Nik Darlington has swapped trawling the corridors of Westminster looking for stories as a political journalist, to searching the world for native and unusual grape varieties for his growing on-trade wholesale wine business, Red Squirrel Wine. But ultimately how successful you are comes down to how well you tell that story.
If you are looking for wines off the beaten track then head to Red Squirrel Wine which is slowly but surely getting its wines on to some of the country’s most discerning restaurant wine lists.
Nik Darlington knows a thing or two about how to tell a story. His story. Well at least the story about Red Squirrel Wine. For before he entered the world of wine, Darlington was a successful political journalist working for BBC Scotland covering the scene at Westminster as well as freelancing articles for titles such as the Independent and Spectator.
But it was not the fourth estate’s well known love for a drink that brought Darlington in to the world of wine. It was more his grounding as a management consultant with Simon-Kutcher & Partners, after leaving university with a history degree, that made him realise he would eventually like to run his own business. One day.
That day, or month, came in July 2012 when his amateur love of wine graduated in to a full blown business.
Darlington’s interest in wine stems from his years growing up with his family in France where he lived throughout his teenage years.
“I first looked around the wine industry and thought it could do with some fresh ideas. If you look there are a quite a few people who have done well, who have come in to the trade from the outside,” he said.
He initially did not intend to set up his own wine business, but start by learning the ropes working for an existing wine company or retailer. Ironically his enquiries about possible positions with a number of leading wine merchants all fell on deaf ears. “I was turned down for a Majestic trainee position,” he says.
“So I thought why not do my own thing as no-one else seemed that interested in me.”
Some of those merchants may now regret not taking on Darlington as he slowly builds quite a reputation amongst more wine-discerning restaurants and bars for his esoteric range of producers.
The Red Squirrel name is all about finding rare, off the beaten track wineries and wines. The more indigenous the grape, the better.
Different business plan
Interestingly Darlington initially set up Red Squirrel Wine to be a competitive online wine retailer, and not the business it has become. It still does have an online arm, but is has become very much a minor part to the wholesale business that has become the main part of Red Squirrel’s offer.
Although Red Squirrel started in 2012 it has only been since 2013 that Darlington has committed 100% of his time to the business. “It got to the point when I had to do it full time.”
That also meant taking on staff for the first time at the end of 2013. His first appointment looks like being his most important. Rob Woodhead who joined from Majestic as his head wine buyer.
It was quite a bold move by Woodhead to leave an organisation such as Majestic for what was, at that stage, still very much a start up wine business.
“I think it was a good opportunity for him to come,” says Darlington. “It was the chance to come in to a much more hands-on role and help build the business.”
Over the last three years Red Squirrel Wines has slowly diversified out in to hosting its own events, successful trade tastings and setting up its own wine club, as well as still running its online business and building up its main wholesale route to market.
Long, hard road
It’s come a long way since turning up at farmers’ markets to see wine.
But Darlington is not one to paint a pretty picture. “2014 was a long painful slog,” he admits.
“We knew we were doing the right thing, but that’s no guarantee that the business was going to succeed.”
He adds: “When we flipped the business from being a retailer to a wholesaler we saw our margins plummet. It was a painful adjustment to make.”
The big step change for the business came when it exhibited at the London Wine Fair for the first time. In fact it was the first wine merchant to sign up to the show’s inaugural Esoterica section. “We just had enough producers by then to make it worthwhile and it went really well.”
On the back of LWF, Darlington had the momentum to take the business on to the next stage. Some of it, he admits, was on the back of himself generating good PR about the company and getting out in to the trade and talking about what it was doing.
“In May 2014 we have six producers. Twelve months later we went back to LWF with 24 producers.”
That number has now crept up to 45 producers from right around the world.
“Rob has done a massive job for us. He has also been very professional about how we source our wine,” says Darlington. “Prior to Rob joining I had more of a scatter gun approach to buying. He has made it a lot more professional.”
The word has certainly got out about the kinds of wines that Red Squirrel is looking for, says Darlington. “We now get approached a lot. I can sleep a little easier now.”
Art in telling a good story
But it’s not about sourcing wine that might win awards for their interest factor. It needs to find wines that sell. Wines that are ideal for pouring by the glass in a wine driven on-trade outlet. Wines that also move and turn on shelf.
Wines that, yes, have a story. But you have to know how to tell that story to make it interesting. For a merchant like Red Squirrel that means knowing how to tell your own story. What you are about and stand for.
For example, Darlington recalls how they managed to convince an Austrian producer to join Red Squirrel. “We simply met him at an Austrian wine event and convinced him to come to the pub with us. We all then got drunk together, he liked us and that was it.”
Similarly he saw a story in the trade press about a new restaurant in Clapham that was a converted public toilet called WC. He simply rang them up, went in, chatted to them about theirs and his business and they have been customers ever since.
“It is not just about selling wine to them, it is about them buying in to what we are trying to do,” he explains. “You have to adapt your story to whoever you are selling to. Some wine shops love being sold to. Others hate it. There is a lot of learning as we go.”
Fleet of foot
Running a small, but growing business like Red Squirrel is all about being “fleet of foot,” says Darlington. A lot of its day to day administration is outsourced to third parties. It holds no stock itself and is essentially set up to only deal with its own customers and suppliers.
This is where his training as a management consultant also comes in. He says you become used to go in to an industry which you know nothing about, but you apply the same business disciplines to help them. Which, ultimately, means keeping your cost base as low and as lean as possible.
Hence why it carries so little actual stock.
“The key for us is to find a good wine and then bring it in to the country as cheaply as we can and then sell and market the legs off of it. For us to really like a wine it means we have to be able to stand up and talk about it for 10 minutes,” explains Darlington.
Again that’s where his background as a history student and journalist comes to the fore. “You have to be able to properly tell a story about that wine.”
He says he can happily run a wine tasting for 90 minutes and not talk about the wines per se, but draw people in by talking about the history and the culture of the region where they are from.
Which is why he is so keen on Turkish wine, for example, as he is so interested in its history.
Which brings us back to the origins of the business. As its website explains: “We seek out bottles from new regions, re-emerging regions and forgotten regions. Wines that tell a story, are woven into the history of their region, or just breaking the mould in a ‘red squirrel’ sort of way.”
Building for the future
Red Squirrel Wines has now grown to a team of five with more operational support and on the ground sales skills. “But we are all responsible for selling,” he says.
This includes Alice Boscolo, former sommelier at Vinoteca and now trade account manager and Oli North, who joined form Les Cave de Pyrene as head of operations and trade sales.
Darlington says he would like to build more sales around the country but concedes London “is the heart and soul of what we do”.
But he is, equally, encouraged by the interest in more challenging wine around the country and how the wine bar trend that started in London is spreading to major cities and towns around the country. “We are seeing more opportunities out of London. Like in Bristol which has a great food scene there now.”
Red Squirrel may be becoming more well known, but Darlington’s feet are still firmly on the ground.
“It’s still a great moment when someone sends in an order who we have not spoken to before. That’s a great feelling,” he says.
Any good management consultant likes to have a three or a five year business plan up their sleeves and Darlington is no different. He is pleased to say that it has “broadly achieved” its three year plan.
The next three years will be fascinating to watch.