Now here’s a quote to stop you in your tracks: “Sadly, our industry does not like the rebels, the misfits and those who see things differently. Nevertheless, offer inspiration, seek your own direction, be honest and true to yourself, fearless and above all, follow your ambition.” Powerful stuff and the kind of words you might expect to hear from a leading politician, musician or actor. But no. This is the business – and life – philosophy of Stuart McCloskey who has what he believes quite a unique approach to running a wine retail business. One that includes paying all his producers up front, months before a bottle of wine is sold through his store and the price he has for his wines is the same for the trade as they are for private customers. A business model that he says is based on being entirely self funded and independent. So how does he do it? Sorcha Holloway, founder of #ukwinehour caught up with him at his store in deepest, darkest Kent.
Stuart McCloskey has also put his faith and future in Australian wines with an award winning range based on securing exclusive distribution deals with emerging and leading producers for The Vinorium, which he describes as “the trade’s best kept secret”. Not any more.
Exceptional customer service, top quality wines and respect for the client are all qualities we would love and admire in any wine merchant. Add to that thriving accounts during a time when many fine wine businesses are struggling and you might think I am dreaming a bit here, but bear with me – such a business does exist.
In March 2017, one of my #ukwinehour friends, James Hubbard, tipped me off about aged Australian wines available at exceptional prices from a wine retailer in Kent. My eyes widened and heart rate quickened, and off I scurried to the internet and placed my first order. So began my personal journey of discovery with The Vinorium, this year the winner of both the International Wine Challenge and Decanter Awards for Australian Specialist Retailer of the Year. The man behind this treasure trove is 46-year-old mountaineer Stuart McCloskey, of which there is little written, whose weekly newsletter is one I actually read, and of whom I wanted to find out more.
I was therefore honoured to be invited to a very special Christmas tasting at The Vinorium HQ last week, and met him in person for the first time. It is not that easy to get to by public transport (I learned the hard way that there are no taxis serving Lenham station!), but it was certainly worth the effort. It was a miserable drizzly evening in deepest darkest Kent, but into a true emporium of vinous delights I was welcomed by Stuart and his right-hand woman, Magdalena, and found a delicious 100% Meunier Champagne pressed in to my hand. The other guests had already assembled – all private clients, invited as a special treat, as a thank you for their loyalty and support.
“Boy next door”
On first impressions, McCloskey seemed warm and open, with a charming transparency you could maybe associate with “the boy next door”. With an enthusiasm reminiscent of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, Stuart waves us upstairs where we are seated around a long boardroom table, places set with the finest Zalto crystal and the table dressed with candlelight. He holds court at the top of the table, his passion and love for the wines presented clear in his face and in his words. He tells us the stories of the winemakers behind the wines, clearly admiring and appreciative of the hard work that they do from vineyard to the table. He knows them well: their stories, their spouses, their children, their pets. He brings the sense of place vividly to life as he shares the finest wines from Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
No sign of the boy next door now – here we have the consummate professional, composed, confident, articulate, in control. We hang on his every word. We sip, we savour, we shiver with delight. His watchful brown eyes reflect the flames of the candles as they sweep around the table, noting every reaction, quietly registering what moves us with the skill of the eagles he encounters in the mountains. He misses nothing.
His joy in sharing these fine wines is evident, and this is what motivates him in this business. He happily works 15 hour days because he loves what he does. There is no time for a personal life, no family, no pets. Yet he ensures that his staff do not exceed normal working hours; their welfare is very important to him.
His staff are his family, looking after each other, and tasting wine together daily. They have a room full of samples which they assess as a team, rejecting eight out of every 10. If it is not good quality, they simply will not stock it. He says quite frankly that he “will not give crap to customers”. I wondered if he felt this high-level of personal commitment to the business could be sustainable in the long-term, but he is quite certain that it is – he finds it “thrilling” and feels privileged to work in something that he loves so much.
The Vinorium was created in 2013 as the retail arm of McCloskey’s main company, Z and B Vintners, which was historically more interested in France, Bordeaux in particular. Having attended every en primeur since 2000, he found himself becoming bored with Bordeaux, the lack of honesty there, and the fact that there was too much of a focus on investment rather than drinking for enjoyment.
The idea was to create a wine company that did not exist. A company that would:
- remain entirely independent, keeping everything in-house from logistics to web-design, with no outsourcing.
- be entirely self-funding – no credit terms for buyers or suppliers, everyone paid up front, right from the beginning.
- producers in Australia, for example, paid in advance before shipping, even though wine will not be available for sale in the UK for another three months
- orders not paid in advance are simply cancelled.
- treat the consumer with the same (indeed, more) respect that many businesses reserve for trade (trade prices are exactly the same as those for private clients). Or as McCloskey says: “Great wine should be enjoyed and relished and not stuck on restaurant lists to gather dust.”
- take a serious look at the New World for very high-quality wines which were not yet readily available here but which offered an alternative (generally more affordable) to the traditional Old World wines.
Since 2016 this focus has largely been on Australia, with 98% of annual sales now attributed to Australian wine. In fact, only this week The Vinorium announced that they have broken through the 100,000 mark for bottles of Australian wine sold this year.
The respect that the company has earned has resulted in exclusive representation of some of Australia’s greatest producers and this is expected to grow significantly in the future. Private clients (>5,000) are clearly impressed with the quality of wine and service that they receive as return business and word of mouth recommendations grow – 60% new online business is achieved every day without any paid advertising of any form.
All of which has helped the business see the gross turnover increase by £2.73 million compared to 2016, with operating profits of £1,433,736. Net profit after tax was a very healthy £1,145,969. The pace has been kept up in 2018 with sales to date up 20%, with half year profits standing at £869,174. But with £1.6m of stock, and 40,000 bottles at the duty paid HQ and under bond, the business needs to keep on moving. But with a further 20 exclusive deals already in place for 2019 and plans to triple its New Zealand business next year, with more exclusives on their way, McCloskey is not resting on his laurels.
He has also put in plans to cope with any fallout from Brexit (which he thinks is a disgrace), having covered themselves with both stock and forward currency hedging for the first twelve months. Whether we leave with a deal or not he thinks several major UK suppliers will struggle to survive, but that there will be some fantastic opportunities for those who are willing and able.
The world according to…
I asked if he had any one piece of advice for the wider UK wine industry to which he replied no, he had several. Here they are:
- Specialise! Focus on your specialism, put everything else away, delist countries if necessary.
- Seek advice from your customers – listen to their feedback, to what they want.
- Be honest! Always!
- Stop robbing Peter to pay Paul – it’s not sustainable, especially with Brexit coming up.
- And then a tip from his mountaineering days – stop rushing and look at the bigger picture, the 360˚
- Learn by your mistakes, and don’t make them again!
- “What you do in the beginning is most important, day one, day two – if you go wrong then, you’re never going to reach the summit!”
Despite spending months climbing some of the world’s highest mountains every year when he was younger, McCloskey rarely has time these days to indulge in his love of mountaineering. He has climbed over 7,000 meters in the beautiful mountains nestled in the Karakoram Mountain Range, on the quieter Pakistan side. He prefers less people, and assures me “there is nothing quite like mountainous solitude”. He hopes to take some time off after the Christmas rush to go climbing in Scotland.
It is clear that whatever he does, he gives it his all. I am impressed by his openness, a rare trait these days, and his willingness to share and guide others.
I will leave you with one last quote from Stuart McCloskey: “Sadly, our industry does not like the rebels, the misfits and those who see things differently. Nevertheless, offer inspiration, seek your own direction, be honest and true to yourself, fearless and above all, follow your ambition.”