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Supporting the Independent Wine Retailer

By April 11, 2013No Comments

This week has brought some disturbing news on the wine retailing front. It was announced last week that Scenic Cellars in Taupo had undergone a change of ownership and would not continue with its retail presence. Also sad news was the sale of the iconic Ultimo Wine Centre in Sydney to the Coles supermarket chain. These are losses that are symptomatic of the challenges facing independent wine retailers in a very competitive environment, and directly affects the enjoyment of wine by enthusiasts.

Casualties – Scenic Cellars and Ultimo Wine Centre
Scenic Cellars has been one of the best wine shops in Australasia. Under the ownership of Peter Taylor, Scenic Cellars became a Mecca, even though situated in the unlikely location of Taupo with a small resident, rural focussed population. The heady days of a full range of Bordeaux reds and large format d’Yquem, and an amazing range of rare and award winning Australian and New Zealand wines will always be remembered fondly. It was Peter’s personal passion that drove the store, and the massive database of customers responded to this.

Staff members Ian Isaacs, Cate Langley and Sarah Barlow took over the business in 2002, and introduced The Vine Café as part of package. In 2011, Scenic Cellars shifted from its lakeview site to Tuwharetoa Street and enlarged the dining experience. Under this new guise, Scenic Cellars and The Vine Eatery immediately took off. The directors have acknowledged that the dining aspect is considerably more successful “exceeding their expectations” and have decided to concentrate on that side of the business, rather than compete in the increasingly difficult liquor retail sector. The Vine Eatery has now taken precedence, but it retains a very strong wine component as its point of difference. Ian Isaacs reports that diners will have 250 wines available from the reduced shelf space. It will still be a destination to experience good wine and food.

Scenic Cellars sales manager Floris Heijdenrijk, who has his own liquor importation operation, has purchased the Scenic Cellars name and database, and will operate as an on-line business, based on the nearby Merchant of Taupo site, with the intention of continuing to offer a strong range of fine wine.

Sydney’s icon wine store, Ultimo Wine Centre has no doubt suffered similar challenges and there have rumours rife about it for some time. Its reputation for a superb range of specialist fine and classic wines, and staff expertise and knowledge brought wine lovers from throughout Australia and overseas into the store. Again, as with Scenic Celllars, the business and its success was the result of the personal passion of owner John Osbeiston. Ultimo Wine Centre has been acquired by Coles, and the premises are to be rebranded as a Coles’ Vintage Cellars shop. Hopefully there won’t be too many drastic changes, but it is surmised that there will be stocking of wines from some of the larger and more populist producers.

Supporting the Independents
Having been a wine retailer for over 20 years, I’ve experienced at first-hand the difficulties and challenges of selling wine. The most significant influence has been the sale of wine through supermarkets. This has reduced the viability of small and independent wine retail businesses. I believe that supermarkets have a strong and positive role in making wine accessible to a wider community and will continue to grow the acceptance of wine as a normal alcoholic beverage. However their competitive methods erode the profitability of wine producers and resellers around them. The treatment of wine as a commodity does not encourage the understanding, responsibility and true interest of its special nature.

That’s where the specialist independent wine store comes in. Here it is the people – owners and staff that are key. They invariably have a real interest in what they are dealing with and selling. They are more aware of the detail and culture of wine, and talk from the heart and from their personal experiences. Such shops will have a far more interesting and indeed superior range of wines stocked. Though not necessarily carrying as many lines as a large supermarket, the wines will have been well-chosen to fill a niche in price and style, and will have the approval of the staff for the taste it delivers. If a wine interested person wishes to learn more, these are the places that will provide the opportunity – whether by just talking to the staff, buyers or owners, or by attending a tasting or wine focussed event they might be conducting. The independents have had to grow their level of service and expertise, and branch out into the more esoteric products to have a competitive point of difference to supermarkets, and these are features to be enjoyed as customers. The more wines these independent stores sell, the more ability they have in growing what they are doing, and this gives the wine lover greater choice of more interesting wines.

For our own sakes, keep on supporting the likes of First Glass, Caros, Wine Direct, Maison Vauron, Peter Maude and the Fine Wine Delivery Co. in Auckland. Wellington has good stores such as Regional Wines & Spirits, Centre City and Wineseeker. I love what Vino Fino and Decant are doing in Christchurch. Advintage in Havelock North, Winos in Blenheim and the new Wine Freedom as well as Meenans in Dunedin are places to visit. As wine enthusiasts, you will have your own list of good places, which I may have omitted. The larger operations are also worthy of support, and Glengarry in Auckland and Wellington has a wealth of fine wine as well as very accessible wines in the shops. The experience, expertise and enthusiasm of the staff at Glengarry is a highlight. Within the chains of Liquorland, Liquor King and Super Liquor, there are operators who stand out like beacons. They are easy to spot, as their stores have a wider and different range of wines, with interest, and the proprietors and staff wish to engage you about wine.

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