Personally spreading good cheer

It's the hands-on approach that makes Rory Stapleton's store so popular. That, and his flare for mixing cases. Christine Boggis reports

Rory Stapleton doesn't just own the Jolly Vintner - he is the jolly vintner. He opened his shop in Tiverton 14 years ago and customers come from far and wide asking him to put mixed cases together because they know he has a handle on what they like. His only problem is that he's a victim of his own success - customers want to see him so it's tough taking time off and takings drop when he goes away.

What is your background?

I was with Oddbins for 10 years, all around the West Country, then spent three years wholesaling with Hallgarten . Having come out of Oddbins where it was all fun and we all worked together, it was hard trying to sell and seeing how miserable everybody was. Having a business for 14 years I can understand why some of them are down in the mouth - but the wine trade is fun, hence the reason I called it the Jolly Vintner.

What is the concept behind the shop?

It is very much an old-fashioned Oddbins shop - parcels of wine that are here today and gone tomorrow, but with some continuity. Over the past couple of years a small group of us within a 30 to 40-mile radius have started buying and shipping together, which helps margins. It tends to be very much that my customers trust my judgement and ask me to make them up a dozen box because I know roughly what people's tastes are. So originally it was like Oddbins, but it's almost like a Majestic because most of my sales are cases. I have an average spend of nearly £60 a head, but we don't have the volume of traffic some city centre shops would have.

What is your range like?

We are starting to see more people moving into the higher-priced end, which I'm ­currently revamping. An everyday person will spend £5 on a bottle - they can't spend £10 a day on one, so we do tend to gear very much up to the £5-£6 area, which is probably our strongest. We are seeing a definite fall-off in Australia and especially Chardonnay, and a swing towards lighter-bodied, lighter-alcohol wines. Chianti is coming back, Valpolicella and Loire Pinot. We tend to see customer trends quicker than the bigger boys, and they are asking for lower alcohol.

Do you import directly?

Over the past 18 months we have been shipping a bit more direct from Chile, Italy and the south of France. I'm just shipping 150 cases from New Zealand direct, which five years ago I wouldn't have considered doing. But it is to make margin and give us things nobody else, or very few people, have got. It has become easier to do, and I've got more confident in my ability as time has gone along.

And we are actually seeing producers - 10 years ago I didn't have guys from Australia and Argentina knocking on my door, but producers are actually coming to us and tasting in the shop. We are being courted a lot more because they are seeing the independents' growth .

What are your customers like?

We have got lords and ladies and Tiverton people that have big houses in the area, but also the little old lady who wants six bottles of Amontillado and the heroin addicts coming in for their hard bottle of vodka. One thing we have seen in the area is that there has been quite a drug problem. We have not done the Special Brews of this world for a long time, and we've never done alcopops, and we close at six o'clock so we don't get the problems that the local corner shop does. We have also had a lot of money moved down to the area - Reuters has offices in Tiverton, and the Met Office in Exeter.

When we really do find something a bit special we can really move volumes for a shop this size. We had a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the run-up to Christmas which sold nearly 300 dozen in six weeks. It is like a bush telegraph goes round that we've got something a bit special going.

What is your turnover?

It has fluctuated around about half a million, plus or minus £10,000, throughout the past four or five years.

How is trade generally?

This year we are seeing growth again after a 24-hour Tesco opened 18 months ago. Marks & Spencer opened six months ago and we've seen certain areas dip.

We've knocked tinned beer on the head now, and branded spirits have died a death so we are reducing those to sell more interesting things, including lots of malt and Irish whiskey.

We are seeing growth back on the wine side, customers we haven't seen for a long time we are starting to see back because they have got bored of what they have been offered elsewhere. I think we are running about 10 per cent up on last year, which is probably putting us back to where we were the year before Tesco opened.

Do you do deliveries?

I'm taking about £5,000-worth of wine to Edinburgh in a few weeks' time. A customer who used to live here has two or three of the greatest wine merchants in Scotland on her doorstep, but they can't hook up with the stuff she likes - so I'm doing a personal delivery 350-400 miles away.

That is the rod I've made for my back being the Jolly Vintner, but if it was a delivery truck it wouldn't be the same.


A snapshot of the Jolly Vintner's range

1. Mount Riley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (13 per cent abv) £7.49

2. Beranger Picpoul de Pinet AC Coteaux du Languedoc 2006 (12.5 per cent abv) £6.39

3. Les Carminieres Merlot Vin de Pays d'Oc Anne de Joyeuse (13 per cent abv) £4.99

4. Conti Cortes Rosso Conero DOC Monte Schiavo 2003 (13 per cent abv) £6.99

5. Champagne JM Gremillet Brut (12 per cent abv) £16.99/six for £90

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