Simon Taylor started the Stone, Vine & Sun wine business in 2002 after buying a mail-order list from an existing wine business that had closed down. The company evolved over the years and it now has a number of private clients, a wholesale arm and a shop.
What was it like when you first started the business?
It was terrifying when we started out as we had no customers. We had a little office and place where our wine was stored, and then within six months we had our own warehouse, which is where we are still based.
The business evolved over the years to incorporate more private clients as well as mail order, and now we also sell to the trade, which is an area that has grown a lot over the past few years.
What do you specialise in?
Our strength is really in how we go out to find our own wines. We have some from New Zealand, Australia and some port and sherry and other bits and pieces, but mostly we try to find our own wineries to work with and we buy direct from them, without using an agent. So since we started we have just continued to broaden out.
We started out by specialising in France, particularly areas such as Languedoc-Roussillon and the Rhône. Languedoc is still one of our speciality areas but the Rhône is less so now – it has fallen out of fashion.
But you can be confident about having speciality areas and then customers start asking for wines from Bordeaux, so you end up looking for wines from Bordeaux.
We also added New World wines from South Africa then South America, so we expanded out from those early days.
More recently we added wines from Slovenia and Australia. In total we have about 75 estates we are shipping from. It’s like an agency business except we are tiny.
We also have a really big portfolio of biodynamic and organic wines, as well as wines from women winemakers. A lot of the wines we source are chosen by us because of their taste and then often just happen to be organic, especially the ones we select from places such as Italy and southern France.
Who is your main competition?
Our main competitors here are Caviste and Wine Utopia. Our shop is a warehouse and we are quite invisible, so we are a bit different in that sense. It offers advantages and disadvantages but one of the good things is that, with our warehouse, we can carry a lot of stock. I prefer this method to bonds, even though bonds can be better from a cash-flow point of view. We find that shipping it to our warehouse is cheaper and simpler.
Also, compared to the competition, we buy direct whereas they predominantly buy from wholesalers.
We attract new customers through our tasting events and then people who come and try our wines and like them order more from our website, or they call us up and we can deliver. We have a lot of local private clients.
What has been selling well recently?
The wines are have been selling well recently continue to be those from Languedoc-Roussillon and also ones from South Africa and probably Chile. We are adding things all the time – we have just one estate from Slovenia and we are about to add another. It is really exciting stuff because it is not cheap but it is really good wine.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sell well. We sell oaked and unoaked Chardonnay and it is a myth that the latter has gone out of fashion – we sell tonnes. We sell Macconnais, Chablis, white Burgundy and also Pinot Noir from Chile. We have a South African Chardonnay that has been really popular. We have added some really good stuff from Australia, so some Chardonnay and other wines from Yarra Valley that are really high quality. Then there’s rosé – that’s been doing really well this year.
We had a slow start to the year after a poor December, but since May we have been going gangbusters. We sold more wine in August than we did in December, which is really weird.
What else do you do to keep customers coming back and to attract new ones? We do a lot of tastings and events, including ones in London, and we try to get winemakers to come because we find people really like to hear from them.
This May we did a Chardonnay Maniac and Pinot-path tasting with 60 wines from fizz to Champagne- method wines from South Africa. We have Pinot Noir rosé from Italy and a really good line-up of wines. I think we might run this event again. We held it in London but I’d like to do one locally. We do a lot of tastings for wine societies but we don’t do wine dinners as they are less sociable and not so profitable.
What are your plans for the future? I would consider opening another shop but it is hard to find the right thing. I have looked around before. I am not interested in a tiny shop in the town centre with no parking.
Maybe a pub that is closing would work but they always get snapped up quickly for housing developments. There are a lot of London incomes here but it also means there is a huge pressure on housing.
Majestic has got it right. I would want something big enough and with parking. I would also want to be able to hold events in store and maybe be able to go for the classic hybrid model with some wines to drink in store.
Also for the future I would like to sell more to the trade. I think we are getting better at finding wines where we can make a decent margin so we do sell to some other indies but not a lot.
The wines are unique to us and there is no reason why other people shouldn’t sell these wines and we can split the profit.