Corbridge Wines and Spirits is a neat, welcoming, little shop in a prime position in the town’s busy Market Place.
Until 2009 Andrew Nisbett managed the shop on a franchise from Threshers. When the company went under in the November of that year he was offered the chance to take over the lease. His customers were distressed at the prospect of the shop closing and so he took the plunge.
Despite the tough economic climate he is delighted to be trading still. “I knew how much the shop could generate,” he told me. “And this isn’t just a job. It’s a hobby as well.” He’d previously refused promotion to a bigger branch because he liked the shop so much and many of his customers know him by his first name.
It was a need to make a bit of extra money during his student days in London that projected Andrew into the wine trade.
He got a part-time job in a branch of Peter Dominic and ended up a management trainee, well-equipped by a degree in maths for business. He eventually came home to Tynedale, and has been behind the counter in the Corbridge shop for 18 years.
Corbridge Wines and Spirits first came to my attention when I discovered that Andrew stocked some of Jean-Luc Colombo’s superb wines from the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc, lines not available anywhere else in the region.
He’s keen to extend the range of wines on offer, especially from other French classic regions, but his business is built on the sound basis of the model that had hitherto served Threshers pretty well in Corbridge. Average spend per bottle is around £7.50. Nothing on his shelves costs more than £20 and nothing less than £4.99 because the profit margin would be cut too far.
But with careful buying he is able to take the supermarkets on with a few lines, such as the excellent Villa Maria range from New Zealand and Chile’s Errazuriz – at a tempting two bottles for £15, designed he says, to draw people in.
His own favourite wines include Rosedale Shiraz 2008 from Australia’s Barossa Valley (£9.49) as well as both the ‘La Violette’ Syrah (£9.99) and Crozes-Hermitage, les Fées Brunes’ 2009 (on offer at £12.50) made by Jean-Luc Colombo (£9.99).
With a sound head for figures Andrew is acutely aware of the risk of becoming overstretched. He also points out that many independent wine merchants are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to listing new lines. Many of the leading importers on whom the independent sector relies for their supplies insist on tough credit terms and large minimum orders.
Like many small business-owners, he simply hasn’t got the spare cash to take a punt on wines that might sit around in his storeroom for several months. But rather than seeing other independent merchants just as rivals, Andrew hopes that they may be able to pool resources to buy in more interesting new wines.
When he does introduce a new line, it is only after careful tasting. These days, visits to the UK’s premier trade show, the London Internal Wine Fair are less of a jolly and much more of an opportunity to talk with importers and to make new contacts. “I usually make the effort to go down for a couple of days,” he said. “It’s an ideal opportunity for independents. Last year I tasted around 160 wines and spat most of them out.” Proper professionalism.
One of the main delights of the job for Andrew is the interaction with customers, even those who re-appear infrequently. Passing trade from tourists includes some folk who drop into the shop every year on their annual holiday in Northumberland. This year, however, sales have been down a bit, probably, Andrew believes, a consequence of the dreadful weather we’ve endured, though a very busy run up to Christmas redressed the balance.
The shop is open every day from 10am ‘til 9pm, shutting only on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Apart from Andrew’s assistant Margaret, and PhD student Nick, the team is very much a family affair, which provides welcome support.
“You discover just how much a big company does to support you,” Andrew admitted to me. Now his dad helps with the accounts, mum works mornings in the shop and his bother does the occasional stint at night. “Everyone is passionate about wine, and is able to give the kind of advice you need to offer to customers in a shop like this.”
Andrew also feels that especially in a town like Corbridge, it’s also very important to have a commitment to the local community. He told me that he’s looking forward, for example, to hosting another wine tasting for his neighbours at St. Andrew’s Church, just across the Market Place.
Corbridge Wine and Spirits may not (yet at least) offer the kind of range found in bigger independent shops like Bin 21, Carruthers & Kent, Richard Granger and The Wine Chambers, but it does sterling work serving a local community with integrity and warmth, and a great deal of solid know-how.
It’s just the kind of business that every town needs and I hope that Andrew will continue to provide the same friendly welcome for many more years.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Villa Maria, Private Bin Riesling 2011 £9.49 (Corbridge Wines and Spirits, also at Majestic and Waitrose)
Lovely precise smells of lemon and lime, then very crisp, mouth-watering lemon and honey flavours. A New Zealand dry white to savour with any good seafood or fish dish.
Villa Maria is a great ambassador for New Zealand wine with an exceptionally well-made and attractively priced range. The entry-level, 'Private Bin' series is well-represented in Corbridge Wine and Spirits with the East Coast Pinot Grigio 2011, East Coast Gewurztraminer 2010 (both £9.99) and Marlborough Pinot Noir 2011 (£11.99), all of which I recommend.
Majestic have one of the biggest selections of Villa Maria wines, often substantially discounted if you buy two or more bottles. Private Bin Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2011(£11.24) is a gentle red wine, aged in oak for 12 months. It has plenty of brambly fruit with a whiff of nettles, but relies on elegance more than power. Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2012 (£13.99), from the heart of Marlborough, is a class act by any standards – headily-scented with classic passion fruit and tomato stalk aromas, it's ripe, but dry, juicily crisp and very fruity.