A question of wine in St Andrews
Peter Wood has been running his store, the St Andrews Wine Company, since 2012, and it was a real pleasure, and education, to pay him a visit there to find out what his plans are for Crail Food Festival this year.
As it was a sunny Wednesday morning when I visited, a steady stream of visitors came in to browse and buy and it was interesting to hear the different types of requests which Peter had to deal with, all met with his lovely smile and a pleasant greeting. We started by talking a little bit about what Peter’s aims were for his wine shop, which he was quite clear were to be like a farmers’ market for wine – bringing the best of produce to market for his customers.
Having worked in the wine trade for a number of years before starting up his own business, Peter was keen to tell me how his interest in wine began. When he first started work, he started to keep records of every wine he tasted. At first these were jottings in a little notebook, and having filled one, he quickly bought another and set about filling that. He believes that everyone has the ability to discern different tastes in wine, but what can limit people is the vocabulary to describe what they are tasting.
For example, he said, “A bag of chicken flavoured crisps doesn’t actually taste of chicken, it tastes of sage and onion stuffing which reminds people of chicken. ” The same applies with wine – with some white wines, they might remind you of walking down a country lane, so what is it that makes up what you are smelling? A hawthorn hedge, some fresh cut grass? You have to work on gathering phrases to describe what you smell – that’s how you start to understand how we do it.
Filling notebooks proceeded for a while, but as his collection of notes grew, the need to index and find previous notes became more pressing and he decided that the way to do so was to start his own wine blog. Working away on the The Tasting Note over the years, he amassed a following of people who enjoyed his writings and were happy to follow his recommendations. He started writing longer articles and branching out beyond wine to beers and spirits too.
As we chat, the steady stream of people continues. Few leave empty handed. The majority are very happy to have Peter recommend something which is similar to the thing they first asked about, if he hasn’t immediately got that. Part of the excitement of wanting to supply something different from the wines which people can pick up anywhere is that stocks don’t remain the same for very long. Peter reckoned that of the wines which he first stocked in 2012, only a few remain on his repeat order list, as he’s always looking out for something better or something which his customers will enjoy trying which comes from the same variety of grape but a different region and vice versa.
Living in a University town means that there is the challenge of keeping a wide enough variety to satisfy the younger adventurous drinkers who will mostly drink beers or wines and have a modest budget. But with St Andrews also being the Home of Golf and welcoming visitors from all over the world, it’s also necessary to have a good stock of Scotch to entice visitors to try our major export. As we talked, one visitor popped in to say “I admire your tenacity. I came to visit two years ago and in such tough times, it’s great to see that you’re still here when I return.”
As another customer says, “sorry but I just won’t pay more than £10 for a bottle of wine”, Peter is gentle and accommodating, and has another in a similar style to recommend in a trice. This approach is so great to see in action, and shows how well this wine retailer knows his market.
In a quiet moment (there weren’t many) we discussed the use of social media to reach potential customers, and I brought up the question of Gary Vaynerchuk. He is a US Entrepreneur who started his internet career by recording wine tastings and publishing them on YouTube. Peter has been inspired by what Gary Vaynerchuk has done, but it’s not Peter’s style, and he’s working so hard at present to build his wine retail business that video recording tastings is not on his priority list right now.
We turn to the question of what Peter will plan to bring along to Crail Food Festival in mid-June, and it turns out he has a surprise new product for our delight. Red Squirrel Gingernut Liqueur – made by a gentleman called Bruce Borthwick working with Ogilvy Vodka in Glamis. It’s a ginger liqueur highlighting the plight of the red squirrel. Part of the profits from the sale of the liqueur will be given to a supporting the red squirrel. Peter had tried this new drink yesterday and described it as tasting like ginger nut biscuits with a hint of honey, but not too sweet. Sounds delicious – put my name on a bottle!