This week the Courier and News introduces new monthly wine columnist, Tom Jones, successful proprietor of award winning The Whalley Wine Shop and now also at Huntley’s Country Stores, Samlesbury, to write in our newspapers.
But how did Tom, 31, become so interested in and fascinated by wine, a path which has led to him running such a successful business?
Brought up in Ribchester, attending the village primary and Longridge High and Clitheroe Grammar schools before completing a degree in law at Durham University, Tom took a year out before uni, working for off licence chain Threshers in Berry Lane, Longridge and former Italian Restaurant Pan e Vino on the outskirts of Ribchester.
He had also started to cook for himself and enjoyed eating out.
He says: “The food and wine industry in the area was buzzing. Working in a restaurant watching the professionals pay so much attention to pairing food and wine and seeing at first hand how they worked so well together was amazing.
“I loved working in the shop too, it was exciting talking to people on a daily basis about the wines they were looking for and what they enjoyed. It is a fascinating subject to learn about, every country has its differences, every grape has its differences, and once you think you understand it, every year a new vintage arrives and it changes again!
“For me it’s not just the wine, it’s always been about the delicious combination of good food and good wine and the effect it has on your taste buds. Every meal you have or every plate of food you cook has a perfect wine or drink to go with it that enhances the whole experience. The fun is searching out that matching wine.”
In fact, wine became such a passion, Tom decided a career in law wasn’t for him and he secured a place on the graduate scheme in the Threshers Wine School, enjoying many placements in their branches all around the country before becoming manager at Threshers in King Street, Whalley.
But the company was struggling to keep up with the way both the wine industry and modern retail was changing and towards the end of 2009 announced it was going into administration.
No-one stepped into buy Threshers and everybody was made redundant, Tom losing his job just before Christmas.
But as the new year rolled in, Tom was already planning to turn the Whalley shop into an independent wine merchants.
Tom believed in the potential of the location and felt he had the drive and initiative to make it happen.
“I had always been interested in the numbers behind how businesses work and how different businesses achieve success and I drew up a business plan,” says Tom.
With the backing of a bank, who he says were “very supportive” the lease was bought from the administrator, the premises refurbished with a contemporary look and the doors of his quality fine wine shop opened in April 2010.
“And since then it has gone from strength to strength,” says Tom, who felt it was also important to operate as a shop for the community and to be “a big part of the village” selling other products residents wanted such as champagne, premium spirits, local ales, world beers and ciders.
“From there we continued to improve the wines we offered and more and more customers started to visit from the Ribble Valley and further afield,” he says.
The shop also expanded it’s selling area to stock ranges from the world’s major wine producing countries and the second year saw Tom introduce an innovative “by the glass” initiative, a try before you buy scheme, which he had seen in one of London’s fashionable wine bars.
This soon turned the shop into “a vibrant sampling scene” and tables, barrels and umbrellas were placed outside too.
Customers can try fine wines from just 50p or just enjoy a glass of wine for £2.50.
The first year the shop broke even and in the six years since then, business has grown every year to a point where it has doubled.
Open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, business has not only flourished, but the shop has been written about in the national media, The Guardian describing the shop as ‘a gem’, and it has won more than a dozen awards both nationally and at home.
While top awards from the national wine industry such as the prestigious Decanter Award and the International Wine Award mean a lot to Tom and his “fantastic team of eight,” one of whom is operations manager and his fiancee Jen Nott, so too does being judged to be Ribble Valley’s ‘Independent Retailer of the Year’ which The Whalley Wine Shop won at last year’s Ribble Valley Business Awards.
Such has the business grown, when the opportunity came along to open up at Huntleys, Tom decided to take what he describes as “The Whalley Wine Shop ethos” there too and enjoys being at an outlet offering quality foods including an award winning butcher, a fishmongers, fresh bread, cakes and fruit and vegetables, etc.
“You’ve got everything there,” he says, “to create the perfect meal... and now a good bottle of wine to enjoy with it.”
Both the shops also stock a wide range of gins and craft beers, with lots of quirky, interesting and unusual brands.
Tom says: “We love to stock the wines, beers and spirits that everybody is talking about. If it’s trendy, happening and there’s a buzz about it, we’ll have it. We’ve always got a bottle open too, and there’s always something new and interesting to taste, so come on in.”
Looking back, Tom says: “I was always positive about starting the business, but it has taken a lot of drive, hard work and long hours over a number of years to get to the point we are currently at.
“I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic people who have helped to build the business and feel very privileged to be working in an industry I love in an area I love.
“But the best thing has been the support of our amazing customers, we have met some wonderful people and we are always humbled by the nice things they say about us. We couldn’t have succeeded without them.
“Buying wine should be an enjoyable experience.
“We try to make sure every customer who comes into the shop is made to feel special, gets looked after by an enthusiastic team of knowledgeable people, has an enjoyable experience and our aim is to help them choose the right wine every time they come in.”