When James Thomas left the reasonably safe world of working for a major Champagne house in 2017, he certainly dived into the deep end starting up his own specialist wine importer business focused on supplying niche, minimum intervention wines for the discerning on-trade. Three years on and everything was starting to come together with a good, solid and loyal customer base. And then came Covid-19. Two months later he has been able to change his business into a 100% online and delivery wine retailer. Here he explains how.
Tiger Vines has quickly built up a reputation amongst sommeliers and buyers for some of the UK’s most demanding wine lists that it has a range of wine worth paying attention to. With the on-trade now closed for business James Thomas has had to adapt and offer some of his portfolio to consumers and home delivery.
What impact has the crisis had on your business?
It’s been seismic. We’re now in year two since going live with the business and we were really building up steam with our trade sales, supplying the likes of Hawksmoor, Fat Duck, Grainger & Co plus top hotels and independent retailers too. The business was really turning a positive corner. In a tough climate, it had taken a lot of time and effort to get to where we were, especially with a team of just two full time staff. We were on the cusp of opening up top accounts, bringing in more products and there were incredibly exiting times ahead for the business.
We heard the impact of what was happening to restaurants a few days ahead of time from our friends in the industry. Many were 40% down on bookings, reducing purchases especially the higher end wines and there was a general feeling that things were about to go from bad to worse and perhaps even more devastating was that there was no time limit for it to end.
It’s hard to think it was only two months since the Essential California tasting – and what a great day that was. People were in good spirits and we received lots of interest at our table. We went home knackered from the day, and then woke the next day to total shutdown – no orders, no payments, nothing. It was frightening to say the least.
What steps have you taken to cope and keep sales moving?
We’ve been toying with the idea of building a wine club starting on our doorstep here in Peckham, but with our efforts focused on building our trade sales, we never really had the time or energy to go at it.
I’d spent three years at Majestic back in the day and that has always had a big impact on the way we go about building relationships and business in turn. Quality, personality, price and support. That’s the essential make up of what we’re all about.
We decided it was now or never. Other people were converting quickly and taking trade quality produce to people’s homes. Supermarkets were a nightmare to get anything from, toilet roll got the press but to be number 6,000 waiting in line for a home delivery, how could people possible get what they need? That’s where it went from a perspective, to a helping, nurturing perspective. That just fits with our values. Ultimately we want to help people drink better and in a small way, change the culture of why, how and what we consume, for the better.
People are prepared to spend up from £10 a bottle, if you can deliver the good and support them in their day to day, they’ll give you a few extra days to deliver too.
How did you choose and set up the range of wines for delivery and online?
We decided to make life as simple and effective as we could with what we have. We’ve put all of our best value wines into a case of six called “Essentials”. We charge £80 and deliver directly to people’s doors. We had over 200 orders in our first two weeks. Starting from zero, we also had 400 people sign up to our weekly Tiger Vines newsletter within a fortnight.
I think people are just so grateful that you’ve kept things going when other norms in their life have stopped, and it’s not for financial gain but to support people in the community and help people not scrimp on quality and service in a time of crisis, but to try and actually improve it. Surely, that’s got to be a great thing for every community, not just now, but in the future?
What response have you had from your producers and also your usual on-trade customers?
So far so great! We’re able to keep going and keep our producers going too. We only partner with a select few small artisans passionate about what they do – making the absolute best from their soils, in small amounts, sustainably and ethically and producing usually less than 500 cases per year, we are so fortunate to be a part of what they do.
To be able to fulfil and send orders and pay our invoices to them in turn is incredibly motivating. We’re looking forward to doing more online and through social media shortly, connecting people to source, to learn and understand wine and its production a little better and maybe, I hope, they learn something new while doing so. That’s what is exciting and energising for me. Before that, though, we want to focus on the most important bits for customers in need – the offering, the affordability and the service and support.
Our friends in the trade keep us going too, sending us their tasting notes, supporting us on Instagram and constantly spreading the world – it’s so humbling and we cannot thank them enough for their support. There are many to name but in recent weeks, Mikolaj (sommelier and assistant general manager at Trishna) is an absolute legend supporting us on Instagram, a shoutout to Martina from Brat too.
How do you see things in the medium to long term for your business and the wider industry?
I think if people embrace their community in the right way, by helping and putting others first and not purely look to make financial gain, the overall changes could be extraordinary. It’s a time of crisis, we’re all suffering in some way and fear is rife. People will take opportunities, but that’s not us, and we’re finding plenty of likeminded people like us doing the same.
We want to attempt to nurture a community for the future benefit of all, whether it be social media or through our newsletter. The world of mouth spread about what we’re doing, and the impact on the number of cases going out is testament to that. We’re finding that one order from a customer in a street in London turns into 10 in no time and that’s all through one to one recommendations.
It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of and I hope others join in too, the demand is certainly there. If you can step up, put the hours in, do the packaging, logistics, pricing, deliveries, customer support, get enough sleep, exercise and everything thing in between!
Who is likely to come to come out better and who is likely to struggle?
Anyone who thinks that they can sit back and watch this all fly past, thinking they can get back to “normal” as soon as possible, is living on a cloud. The financial impact of this will be enormous.
By going back to our roots, working on the fundamentals, nurturing and support our communities, we think good things will happen. It’s by paying attention, with intention and effort. Speak to any of our growers and they’ll tell you the same thing. Right now, because of what’s happening we’re paying attention like never before. To survive and stay positive and by connecting with others.
If you try and take the whole market, overpromise and under deliver, people will make quick work of you. So we work the other way round, growing within our means, confident that if we do a good job then good things will happen for our future. Speed and efficiency are always more important than ever, as is team work and communication. You need the tools to do the job, and an online presence plus logistics is absolutely fundamental.
Anything you have seen – wine or drinks related – that has inspired you and got you thinking in the recent weeks of lockdown?
Definitely – all the top suppliers to the trade who are delivering direct like Smith and Brock, for example. They are selfless people looking to support others in their community and get the word out about others. This is truly invaluable at this time.
There are so many examples of people coming together and supporting each other from sommeliers, chefs and business owners – it’s incredibly inspiring.
What are you doing to keep positive?
Getting out there on deliveries and meeting new customers, finding out their likes and dislikes and what they’re up to generally (all at a safe distance of course!) Having a chat with our customers is an invaluable way to find out what the market wants, not to mention it’s great fun and good for the soul. I think for our customers to see the owner of the business, who has travelled from Peckham to Henley on a delivery, means a lot and shows you care.
Any chance to relax with any films or box sets?
I’m grateful for not having the time to watch Netlflix. I spend my free time using Gaia for yoga and medication which helps a lot more than you can imagine.
I did just rewatch the Dawn Wall about a climber in Yosemite. Probably one of the hardest things to watch when he might fall at any moment, but his attitude, ability, mindset and general California laid back attitude, is awesome.
Your favourite lockdown meal?
We get our weekly meat box from our friends at Flock and Herd. Charlie’s a bit of a local legend, they opened when we moved here seven years ago and their produce is second to none. Their chicken is delicious every time. So a big bird on the weekend is essential in our house. My wife bakes the occasional muffin for the delivery run. Always delicious!
And to drink?
Ojai Chardonnay, from Ojai Vineyard, with chicken is just what the word joy-gasm was invented for! Fresh fruit, licky acids, easy on the oak, great weight and length – total heaven. Adam Tolmach is one of my all time wine-heroes. He just doesn’t stop perfecting what he does, the wines just keep better and better. The guy is a legend.
And a guilty pleasure?
SAID chocolate from Soho and Fitzovia. A great friend owns and runs it.
- If you would like to share what you are doing to adapt your business during Covid-19 then please contact Richard Siddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.