Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.


Published:  23 July, 2008

Simon Baile. Owner, Ex-Cellar, London. Interview: Jack Hibberd

Ex-Cellar 775 Fulham Road London SW6 5HA

Tel: 0207 736 2038

Simon Baile has wine in his blood - his father was one of the partners who built up Oddbins after taking it out of administration. After a brief sojourn outside wine he returned to the fold, and now owns three wine shops - in Fulham, Ashtead and Paris - with the latest, Ex-Cellar in Fulham, opening just last month. Here, he has decided to list wine by taste category instead of country of origin, and he specialises in sourcing wines from small growers.

What's the story behind Ex-Cellar?

I opened my first wine shop about five years ago, a traditional wine merchant in Ashtead, Surrey, followed two years later by a shop in Paris. It was Paris that really got me thinking: as time went on we started getting more and more small growers coming through the door - the type of guy who's driven up from Corbires at the weekend with a couple of cases in the boot. There are a hell of a lot of people out there making superb wines that are not represented in the UK, so I decided that my next shop would concentrate on selling wines from small producers. Then we decided to try merchandising by taste category, which is not an original idea, but is still a big step. The result was Ex-Cellar. We feel it has the makings of a good wine merchant with a good range: lots of interesting products sourced from small growers. We've put the wines into 12 taste categories - six whites and six reds - plus two fine wine sections. Each category has about 35 to 40 wines, from 3.49 to a couple of hundred quid. It was a real learning process for us at the start, as when we sat down to categorise all the wines we stocked in other stores we realised we had loads in some sections and just a few in others. We've had to get rid of some and add others. Overall, I feel that I now have a range that is broader stylistically and more interesting for my customers

What reaction have you had from customers?

As soon as you explain the system to them they are happy - we've had no really negative comments. The reaction in terms of the quality and range has also been nothing but positive. But you can't just trade on that, you also have to offer all the services customers expect from a professional wine merchant: deals on bin ends, three for a tenner, wine of the month, tasting cases, deals on multiple buys of Champagne, wedding kits, glass hire, tastings and all the rest.

What suppliers do you use?

We try and do two things. First, we ship direct - from places like Chablis, Champagne and Western Australia - usually two pallets at a time (sometimes together with other independent wine merchants). Then we also buy from good small distributors like Les Caves de Pyrene, Moreno Wines, Walter Siegel and one or two others. As long as they think like us then we are happy, but we do try and go direct whenever we can.

Any personal passions?

I like finding wines that you can hand sell to customers and then they come back and say: Thanks for introducing me to that.' It's all about finding things that are unusual but accessible. Stylistically, I like stuff with a little bit of elegance. Four or five years ago I probably would have said I'm most passionate about wine from the Loire and the new stuff coming out of the Languedoc, but we've just hooked up with some guys in Western Australia and they've really surprised me. The quality, complexity and subtlety they can produce from somewhere that is, really, still very hot, is fantastic. So I'm constantly surprised.

Will the Fulham store be one of many new stores?

We are going to see how this goes for the next three or four months, although the early indications are good. If it works, then we will certainly go and open another one. We are not looking to have 250 around the country, but I'd certainly be happy to open a few more. First we want to build up the average spend here. Currently it's about 10 to 12, but in Ashtead it's more than 30 because we sell more wines by the case. It's happening more here now as well, as people are starting to trust us, but we still need to work on it.

You seem quite bullish about the future for the independent sector.

I think the polarisation of the trade over the past four or five years has helped us. You can see a gap opening up for niche specialists, and it's getting wider and wider. Wine is becoming a more and more tedious experience in the chain shops. When we opened the front doors here the reaction we got from Joe Public was fantastic. We had a lot of people saying: Thank god there's an alternative.' People in the trade have been saying it for quite some time, but we are finding that there is a degree of evidence out there on the street as well. We've got an Oddbins 15 doors down the road, an Unwins 20 doors away and a Majestic not that far away, so we are in a pretty competitive patch. We reckon if we can do well here, then we can do well just about anywhere.