Posted: Jun 11, 2018
After 10 years in finance, Richard Ellison setup Wanderlust Wine, with the aim of offering sustainable, high-quality wine from small producers around the world. After enrolling in wine school, Richard realised his passion for wine had the potential to be more than a hobby. Led by his love for discovering new wines and untapped regions, he saw a gap in the market and began importing wines that weren't available in the UK that he had discovered while travelling the world. Your correspondent sat down with Richard to learn about the impact of being named The Independent’s Wine Merchant of the Year, how to grow a boutique business and what it takes to deliver wine by the hour to Londoners.
1. What's your elevator pitch for Wanderlust Wine?
The strap line is small producers off the beaten track, but that’s just quite literal. The strap line I’m looking to go to is Learn, Discover and Taste. So, materials online to self-educate, discover new regions and new producers and try the wines with a wine club or a tasting or however you choose.
2. What does Wanderlust do that wasn’t already available?
I saw a gap in the market, and I decided I wanted to try and do something in wine. I travelled as everyone else has travelled, you go to Tuscany on holiday with your other half, or you go to South America or to South Africa, and you always go and visit a vineyard, but you can’t buy the wine from the vineyard in the UK because often it’s not exported. You just can’t get it. You put it in your suitcase you bring 3-5 bottles back and that’s it. Next time you have to go out there and do it again.
So, my idea was that if these are really good producers, why can’t I just bring them back. They make exceptional wine, they’re undiscovered, they’ve got a story to tell, they’re often family producers and they’re often sustainable. All those things for me really ticked the box, and it’s what I’ve been doing for years. My wine rack is full of wine from all these different places. It’s almost like autobiographical that you have all these memories from the bottles.
3. How did you find the producers and what’s the vetting process?
I’ve often found them by just putting a backpack on and going to the region and immersing myself. So, when I went to Piedmont in the North West of Italy, I just hired a car and got to Milan, drove down, parked up, staying in the local vineyard guesthouse, did a bit of research. One of the things I realised you could do is go to one of the late-night wine bars/restaurants, you get there 9-10pm have a dish of pasta, buy a bottle of wine and get the waiter to sit down and have a glass after everyone’s left, and they just tell you all the hidden gems of the area. That really worked for me in Italy, because it’s an area where you get a lot of extremely expensive wine and a lot of overpriced wine. They’re all hidden down a little dirt road, and it’s a family house where they make wine in the back garden. Conversely somewhere like Hungary, Romania, you’ve just got to know where you’re going and know somebody there. Going to a local restaurant or taverna is a great tip if you’re travelling and want to ask about finding local wines.
4. How do you decide what type of wine to focus on?
I think it’s a balance between consumer demand and what we’re trying to focus on. So, consumer demand it was artisanal Sauvignon Blanc, I’m not going to go off to Armenia to try and find some weird white wine. So that’s why I made my own wine in New Zealand two and a half years ago because there was a huge demand for one that was really good and amazing value rather than Cloudy Ba,y which is now £25 a bottle for a Sauvignon Blanc. That’s a lot of money for people so we managed to do it at £12.
In terms of vetting these people, the way to get behind the scenes is to go and ask them, to see the operation, what happens, where are the barrels, how big are the tanks and that gives you a flavour instantly as to how good they are. One place I pulled up at in New Zealand was bigger than a food factory, it was massive, and they sell the same ones in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. I was like this is never going to work, but sometimes you get there and there’s just nothing but a couple of barrels in someone’s shed.
5. What’s been the biggest surprise?
We won The Independent’s Wine Merchant of the Year at Christmas. That was amazing to be recognised at that level nationally. The biggest surprise difficulty wise is constant tech problems, when the website goes down, which it has done a couple of times. These are the problems you are going to have, and we’ve learnt a lot from it.
6. Based on what you've learned, what are some of the ways you're growing and innovating the business?
Now we sell wine next day delivery nationwide on the website. We sell it by the hour to Londoners, which we launched in November. Most wine merchants have a larger warehouse, so ours is out in Twickenham, and we dispatch nationwide from there. We’ve got a much smaller mini warehouse that just pumps out the orders. The thing that annoyed me when I wanted to do this was that Deliveroo and UberEats require 35-40% fee and I was like you’ve got to be joking that means that bottle of Veuve Cliquot that’s usually £35 I’ve got to charge £70 for it, and it just didn’t work. I said well actually I can just do this myself and I’ll take on the big guys. We only charge a £2 premium, which basically pays for the warehouse, on the bottle and they can have it within the hour in zones 1 and 2.
7. Where do you want to sit in the market?
The ambition really is to be known as the wine merchant of choice. Trust is a big thing for me, so you establish trust through consistency and delivering on what you do. I think we do that very, very well now and as you get bigger that becomes a challenge. So, to be known as the wine merchant of choice for consistency, smaller producers and sustainable wine, and then education as we grow.
We’ve also got a wine club, which has proved hugely successful because you can get a curated selection every quarter to your door and you only pay £5 a week for it. So, it breaks it down into small chunks and who doesn’t spend £5 a week on wine these days. So, £5 is nothing, and you get information with the box - leaflets about the wines and stuff like that.
8. How do you scale your business?
Naked Wines when they started did or do exactly what I do. So, Naked now turn over £500-600 million per year or something like that. So how do you turn over £500-600 million and provide small producers - that’s a lot of wine! You can’t do it really. I mean I definitely want to stay true to what we do. It might just have to be that eventually we limit what we buy and as we grow, a bit like Monzo the credit card.
9. When did you know this was a serious, viable business?
The business has sort of gone through stages. It started to get serious when I sold to restaurants and there was a big supply chain, a cash flow element. I didn’t go out and raise money, it’s sort of naturally grown, which showed me there was a huge demand for it. When you talk to people they’re like this is absolutely what we want; there’s a gap in the market, and you have to keep doing it, which is all a massive reinforcement. I haven’t raised any cash yet; I’m still 100% shareholde,r and I will need to dilute it but with the right partners. One thing for young entrepreneurs is that you know you have gaps and you fill those gaps with skills and expertise that can help transform the business. No capital has been raised but I’d only ever dilute equity with people who can bring the skillset and can transform the business, and/or crowdfunding.
By Bridget Arsenault
June 10, 2018
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