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Published:  23 July, 2008

Simon Taylor, Founder, Stone, Vine & Sun, Twyford, Winchester. Interview: Josie Butchart

Stone, Vine & Sun No. 13 Humphrey Farms Hazeley Road Twyford, Winchester SO21 1QA

Tel: 01962 712 351

Simon Taylor founded Stone, Vine & Sun in October 2002 after 23 years working for Sotheby's as a Victorian picture expert and, latterly, as deputy managing director of Sotheby's Europe. He teamed up with Andrew Shaw (ex-Averys, Majestic and Oddbins) and John Taylor MW (formerly of Grants of St James's and Hatch Mansfield Agencies), who he met while tasting in the Rhne. The company recently won awards for Rhne Specialist Merchant and South-East Merchant of the Year, as well as for Best Promotional Material, at the 2004 International Wine Challenge.

What's the focus of your list? We started with the three planks of Rhne, Burgundy and Languedoc-Roussillon. John [Taylor MW] and Andrew [Shaw] are big Rhne and Languedoc fans, so we were all united in what we liked and what we wanted to specialise in, but over time we are evolving more towards being a full-service wine merchant. In a funny way, what we are trying to be is a national specialist and a regional general wine merchant.

How is the list evolving? We've added a lot of Languedoc because we all think it is the most exciting region in France for red wine. There are new estates being created all the time, producing wines of character and value. We also decided very early on that we wanted to do one New World country in depth and chose South Africa. It wasn't actually a long discussion because South Africa has got such potential and they are only just beginning to realise it.

What do you think is South Africa's greatest strength? Diversity. There are lots of nice small producers. What's fun about it for us is that it is a nicely fragmented industry but yet in a small geographical area so you can go out and cover the whole thing in 10 days. There are 40-50 new wineries a year coming on stream and that's really exciting.

What is their biggest problem? Probably the matching of the correct varieties to site. But it took the French 1,000 years, so you can't expect them to do it all in 10!

Which varieties do you think will be most successful? The exciting variety is Syrah/Shiraz. We stock about six South African Shirazes, and there is no doubt that some are much better value than some of the wines from Australia. Have you seen the price of top Australian Shiraz? I just can't understand the competition to make the strongest, richest, most intense wines. The thing about South Africa is that it is still early days and the potential is there. As long as the rand stays relatively low and they don't get carried away with euphoria and start jacking up their prices, it could be fantastic. It's a great place for a small merchant to operate because we can find small wineries there. Sauvignon Blanc is also amazingly successful in South Africa. I think there's a real hole - as the New Zealanders have put their prices up - that South Africa can fill.

Why did you decide to do a South African own-label wine? We had talked about it for a long time and then we were offered a small parcel. We like to think that our customers will have confidence in it and order decent quantities. They have to, because we've bought quite a lot of it for a small wine merchant like us!

Will you do more own-label wines? We would like to, but we are not rushing into it. The difficulty for us with own-labels is that our whole name - Stone, Vine & Sun - is about trying to sell wine from a particular place or terroir. With own-label wines it's always going to be hard to find the right sort of quantities from the right sort of producers. But we're now boiling it down to a few. You need several vintages before you know who you would like to work with on an own-label wine. We are much more likely to do it in the south of France because that's an area where we move significant volumes.

How do you source your wines? For a small business we spend a lot of time, a much higher proportion than most small merchants, out in the field. We try and go with a car and bring back samples to taste blind at the office. Unsolicited samples are a nightmare. Some helpful' journalist goes out to see someone in the south of France and says: These people are Languedoc specialists. Why don't you get in touch with them?' Then the producers send samples, which is expensive for them, and we don't know anything about them or their philosophy. We're not going to buy from people just on the basis of an unsolicited sample. You've got to look them in the eye and visit the estate. We also go to all the big French wine fairs, but I don't see that many other UK wine merchants there. I think it may be because people are just happy to work with the same suppliers year on year. We are expanding, but we also think it's fun to have lots of different things on our list and ship them ourselves.

What's been the reaction from customers to your new Alsace listings? It was very much a toe in the water, but it was successful. Lots of people have popped up and bought - and they've bought at every level, except possibly the cheapest wines. It's not a place people go to for those, but from 7 upwards it's worked well, so we'll definitely be carrying on with it. As a small merchant you have to duck and dive. We did it by asking one of our producers to consolidate all the wines at his property so we were able to buy small quantities - less than you could afford to ship - from some top producers.

Where will you look next? We're still debating that. What we are poor at is Italy, but we don't have a lot of customers asking for expensive Italian wines. It's not us; it's more of a restaurant market. We're not yet into restaurants, although we'd like to do a lot more on-trade work and supply pubs and restaurants in this area. We've been going for two years and we've done a lot of work on the supplier side. We've got the mail-order side sussed, so we're tooled up for a bit of expansion.