This one’s a bit of a stream of consciousness. Bear with me. I’m not going to proof-read it or I’ll doubtless delete it. I’m going to write, hit publish, then I’m not going to look at it again. Here goes…
No one was more surprised than me when the highly prestigious Harpers Wine and Spirits Magazine (one of our trade bibles) placed us as the 42nd best wine merchant in the 2018 “Harpers Top 50” awards. Given that there are approaching 1000 wine merchants in the country we were pretty pleased with that. To be notified that we were somewhere in the top 50 again in 2019 was nice. But to attend the awards and find that we’d picked up the top spot… let’s just say that I’m still processing it.
I’m generally pretty ambivalent about awards really. Kate told me off for playing down our previous No 42 slot as she pointed out that it meant we were in the top 5% of wine merchants in the country, she’d worked bloody hard and she was pretty happy about the result so I should just shut up. Told me didn’t she… and she was right of course (and it goes without saying that this year’s No 1 slot is down to her and the awesome BinTwo crew).
But despite Kate’s sound advice, awards are still something I struggle with personally. In the past I’ve attended those where the awards came with an entry fee attached and a compulsory requirement to attend a paid gala event. Then there are those where you self-nominate and put yourself forward for consideration – a concept I struggle with. And I find I really can’t bring myself to send messages out to followers asking them to support us in the on line “public vote” type awards.
Not that I’m having a pop at those different types of awards or those who enter them. It’s just that “seeking recognition” is really not my style because in my twisted mind it merely invites being exposed as a fraud. You can blame my outward veneer of confidence that sits like a thin sheet of ice on a deep, cold lake of imposter syndrome – a sense that any success is undeserved and down to blind luck. The certain knowledge that at any moment people are going to see through me. (That’s a whole other bag of screwed up psychological worms that I might write about some time… I’ll spare you for now but if you recognise any of the feelings I’ve described then have a look at this article).
Of course now that we’ve won an award I’m naturally a huge fan of them! But in truth, if we were going to win something, then the Harpers award could have been tailor made for my peculiar mindset. Nominations are made by other people in the trade without any notification to the nominees. A panel whittles the nominations down to a shortlist of nominees who are then approached for some background information and then finally a judging panel of industry experts convene and settle on a rank order for the Top 50 (full list here). It sounds like they duked it out a bit…
“The judging session was fierce as we delved into the intricacies of what it takes to be a fantastic Independent Wine Merchant in today’s trading conditions. This was not a simple decision on who was the biggest but rather who on this list was proving successful, innovative, sustainable and a fantastic example of modern day wine retail.”
So why did they choose us? Well I’m still a little mystified. (As an aside Mary is still enjoying the fact that she was there to see me genuinely lost for words, stupefied, and unable to approach the stage until she gave me a gentle push in the small of my back. Rumour has it she saw a tear but the lights were dim and she’d been drinking so I’m sure she’s mistaken).
As I’ve said many times since, we are *not* the best wine merchant in the country. There are hardened pros out there with technical product knowledge, commercial nowse and palates that I can never hope to match. Merchants who were finding and importing quirky, interesting wines while I was still transitioning from farm-bought scrumpy to a back pocket bottle of Twenty-Twenty.
But I *am* happy to accept the award as a small pat on the back from others in the industry. An indication that others in the trade think that we’re doing OK. Helpful encouragement that the things I’ve always thought proper pros must regard as trivial mucking about are actually held in some regard. That our approach – driven more by a culture of looking after people and putting them at ease rather than an absolute focus on “the wine” – has resonated with grown-ups in the trade. Those were the sorts of things that the judges mentioned to me after the ceremony. That we always had a project on the go. That it looked like we were having fun. That we didn’t play things safe and that we weren’t afraid to champion the quirky. Basically they’ve given us license to keep on mucking about… which is good.
And I’ve been surprised at the impact that’s had on me personally – something that’s of far greater value than the award itself. Many of you will know that we fell into the wine trade and purchased BinTwo at short notice and with little by way of background in the trade. It was a near vertical learning curve at first – and at times it still feels like a pretty steep slope.
In the past wine hasn’t always occupied a positive place in my life. I still remember the burning humiliation of being made to host a wine and cheese party (with little by way of preparation) as part of the process of being commissioned “from the ranks” before being sent to Sandhurst. The ridiculous notion that *this* was in some way an important skill to master before becoming an officer. The patient faces of guests as, like some sort of performing monkey, I rattled off nonsense about how this wine I can’t pronounce apparently goes well with this particular cheese. How this assisted me with commanding a Platoon in Northern Ireland was never explained to me. Beer and whisky chasers were the preferred drinks of choice by all ranks after a tense patrol. “Can’t wait to get this body armour off and sip a glass of Margaux” said no soldier ever…
Long will live the memory of arriving at a fellow officer’s family home for Christmas with two bottles of something Australian and (I thought) expensive, before with a sinking heart pulling into the driveway of a mini Downton Abbey and subsequently drinking something French and from 1974 with lunch. Much more recently in life I’ve witnessed (and experienced) wine knowledge being “weaponised” by those who should know better but who enjoy the control it offers. Ahhh a surprise public blind tasting… what fun.
Look – I know these past events are about demons in my head, sometimes unpleasant people and dated hierarchies rather than being about “wine”. I’ve probably over-shared but it goes to context. I still feel like an amateur in “the trade”. Tasting wines in front of other pros remains a high anxiety event for me. Offering a view or comment first is a sheer act of willpower. But over the course of the last year or so I’ve started to feel much more comfortable in my skin in terms of what we’re trying to do with BinTwo. A feeling that I’m happy with what “we are” and with with what “we’re not”.
So a small “attaboy!” from the trade couldn’t have been better timed and I’m incredibly grateful for a bit of external encouragement that we’re on the right track. And the process of providing the background information that Harpers asked for (answering the nightmare question of “what makes you stand out?” – something I had to do in 5 minutes against a tight deadline) is probably the most valuable output of all from this episode as it’s a better summary of “us” than I’ve ever achieved in any business plan.
So for anyone who’s still here after this absurd ramble around my psyche, the Harpers award has served to confirm the BinTwo manifesto – I’ve copied my answer to that tricky question below. Let me know if we ever veer off track and thank you all for supporting us and coming along for the ride…
Harpers – What makes you stand out from other retailers?
Hmmm – not sure that I’d claim that we do “stand out”. But in terms of what I think we do well… We start from the proposition that we’re all about making people feeling welcome and comfortable in our space. Wine shops can be intimidating – I still feel that now walking into some merchants – so everything is designed to avoid that. The way you’re greeted, the way we give people time and space to browse, the way we answer questions about wine and the way we react when people ask to do things like put ice in the outstanding Burgundy that we’ve showcased on our by the glass menu. And that also drives how I’ve recruited my team. I’ve got a collection of lovely people who know how to play the host. None of them knew much about wine when they started with us.
We added the wine knowledge with WSET training then drove home the message that they shouldn’t slip into becoming a wine bore. I think we do well at being a little bit brave with our selection. We have lots of wines that you’d expect to find in any good merchant but I don’t chase wines that people feel we “ought” to have at any cost. If we can’t find that stand out Burgundy at the right price then we won’t list it. We champion the quirky and the unusual. We’re gutsy with what we choose to put on by the glass to give people the opportunity to try something a little different. We’re currently selling a funky orange wine that we imported after a trip to McLaren Vale. I think it was quite brave of us to ship a large quantity of that as our first import given how niche orange wine still is. Luckily it’s selling really well.
We don’t have the scope yet to have our own winery but it’s on the list! I have outline plans for what I think would be the smallest micro winery in the country… watch this space. We’ll be making our own gin next month by bringing a mobile still to our shop (I have outline plans for a micro distillery too). I think this speaks to our spirit of play and sense of fun. We like a project. Case in point would be our “own label” Jammy Git brand.
Named as a playful nod to how lucky we are to be in this trade, we use it to showcase a wine we believe in – something with a quirky back story. The current JG is a non vintage blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Gloucestershire and vinified in Cornwall. Blended by us and the winemaker following an impromptu cellar visit. He said it would never sell as it’s non vintage. We said blend it – we’ll underwrite the risk and label it as Jammy Git. Currently flying off the shelves as our lighter summer red. I think these wines, and others like it, sell well yes because they’re great wines, but mostly because customers see what we’re trying to do and they want to support it – maybe even be part of it. Does that sound horribly arrogant? So I’m waffling. What do we do that makes us stand out? I suppose we genuinely try to make sure that we’re having fun, having a play, respect the product but don’t take it too seriously… don’t revere it. Create the conditions that mean that our customers enjoy it and have fun too. Make them feel part of the gang and bring them along for the ride.