Nigel Huddleston meets a merchant keen to brighten up the image of wine retailers
Never believe what you read on the internet. Erik Laan, owner of the Vineking in Reigate, Surrey, is not Danish. He's
half Dutch, half Finnish,
brought up in Redhill, and
has a thoroughbred Home Counties accent.
After managing stores for London wine merchant
Laytons and La Reserve he spent time selling to private customers for Charles Taylor Wines.
He set up his own business doing the same from his kitchen in 2003, turning over £250,000 in the first year, before opening a shop in 2004 and adding a second in Weybridge two years later.
The modern stores are decked out in retro pink wallpaper, with a turquoise and magenta fascia and shelves from Ikea. The Weybridge shop's counter is a kitchen unit from the Swedish furniture store.
The window displays at both stores feature their own vineyards - or vines in planters at any rate.
The wine range is an eclectic premium mix, starting at £4.99 but with a heavyweight brigade between £10 and £30. While many regional wine merchants still snub fridges, the Vineking positively embraces them, offering person-height Vinefrost chillers for sale at £999 as well as keeping stock in them.
OLN went to meet Erik the Vineking (geddit?) at his Weybridge store.
When did your passion for wine
My old man worked in the City and
had a really nice cellar. From early days, I had a taste of this or that, and we'd visit châteaux if we were holidaying in a wine region.
I graduated in 1992 in the middle of a recession and there was nothing doing with a 2:2, so I thought I'd join the wine trade. It's better than selling dishwashers.
Why did you switch from private customer selling to return to retail?
There's only so much you can do from the kitchen in a one-bedroom flat. Even when we moved to a three-bedroom house with loads of space my wife said "don't even think about it". So I found an office, which just happened to have a shop front. I'd always loved retail, talking to customers and getting them excited about wine, so I thought, why not? There was no grand design, it just happened. It was tiny but you could squeeze in 600 bottles with a single facing. I hate double facing
- it's just lazy and
an opportunity missed to sell another great bottle .
What sort of things from the wine world do you favour?
Great wine comes from all over the place. People who only sell wine from France are just showing their own ignorance. I love French wines and the diversity is so appealing, especially southern France, which really gets me going. But they can be a hard sell. You can't convince everyone to drink Cahors - and on a hot sunny day you don't want to. If it tastes good and I think the customers will enjoy it, I'll buy it. We've got 60 each from California, New Zealand and Australia, and 40 from South Africa and South America, but we've also got wines from Alsace, Germany and Austria.
But buying wine is not that difficult. There's loads of brilliant wine all over the place. The hard bit is getting customers into your shop. I'm a great believer in going out and handing out fliers and saying "come to my shop".
We've got 300 wines under £10, which is the one bit where wine buying is difficult. To give real good quality and value at that level, especially when you're not buying massive bulk, you've got to be very nimble.
Independent wine merchants are booming but how can a business like yours gain a point of difference?
Everything's sold on a conversation. We've got
experienced people from Oddbins and Bibendum who can have a chat about the cricket or how the customer's going to cook a leg of lamb - and they'll take it from there. If you can't get that in a specialist, what's the point?
Visually the shop is quite strong with a vineyard in the front window of each. Both shops are south-facing. It's not commercial but they're real vines and will grow grapes. We've got Huxelrebe, Pinot Blanc and Riesling here, and at Reigate there's Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a couple we picked up from Denbies that have lost their tags.
We've been fairly bold with our use of wallpaper. It's nice to show you're not a dark, stuffy old wine merchant. The fascia's all part of trying to be female friendly. A lot of the ideas came from my wife who said not to paint it dark green. Why are wine merchants all dark green? What does dark green say about wine? The wallpaper is possibly a bit metrosexual, to say the least, but why not?
Let's make it bright and have a laugh with it.
We've also got a tasting machine. It's absolutely brilliant. It works under nitrogen and the only problem is when you run out. There are separate temperature control zones for whites and red. We get two-and-a-half weeks of tasting from one bottle. New it would have been £10,000, but I got it second hand, so it was considerably less than half that. It's well worth it because as soon as you taste the wine you'll probably buy it and might buy something else too.
Are there more Vinekings on the way?
I'd love to do five to six. Anything above that is too unwieldy and my personal skills in managing two shops are already being pushed. We'd love to do more mail order, but getting new customers through the door and repeat business from our regular customers is the key to growth. There are only so many relatives you can sell your wine to. And none of mine are here, they're all abroad.