ONE of the more surprising developments of the last few years is the number of local folk who have decided to try their hand at selling wine.
They’re determined to succeed where well-established chains like Threshers have failed. And to make life spicier in these cash-strapped days when the pound is at low ebb against the euro and other major currencies, they’ve decided to import wine directly from small producers.
I wish them all every success, but it’s a bit of a no-brainer to predict that some of them will be lucky to last more than a year or two. It’s so hard to make a decent profit. But if you’re retired or sufficiently well-off not to have to depend entirely on making a living from selling wine, it can be a lot of fun. That’s what John Lognonné hopes, and I have a hunch that his business will grow.
John plays to his strengths. The son of a Breton sailor, he speaks his father’s language well. He has a deeply impressive knowledge of French wine. And as a farmer he knows what makes small wine producers tick. When all’s said and done they are farmers too ... they speak the same language whether it’s French or English.
With a farmer’s diffidence and caution he has had the good sense to build the business slowly.
“It’s all very low key,” he insists. He’s led a couple of wine-tastings, sold a few bottles at Hexham’s Christmas Fair and is building up a customer base through word of mouth. Vets and feed merchants now beat an even more eager path to his door, at New House Farm, high on the South Northumberland Moors at Kiln Pit Hill.
Although the farm is just a few hundred yards from the busy A68, John and his family didn’t feel that a lonely hill farm was the ideal spot for another farm shop. So when they took the decision to get rid of the cattle, concentrate on sheep, and “do something different”, selling wine seemed an obvious choice.
The Grape Unknown offers a remarkable selection of fine quality French wine from award-winning small producers.
“I enjoy travelling,” John told me, “and I really love going round and making new contacts, so I went to France with the idea of sourcing some less common wines.
“I tried some very obscure possibilities, but they weren’t always very palatable, like some of the red wines I sampled in the Jura.”
Other wines just didn’t make sense to import, like another Jura speciality, Vin Jaune. “It’s very expensive,” says John, “and not a lot different from a good quality sherry.”
After criss-crossing the country (I shudder to think of his fuel bill) from North East to far South West, taking in just about every obscure vineyard region on the way, he mustered an astonishingly tempting selection of goodies in his trailer.
In addition he spent a happy time buying a few more lines at the Independent Wine Producers’ Fair, held every year in the northern city of Lille, where he also “got the idea of how the French buy their wine, with trolleys piled high for Christmas.”
John is unsurprised to discover that Northumbrians are a little less willing to open their wallets. “If you’re offering premium quality wines that people put aside for special occasions, they tend to just buy three or four bottles.”
He has also found that unfamiliar names can be off-putting (“the public don’t like things that are too new”), which is why he’s supplemented his list of rarities with a core selection of fine wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire Valley.
But it’s just those carefully-chosen rarities like tasty dry whites from the Alpine vineyards of Savoy that make The Grape Unknown special and reward an icy expedition up to New House Farm.
And many of John’s delicious discoveries are anything but expensive. I was delighted, for example, to see some wines from a dynamic little co-operative just outside Angoulême. I know them well: I once did some translation for them and thought that I could only buy their wines within 20 miles of the cellar door.
Their very decent Chardonnay 2006 is just £5 from The Grape Unknown and their Pinot Noir 2006 just a pound more.
Even fine wines from well-known areas are very competitively priced, like Pascal Molat’s exemplary Pouilly Fumé 2007, a delicious Sauvignon Blanc, with a classically crisp, mineral salts and gooseberry flavour ... a great buy at £9.
You don’t need to trek up into the hills to buy John’s wines – they are available online via www.thegrapeunknown.co.uk; but if you want visit in person and enjoy a chat with one of the most genuine and engaging wine people I’ve met over the last 12 months, give John a ring on 01207 255271.