Food Belfast Interview James Nicholson

Chatting to a wine expert is more or less the same as getting into the back of a taxi – you spend the entire time trying not to ask one of the questions you know the driver has been asked a dozen times already that day.

But, inevitably at some point your brain thinks about it so much you’ll blurt out, and in no particular order, ‘are you on all night?’ or ‘how do you convert people to become wine drinkers?’ flows out of your mouth.

It was a question that whirred through my mind as I spoke to Jim Nicholson in JN Wine over an espresso or two. I managed to last more than an hour before I came out with it, coyly asking if it’s possible to convert someone who dislikes wine.

“We do a three-week [wine] course in January and February for a pretty modest amount, and it’s filled up every year,” said Jim.

“I think we’re going to start doing more of those. One of the nights we always make sure there’s a wine maker here and a couple of our guys who are brilliant take the classes. It’s amazing how people get to see something different.”

“I don’t know if you can convert everyone. Some people don’t like wine, just like some people don’t like reading books and sometimes to convert the uninterested is very difficult. In a funny way the supermarkets do get people on the ladder – we also get a lot of people who are maybe in the Sunday Times Wine Club and then they join our club.”

JNWine.com, like the Sunday Times, boasts its own wine club, with cases, priced at £85 (€135) or £130 (€170) going out bi-monthly. JN Wine Club

“The Sunday Times bring them up to a certain level and then they maybe get one of our club cases and that’s it. We’re not after just another fruity, clean, reasonably well made wine – we’re trying to get a bit more interest into what we’re selling, attempting to over deliver all the time. To try and convert is probably a job that only a supermarket can do – it’s too big a job for us – but we’re very happy when they convert them.

“We’re always benchmarking against what others are selling and when it gets to the point where we’re offering no point of difference then it’s a time to just close the door and go home.

“It’s funny though, if I put 20 bottles along this table and I brought in 20 novice people who drink an occasional glass of wine, I guarantee you they will pick out the top three wines. They will enjoy the roundness, the flavour.”

The purpose-built Nicholson store in Crossgar looks more like an art gallery than a wine shop – each wine sitting proudly on tall, airy shelves, like they’re part of someone’s personal collection.

“This is our 34th year and within that time you don’t have one business that goes 34 years, you have a business that gets reinvented and I think that’s always the challenge – to reinvent what you’re doing. That doesn’t mean reinventing the whole thing but I guess we have reinvented about five or six times until about three or four years ago when we reinvented to this level where we said we needed a proper shop and the infrastructure so we could administer everything from one base. We built this premises and we built the warehouse in Dublin five years ago and then we bought a business in Cork.”

Whilst not wanting to become a “massive company”, Jim admits that they wanted to be up to a scale where the business could comfortably import everything and work directly with small growers.

“Up to about 15 years ago we were an agency business and then I started spending time looking at it more.

“When I did you found people who you knew where they were, what they were doing, you knew the authenticity, the provenance. To us now, provenance is very important whether we’re dealing in South Africa or Argentina or we’re in Chile – we want to know the vineyards, where something comes from and we want to know where it’s bottled. I spend more time now going out at vintage time so I’m there seeing a lot of wineries as it’s happening.”

It’s a unique selling point for Nicholson – staff can talk at length about most of their wines given that someone will have been at the vineyard at some point. Our interview took place on the back of Jim’s latest trip to South Africa, where he saw some problems that may not have surfaced until it was too late.

“I was there watching Pinot Noir coming in to the sorting table, watching what they were doing. Wineries can tell us anything – ‘we sort this and we’ve no problems with viruses’ – but when you go and visit it can sometimes be a different matter. I saw a vineyard and I could see the leaves looked like it was autumn and it was clear they had some sort of viral problem. I tasted their wines and they weren’t good, so I think that visiting and travelling and seeing is absolutely vital.”

Back in Europe, English wine is one to keep an eye on with big name champagne houses buying up land in the south of the country, but for Nicholson, the finished product is still too expensive.

“We used to list some Nyetimber [English sparkling wine], but it’s now selling at the price of champagne. The UK should give the guys a break and drop the duty by half. If you’re really going to give the English guys a leg up, give them a break on duty or give them some kind of marketing break. There’s some decent wines, but are they decent enough to interest me in selling them at £12 to £14 and Nyetimber at £24 a bottle? It’s just too expensive.”

But closer to home, does he think there will be a day when we see wine being produced on a large scale in Ireland?

“There’s a small producer in Cork. I wouldn’t be surprised but I think a lot of the soils in the south of England are suited to sparkling wines – they’ve got the chalky soils that work very well, a lot of our land is too fertile. We may get the climate eventually, which is very important, but the land is the problem.”

Article published in http://foodbelfast.com/ 31st May 2011.

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