quite clear about the kind of producer he is looking to work with.
“We are looking for small producers that are off the beaten track, but they have to be sustainable in the way they do business. That does not mean they have to be necessarily biodynamic or organic, but you have to be able to trust their story. How it is made is really important. By interesting we mean Australian producers making wine with indigenous Italian varieties, or low alcohol Cabernet Franc from Fruili, or exploring new countries like Romania and Slovenia.”
He is excited about some new wines from (“so underrated”) Israel and Japan (“it’s not all just about Koshu”) that he is agreeing terms with now. As well as wines from a recent trade trip to Hungary where he joined Oz Clarke, Anthony Rose and other key wine figures on a fact finding tour.
How he goes about finding new wines is the “fun part” of the job, he says. “I love travelling and going to a remote village say in Spain or Italy and sitting down having a drink in a local bar and just talking to the waiters about where they would go, what wines do they recommend. I do the same on social media. I was recently in Napa and went on Instagram and asked people locally where I should go and who I should see. People really respond to that direct approach.”
He is also about to launch his own wine – Hiahia – that is coming to the market from New Zealand at the end of the month. Typically it is an offbeat story about how he met a farmer during a recent trip who was more interested in showing him the quality of his manure than his grapes. “It was the manure which gives the vines the protection they need leading to less spraying,” explains Ellison. He expects more own label wines to follow.
He admits finding the time to spend weeks or months at a time in a particular country looking for new wines is going to be more difficult as the company grows.
Direct to consumers
His direct approach to finding new wines he has followed through when selling wine to consumers. “Wine is ultimately all about people and if you can connect with them on social media they might buy your wine. We now have connections on Instagram with people from over 35 countries around the world. We are looking for the type of consumer who likes their wine and are engaged online so that we can talk to them, demographically they are a slightly younger audience.”
His wines might be off the beaten track, but his price points aren’t. Wines on his site go from around £8.80 up to £130, with an average bottle price of £13.
Wanderlust also runs its own membership service where you can choose from different levels from £25 a month to £75 a month and have wines delivered to you that average out at £10.
Move to trade first
The mix between trade business and consumer sales is currently 40% to 60% but Ellison is keen to switch the focus very much over to the trade side. “I would like to change that to 30% e-commerce, 70% trade,” he says.
To do so will need more help from his tech guys to look at what bespoke models they can introduce to help give Wanderlust Wine the edge on its next stage of development. Be it bringing more consumers to its site, or building up its customer base that already includes the likes of Chez Bruce and Chiltern Firehouse.
But he also relying on good old business sense to learn and improve. He recently held a focus group evening with some of his online customers at his house. Over homemade food and a few bottles of wine and focused questioning the team was able to hear directly what he needs to do and what could be done better.
He admits he will have to be a little less hands on. He currently writes a personal Christmas card to all his customers. “But then that personal touch is really important.”
Ellison and Wanderlust Wine have come a long way in a short period of time. But you get the feeling they have not even started yet.