For 15 years Winchester’s Stone, Vine and Sun has been growing its business through on-trade sales in Hampshire and further afield, from Cornwall to Birmingham, and in some smart London restaurants. For a small business it spends a lot of time prospecting on the road and is the sole importer for large numbers of growers and estates from – in order of volume – France, South Africa, Chile, Italy & Spain. Justin Keay gets the lowdown.
Ex-Sotheby’s Simon Taylor has been growing his Stone, Vine & Sun business in Winchester through on and off sales. Through two large tastings we look at what wines he has been using to spearhead this expansion.
Such has been the dramatic improvement in Winchester’s wine offering that locals joke that this ancient city – England’s first capital and before that, the Roman town of Venta Belgarum – should be known as Winechester.
Consider. The Winchester Wine Festival, brainchild of local MWs Peter Richards and Susie Barrie, had its third anniversary last November and was a sell-out.
Barely a month goes by without some new restaurant opening its doors, with Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall amongst those to have opened premises, with impressive wine lists to match.
And the city has a growing number of high-end wine merchants including the innovative and friendly Wine Utopia, whose broad and eclectic list includes some great Kiwi wines – it staged one of the best and most extensive New Zealand tastings outside London last year. Wine Utopia also boasts a great French list and promises some good South Africans in the pipeline.
Stone, Vine & Sun finding success through multiple channels
But long before Winechester was finding its second e, Stone, Vine & Sun – named after the three most important influences in the making of wine – was a steady presence in the on-and off-trade in this well-heeled city.
Started in 2002 by Simon Taylor, a former deputy MD at Sotherby’s in London’s Bond Street, it supplies many of Winchester’s up-market restaurants (as well as establishments further afield including Michelin-starred establishments and Oxford colleges) and also caters to a loyal private customer base.
Whilst its premises can feel underwhelming – a converted chicken shed in Twyford, just outside Winchester, which was revamped last year – its wine selection most certainly is not.
This hasn’t gone unrecognised: Stone, Vine & Sun has won various awards, including last year one for Intermediate Retailer of the Year and IWC Specialist Merchant awards for South Africa and Languedoc-Rousillon, and is continuing to widen its range from what was originally a Franco-centric list.
Taylor is unapologetic about selling through multiple channels, which means both on and off-trade and even old-fashioned mail order.
He has good stuff to sell: homework has clearly been done.
I attended two recent tastings – one pre-Christmas which gave a good overview of its whole list and a selection of its Burgundy en primeur offering during Burgundy week in early January – and was impressed by both the range and price points.
At Stone, Vine & Sun’s Big Festive Tasting, South Africa was a real stand out, with one of the best ranges I have seen offered by a single merchant.
Amongst whites, below £8, is the fresh Great Expectations Chardonnay 2016 from Robertson, a no-nonsense highly gluggable wine, as is, for not much more, the Badenhorst Secateurs White, a 2015 Chenin Blanc with plenty of honeyed white peach on the palate; the red ‘brother’, Badenhort’s Secateurs Red 2013, is predominately Shiraz, but already drinking well.
Moving up the price scale The Fledge Vagabond (a 60/40 Viognier/Chenin Blanc blend) 2014 (the red equivalent, The Fledge Syrah 2015 is the first vintage with just 1200 bottles made but was too young) and BLANKbottle Offspring 2015 both had lovely balance and minerality, the latter delivering all the artistry and promise you expect from this producer.
Stone, Vine & Sun was amongst the first British merchants to recognise BLANKbottle’s appeal, and used to import them exclusively.
Stone, Vine & Sun also sells Ataraxia Chardonnay 2014 from Hemel en Aarde which tasted as good as always.
The real surprises amongst the South African reds were two wines I’d never tasted before: Capa Roca 2014, a Portuguese blend of Touriga Nacional and Sousao from Olifants River, made with hand-picked fruit and aged in fresh barrels for 14 months, intriguing, moreish and great value for just £13.75: and for just over £20 Chamonix, a Pinot Noir Reserve from Franschhoek, which was the star of the tasting for me: wonderful balance, Burgundian in style, slightly leafy but with a hint of pleasing animal/barnyard aromas to give it a firm sense of place.
Other wines worth a mention included the Leitz Rudesheimer Riesling Kabinett 2011 a steal at around £14, and two even better value wines, Bellamico, an Aglianico from Benaventano at around £8 and the I Situ Pinot Noir 2014 from Aconcagua in Chile, for £10 – proof of how far Chilean Pinot has come in recent years.
Stone, Vine & Sun’s French connection
Stone, Vine & Sun’s French selection, is considerable, as you might expect, but special mention should be made of their Burgundies.
After a week of attending packed Burgundy en primeur tastings in London, it was something of a relief to taste such a good selection without having to make the trip up to London. Stone, Vine & Sun has a well-chosen range including Domaine Jean Guiton from Bligny Les Beaune and Domaine Faiveley from Nuits St Georges: the latter’s Mercurey Rouge La Framboisiere 2015 (£180 for 12 IB) and Blagny Premier Cru La Pece sous le Bois 2015 (£114 for 6 IB) already showing great complexity and richness despite the latter not even being bottled.
A great Burgundy fan, Taylor reckons the explosion of en primeur tastings, and merchants urging their clients to buy now “before its all gone” is overdone, reflecting a desire to try and make good the downturn in Bordeaux en primeur.
That said, he admits he has to ration his allocations.
“We could easily sell 50% more wine than we receive, so we only sell the most coveted wines to those who buy from us regularly,” he says.
Looking after loyal customers: spoken like a true old-fashioned wine merchant.