The Buyer
Fine Wines Direct UK on UK Wine List Awards & helping restaurants

Fine Wines Direct UK on UK Wine List Awards & helping restaurants

“It’s great to be able to recognise the fantastic work done in the on-trade and all the hard work that goes into putting together a wine list and offering a truly unique experience to the guests.” That might be the reason why Nigel O’Sullivan, founder of Fine Wines Direct UK, wants to support the new UK Wine List Awards, but it also very much sums up the approach he and his team take when helping restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels put together their wine lists. Here he explains why working in long term partnerships with its customers and producers is key to its success.

Richard Siddle
19th February 2021by Richard Siddle
posted in Awards,

Fine Wines Direct UK is sponsoring the By The Glass category in the inaugural UK Wine List of the Year awards co-hosted by The Buyer and Star Wine List. You can find out who the finalists are here and watch the live streaming of the awards at 6pm (GMT) on Facebook here and YouTube here.

For those that do not know you, can you tell us the background to Fine Wines Direct UK?

Nigel O’Sullivan has built a wine distribution business built on working closely with family owners producers

From humble beginnings living in the valleys in Wales, I headed for the bright lights of London where I kick-started a long career in the wine trade. My first job was with J R Parkington in Bond Street more than 40 years ago.Whilst working there I was head hunted by Matthew Clark and went to look after their national accounts for eight years.In 1999 I decided it was time to take the plunge and set up my own business, and so Cellar Wines Direct was born. In 2005 my partner and I sold it to Scottish & Newcastle, but over the next few years all my old customers kept asking me to start again as they missed the personal service we had offered.So, in 2008 I founded Fine Wines Direct UK.

Fine Wines Direct UK imports exclusive, family-run producers, and we sell the wines predominantly to the on-trade.Obviously with the pandemic we have had to swiftly adapt our model and are building our customer base with independent merchants around the UK, as well as selling direct to consumer via our e-commerce site which launched a month before the first lockdown.

We are family-owned and financially sound. We own our own buildings and as such are in a very solid position going forward as we emerge from restrictions.

What do you see as your point of difference in the trade?

The longevity of our relationships with our producers and customers is key.People are at the core of our business.Producers come to us as we are a safe pair of hands, passionate about what we do, and our track record demonstrates how well we look after them.

Our range doesn’t consist of hundreds of producers, but rather a few hand-selected producers in each key wine region of the world with whom we work diligently to promote their brands and sell their wines.Customers come to us because they know we provide superb customer service, and we have personal relationships with all of them.

We have our own fleet of vans and our drivers really care about customer service – when they are delivering, they will take the stock into the customer’s cellar and rotate the stock properly.

Fine Wines Direct UK’s trading strategy is to work and build relationships with strong family producers like Allan Scott of Allan Scott Vineyards in Marlborough

Why have you focused so much on the on-trade?

We play to our strengths – the on-trade is the bread and butter of our business.We know it will come back. It is part of our social fabric, people have missed their friends and socialising.We are ready to help our customers as soon as they can open their doors again.

The on-trade is also now hugely important to us.We have built a £10 million business supplying that sector and we will continue to support it once hospitality re-opens.Prior to the first lockdown we saw record double digit sales in the on-trade. We spend time developing personal relationships with all our customers, and we invest in them with industry leading staff training and direct support from our partner suppliers with wine events and tailor-made commercial deals, all to help them sell more wine.

Key to your on-trade business is the strength of your range. How are you developing that?

A rapidly growing part of our business is the development of our agency brands. Relationships and trust will always be the key developing a good agency business, particularly as we come out of the pandemic. I have been very encouraged by the way our producers have supported us and the business plans we have put together to support our customers.

Sport also plays a huge role in our business. I played football for a number of clubs in my youth including Bristol Rovers academy team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Hereford United and trials with Coventry City. I soon realised that I was not going to make the grade as a professional footballer and that the only option at the time living in the valleys was to learn a trade with the National Coal Board. So I trained as an electrician and worked in the pit. From mine to wine, if you like.

How would you describe your range – where are you particularly strong?

Rioja and the vineyards of Marques de Caceres – a key partner for Fine Wines Direct UK

Historically, and because of links to Spanish restaurateurs, our range was always driven by Spanish and French wines. We are always on the look-out to strengthen what we’ve got, but we are very loyal.We have worked with many of our wonderful producers including Marques de Caceres, and Familia Fernandez Rivera for many years, as well as Allan Scott Vineyards in New Zealand. We are also proud to now be representing Escorihuela Gascon, the oldest producer in Mendoza.The main theme running through our list is family-owned producers with real heritage that have helped shape and influence their individual wine regions.

I also want to mention Christopher Fielden, ex-chairman of the Circle of Wine Writers, who has also been of huge help building our portfolio from the day we started. Christopher has recently celebrated 60 years in the trade and is still going strong.

How has the range adapted in recent years?

We keep our eye on trends and make sure we keep up with consumer demand. For example a few years ago, we only had one Malbec on our list, now we list 10 as the demand is there and continues to grow.

Our range is focused; we cover both the Old and the New World. It has evolved to be more eco responsible. Some of our producers have converted their wines to organic and vegan, and others who have always worked in that way, are now going through the certification process.

Why are you supporting the UK Wine List of the Year Awards?

Fine Wines Direct UK will be part of the online awards ceremony for the first UK Wine List of the Year awards on February 22 at 6pm

The on-trade has always been and will remain a big focus of our business and we are doing all we can to support them in any way possible. Every well-known wine brand in the UK has historically been built in the on trade with restaurateurs and sommeliers being at the forefront of our industry.It’s great to be able to recognise the fantastic work done in that sector and all the hard work that goes into putting together a wine list and offering a truly unique experience to the guests.

How have you been able to keep in touch and support your on-trade customers during the last year?

We are very proud to supply the best hotels and restaurants in Wales, the South West and beyond.Relationships are central to what we do, so we know all our customers personally.We’ve kept in regular contact with all our clients and have supported them in any way we can during this difficult period. In some cases, we have extended our credit terms as much as we financially could, helping our customers manage their cash flow through this difficult period.

We have created special deals and promotions for those who are doing takeaways and dine-at-home experiences, and generally helped however we can.Another new way of communicating with our customers has been virtual meetings and tastings that have become part of our normal working practice, along with more interaction on social media featuring our agency brands.

What plans do you have for the rest of the year to help the on-trade bounce back?

We will continue to do what we are doing. Our relationships are founded on mutual trust and our customers know that we will do our very best to make things as easy as possible as they open up once more. Service has always been key to us, from importing the best wines at the best price, doing our own deliveries, and supporting our customers to promote our wines.

How have you been affected by Brexit trading and will that impact where you source your wines from?

Obviously, the government proposal to require an import certificate for all shipments from the EU will take up a lot of time and effort, not to mention the additional costs. The transport cost alone for a single pallet of wine from the EU as gone up by more than 50% which will be a barrier for smaller wine merchants importing wines direct from the EU.

We are going to have to adapt, but as our business grows and with us soon to have more bonded warehouse space, we will have the capacity to import in larger quantities direct from a growing number of producers, and the economies of scale will help mitigate any additional costs.

We will be offering mix pallet deliveries of wines from Europe from our bonded warehouse in Cardiff to other smaller independent merchants in the UK who are not as fortunate as us to be able to buy directly.

Great Britain is a nation of wine enthusiasts and historically one of the most important wine markets in the world. I am confident that with the needed changes from the government and the support of our family producers, the British wine industry will pull through and become stronger than before.