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Building success on a few of their favourite things

MY brother has a dream of owning a shop that will sell his three favourite things: chocolate, cheese and wine.

Andrew and Jo Foster, proud owners of Dillies
Andrew and Jo Foster, proud owners of Dillies

MY brother has a dream of owning a shop that will sell his three favourite things: chocolate, cheese and wine. He is convinced it will succeed. Andrew and Jo Foster had a similar idea, and as my brother would approve, made sure it was founded on good business sense.

“We have a background in retail”, Andrew said; “we’ve never done anything without a business plan. Jo is a florist, but the figures didn’t stack up for just a flower shop, so we added chocolate, and they still didn’t tot up. I worked for a while in the South of France and I’ve always loved wine; I’ve even studied it, so we put that into the pot and the plan worked.”

Their next challenge was to find a name for their new shop at 18 Market Street, Hexham. Andrew admitted that “Foster’s Flowers, Chocolate and Wine Shop” didn’t sound very exciting, nor did “Jo’s Florist”, so they spent days playing around. And then Jo came up with ‘Dillies’. “I had no idea what a dilly was,“ Andrew said, “but Jo told me it means something or someone delightful. It seemed perfect and gave us a strong brand.”

It has been hard work, but three years later, the business is doing well. Flowers are on the left of the shop, fabulous handmade chocolates in the counter facing the door, and to the right, there’s an enticing wall of wines. There are about 125 different bottles, but Dillies’ impressive online business, www.dillies.co.uk, offers twice as many lines.

A sign of success is that Andrew and Jo receive an increasing number of invitations to do private wine tastings, chocolate tastings and sometimes, wine and chocolate tastings together.

Some of the wines, sourced from major importers such as Liberty and Enotria can also be found on the shelves of other leading independent wine merchants in the region, and Dillies also carry a welcome selection from local Portuguese wine importers, Martavine and Portovino. But it was good to see other things that aren’t available anywhere else locally, for example, some unusual Greek wines, and there’s the promise of more goodies on the way.

In particular, Andrew has struck a deal with top-quality Brighton-based Croatian wine specialists PactaConnect to sell their wines in the north. On their first visit to the region, PactaConnect were one of the great successes of last month’s Northumbria Food and Wine Festival. Other targets are Canadian wine and malt whiskies suitable for gifts.

For a relatively small range, which makes space to include unusual wines, the balance is good, with some particularly well-chosen Italian and Spanish wines.

The New World is not forgotten. A juicy, brightly fruity, Unruly Zinfandel 2010 (£8.49) is a good example from California. And it is perhaps inevitable, that in this of all shops, they should also stock The Chocolate Box (£8.99) a rich, red wine flavoured with dark chocolate. I’ve tasted it and can vouch that it is really rather better than it sounds.

It’s good to see too that Andrew and Jo are determined to offer their range at inviting prices. “We have to keep our prices keen,“ Andrew explained. “We don’t want a reputation for being expensive. And one of the advantages of a business in three parts is we’re not reliant on any one of them.” Prices range from £5 to £40, but the bulk of sales, Andrew reckons, are in the £7 to £12 bracket.

While I was nosing around the shop a customer approached Andrew. “I’m just looking for something a bit different,” he said. It seemed he wasn’t sure whether to buy wine, chocolates, flowers, or all three. They got talking and Andrew showed him some of their eclectic range of sparkling wines.

One of the joys of Dillies is they offer a near-ideal gift service, right down to greetings cards and helium balloons. It’s possible to put together a highly personal, even unique present. Dillies’ motto is, appropriately, “you shouldn’t haves.” Another strength of Dillies is that Andrew, Jo and their staff go to great lengths to ensure that choosing a bottle of wine is in no way intimidating or even embarrassing.

“We want people to feel that this is a place where you can come and have a real conversation. You can even talk to one of the florists about the wine you’ve tried.” And a desire not to overwhelm people lies behind Andrew’s insistence he won’t increase the wine shelf space in the shop.

The range does not, however, stay fixed. Wines come and go. “I’m aware that collectors do the rounds of the wine shops,” Andrew told me, and he’s determined that they’ll always find something tempting at Dillies.

One such discovery is the delightful Stopham Estate Pinot Blanc 2010 (£13.99). This lovely dry white from Sussex is a bit like biting into a ripe English apple – crisp, but fruity, creamy and sophisticated. It’s worth grabbing before the 2011 vintage comes along, and with it a price hike.

If I’m stuck for an idea for a present, I’ll certainly now know where to go. I’m looking forward to trying those fine Croatian wines, and before I said my goodbyes, I couldn’t resist buying a pair of handmade chocolate frogs.

WINE OF THE WEEK

Château du Coing de Ste Fiacre 2010, Muscadet, Sèvre et Main, sur lie. £8.99 Dillies.

A long name, but a delicious dry white wine with a fresh, lemon and mineral salts and a crisp, but creamy taste of apples, backed up by fizz. A must for seafood, or fish and chips.

WINE EXTRAS

SAUVIGNON Blanc is lovely, but Sauvignon Gris, its very close cousin, is richer and a bit more smokily sophisticated.

I am an addict and am therefore delighted to see Brancott Estate’s ‘R’ Sauvignon Gris 2011 (£13.15 from Sainsbury’s) a new release in their single estate range from Marlborough, New Zealand.

It’s suitably rich and smoky with hints of melon and ripe peach, yet still with the grassy lift more familiar to Sauvignon Blanc. In the mouth it’s both zesty and spicy, with pear and peach fruit.

Red Rioja seems more chunkily fruity these days. Campo Viejo Rioja Tempranillo 2010 (£8.39 in most supermarkets) is just such a wine, and I love it – a rich ruby, with a kiss of spicy oak, ripe plum and bramble fruit that’s certainly ripe, but balanced by quite firm tannins.

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