The wine in the willows

09 March, 2007

The Bat & Bottle has delivered the goods over the years after reaping rewards from a series of creative ventures. Sally Bairstow reports

Husband and wife Ben and

Emma Robson founded the

Bat & Bottle in Oakham, Rutland, in May, 1994. At the time they wanted to sell interesting estate-bottled wines alongside traditional English-made cricket bats. Over the

years, the wine focus has shifted and

is now dominated by quality wines from Italy. The Robinsons believe they are

one of the few "true specialist importers of Italian wines" in the UK. They have

also added a wine bar, café and deli

into their business mix. They believe it is the way to showcase their wines and increase sales.

How has the business developed into specialist importers of Italian wines?

Ben: We are now stocking about 90 per cent Italian wines, sourced and bought direct from producers with whom we have built up a good relationship over many years. With our shop now in Pillings Road [a small industrial estate] we have the benefit of a good-sized warehouse to import our wines, and also plenty of customer parking. Over the years we have moved away from being a generalist merchant, stocking wines from all over the world, and focus on what we love - Italian wines.

About seven years ago I met a monk who told me to go to Bromsgrove to buy Italian wines from a lady there, Felicita Pask-Hughes. Being vaguely afraid of Benedictine monks I went, bought the wines and then she sold her importing business to me.

We decided to relocate from Staffordshire to Rutland. It was not the 68-mile journey it should have been - we went via Italy for eight months! We met all our suppliers, their neighbours and immersed ourselves in the regions. That's brought us up to a level where I believe we can class ourselves as Italian wine specialists. It coincided with the Rugby World Cup - so we de-listed any country on our portfolio which threatened England in the tournament!

Does this niche specialism pay off?

Ben: We have stabilised the portfolio side of the business now. By directly importing and with the warehouse here, we have a tight control on stock. We work with lots of small producers, particularly in the north east and north west of Italy, and have developed an in-depth feel for each region, village even. In some cases we act as agent/importer for them.

There is an element of business to business as well as selling to private customers. We are importers, merchants, have a retail outlet (opened March 2005), a website for online sales and a mail order business.

There are so many grape varieties, some of which even the Italian authorities have yet to formally recognise, so it's a constant fantastic discovery for us and our customers. The future looks good.

Annual turnover for the shop is around £180,000 and the same for trade.

Why venture into the on-trade?

Emma: We opened Bat & Bottle in the market place, in the centre of Oakham, in November 2006. We wanted a high-street outlet rather than the typical off-licence - this is the way to let customers really taste our wines in a comfortable atmosphere, with food and advice on hand. Then they can buy bottles to take home.

We weren't getting passing custom at our Pillings Road shop, it's just not a place people walk past! Finding a central position in town was vital. We waited four years to get it (a former knitwear shop). The lease and refurbishment has been a £200,000 investment.

Ben: Many people haven't heard of the wines we stock so they can try them in the wine bar. The advantage is that it generates a steady cash generation with the café and deli too. The two market days are very busy, as are Friday and Saturday nights. It was always Emma's dream to have a wine bar. It fits with the rest of our business and we can see how customers react to our wines. It has taken a massive amount of our time and resources , but at the end of the day, it's another way to increase our sales power.

Transparency is key in pricing. The wine list shows on and off-sales prices. Only two customers so far have questioned the mark-up for bar prices. Prices average about £10 more in the bar.

What are your plans for 2007?

Ben: After a frantic 2006 we want to really make all the aspects of the business work harder now. We'd like to see 30 per cent growth this year. For the wine bar we are starting from scratch so we have targets of £300,000. We'd like to see more of Italy's indigenous grapes make it on to our wine portfolio [only if we love the wines though]. As we grow we are seeing many of our producers growing with us. We want to maintain our 35-45 per cent margins.

And the "bat" bit?

Yes, that's a love! But it was 10 years after we started the business that we actually sold one. Some are on display but all are now made bespoke by farmer Giles Brearley ( He grows the willow on his Kent farm, seasons it and makes bats to order. They retail at £180 . It's more standing by the Bat & Bottle name.

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