Vive la difference

19 October, 2007

Being French, Bertrand Prévost knows his onions when it comes to food and wine. Laura Clark talks to him about his delicatessen and drinks store

When French-born Bertrand Prévost moved to the UK 17 years ago to learn English, he had no idea he would end up owning a shop that includes in its best sellers a wine from the Jura vineyards - the closest appellation to his childhood home in l'Isle sur le Doubs.

Having left Unwins before its demise, Prévost and his business partner Nicholas Dawes decided to open a wine merchant and delicatessen in the picturesque village of Bourne End on the banks of the river Thames in Buckinghamshire. After two years of a happy partnership Dawes is moving on, leaving Prévost in control of the business.

Does your French heritage influence buying decisions?

We're not a Bordeaux or Burgundy specialist but we do have a great selection of medium-upwards priced wines from these two regions. We are also very strong in south west France, the Languedoc and smaller châteaux - we tend not to go for the top ones. It's crazy that they say the French wine market is struggling. Ninety per cent of sales are French. The other 10 per cent are Chile, Argentina, Italy, Australia and South Africa. We have more than just the French wines because people want other things. The Italian selection has a few gems, and Australian and New Zealand wines are very important to us.

How do you decide what to stock?

It's mostly chosen on my own taste, 99 per cent of the time it's because I like it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Brands aren't welcome here and they never will be. We said from the beginning we want no brands. People can buy it in the supermarket for half the price that we could sell it for. We also try to get special beers and very local brews if we can. We're not moving into beer brands like Foster's and Stella - they don't interest me at all.

Why did you choose this spot?

It happened by accident. We were looking for something in nearby Flackwell Heath and the estate agent showed us this. We liked the fact it had parking outside and it's very useful having Bourne End parade so close by. It was a security shop so we had to set up from scratch. It was a big undertaking. The shelves that span the length of the shop are book shelves, but are a perfect size to display wine. I'm always moving things around so people have a great view when they peer in. I just try things until they work. You could work 24 hours a day if you wanted to, you wouldn't get bored. There are so many things to do, time just flies.

Do you run promotions?

At the moment we have any 12 bottles of Bergerie de la Bastide 2006 Vin de Pays d'Oc, red or white, for £48. We have regular promotions on ale such as three for £4.50, and six for £6 on lager. We also offer 10 per cent off any 12 bottles of wine, and if you're a member of our wine club you get 10 per cent off everything you buy. Eventually we want to do more promotions because that's what people want. We also do monthly tastings, one of the most recent we had was American wine.

Why did you decide to combine selling wine with gourmet food?

Food helps to attract more customers and it brings in more money. The food is 99 per cent French and most of it we import ourselves. It's good fun. All our customers like the idea and come in for things like cheeses, olives and meats. The busiest time for food sales is between seven and eight in the evening. I don't intend to extend the food range much more, there are limits.

How important is your website to the business?

Internet sales make up between 10 and 15 per cent of sales each week. It's only been going for six months and it's not the best design, but I hope to improve it to draw more people in. People are generally looking for a particular wine, they know what they're looking for. There's no compromise - that's the wine they want and that's it.

What are your customers like?

We have people from all walks of life - we don't have a stereotypical customer. We probably get more women than blokes compared with most wine shops because of the food. You get wives coming in to select the food and the husband choosing the wine. We don't have a problem with under-age kids because we don't sell what they want so they don't come in. We're not targeting young people, it's not that type of attraction. We don't do alcopops or mixers.

Does being a specialist wine merchant and deli mean you have a reputation for being more expensive?

The image of a small shop is that it's expensive, people have got that preconception. Our average bottle price is £8.99, that's what about 70 to 80 per cent of customers want to buy. At the moment the most expensive bottle I have in stock is Mas de Daumas Gassac Cuvée Emile Peynaud 2002, which is £85.50, but that's a one-off.

What makes you stand out from other drink shops?

Our individuality. We're not mainstream and we stock wines you can't find in other shops. We can source small parcels of wine because we're not looking for big volumes. We don't compete with the supermarkets, there's no competition - if they want to sell wine for £3.99 nothing is going to change that.

Having owned your own business, could you work for a chain again?

I couldn't go to work for the likes of Thresher. I need more freedom to choose what we put on the shelf. If you own a convenience store or work in a multiple chain you tend to get bored and to sell the same products all the time. With your own business you can change what you sell and drop something just like that. It keeps customers interested. But you have to be patient, you don't make billions and any money you do make you put back on the shelves. You make enough to pay the bills. If you're greedy and want to make lots of money this isn't the industry to be going into. It's a great lifestyle - it's not the most rewarding financially but it's one of the most interesting trades to be in.

Bertrand & Nicholas' best sellers

Cuvée Julia Pinot Noir 2004 Côtes du Jura Domaine Ganevat, £12.99

Domaine Laulan Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Côtes de Duras, Domaine de Laulan, £6.49

Bergerac Blanc 2006 Domaine Haut Montlong, £6.99

Le Cèdre 2001 Pascal Verhaeghe, £23.49

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