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Published:  23 July, 2008

David Henderson, Proprietor, Henderson Wines, Edinburgh. Interview: Josie Butchart

Henderson Wines 109 Comiston Road Edinburgh EH10 6AQ

Tel: 0131 447 8580

After starting his career on the bottling line at Peter Green & Co in Marchmont, David Henderson went on to work in banking and then teaching, but kept his hand in with part-time and summer jobs at Peter Green's, where he returned full time in 1984. He opened Morningside wine merchant Henderson Wines in August 2001. Key suppliers: Forth Wines, Wine Importers Edinburgh, TM Robertson Wine Cellars (Berkmann Wine Cellars), Paragon Vintners, Mot-Hennessy UK, Boutinot Wines

How did you get into wine?

In my student years and during summer holidays I worked for Edinburgh wine merchant Peter Green & Co to earn a bit of extra money. That's going back to 1967, when they used to bottle their own Sherry and wines such as Bull's Blood and Spanish Burgundy'. Customers would bring their bottles back to be rinsed and refilled. They had a very primitive bottling machine and it was all done by hand, with students and the younger staff sticking on labels and applying foils. The barrels were delivered on open-backed lorries and rolled down into the cellar, then we would take the bung out of the barrel and put a siphon tube down from the shop through a hole in the floor. The primitive nature of the beast was such that the filter skin was asbestos.

What did you do before setting up Henderson Wines?

I initially worked in banking and then went into teaching, but I continued to help out part time at Peter Green's and, when teaching became a bit arduous, I started full time as cellarman and van driver. I gradually got more involved, initially buying the soft drinks, and then the beer when the beer chap left. I was given the title of punter's palate': I could taste a wine and say whether it would sell and at which price point.

Why did you choose to open Henderson Wines in Morningside?

I live just five minutes up the road; I knew the area well, and knew that a lot of people were just buying their wine from the local Safeway or Threshers. It is a good corner, although it had rotten windows and a cellar that appeared dry, but I have since discovered floods at least four times a year. It flooded the day we were due to open. Then the fire brigade turned up to do a fire safety inspection and closed us again because there was no emergency lighting in the cellar. That delayed us by three days.

How many wine suppliers do you have?

We started with just a few suppliers because I took some advice from Jan Critchley-Salmonson MW and he said stick to just six or seven. Forth Wines was very co-operative and said that they would supply me with anything from a bottle to 10 cases to get variety on the shelves, and that I could take everything on sale or return until I worked out what would sell. But very quickly I took on other suppliers and approached companies that had wines I particularly liked. So, what was originally about 300 wines is now over 700. It's sort of mushroomed! And what was originally half a dozen suppliers is now about 40.

Are you happy to have so many suppliers?

I have actually been looking to consolidate again because it's just a mountain of paperwork, invoices and statements. It goes on and on and on. I put the brakes on when I realised we had something like 25 different New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.

How was business in the beginning?

People were walking past at first because it was a newly painted shop and they thought we looked expensive. So we rejigged the shop and made sure people could see the three-for-10 section as soon as they walked through the door. We still do that whenever we can, with bin-end wines and negotiated deals.

What differentiates Henderson Wines from the high street chains?

We have no minimum delivery, and if people jump off the bus on their way home to buy one bottle of wine and end up buying six, then we'll deliver it for them. We also deliver to one or two housebound old-age pensioners. They are not necessarily fine wine drinkers, but we are a bit of a lifeline for them. I've got one lady across the other side of town to whom we started delivering when she was in the local hospital. She was allowed a glass of red wine every evening while she was in hospital, and it would be administered to her as if from a drugs trolley. She always says: I look forward to the day when I can have a second glass!'. She now lives across the other side of town, but every couple of months she phones up for a case of wine.

Have you noticed any trends in what your customers are buying?

We sell a lot of South American wines at the moment, but at the volume end we have always sold more French wine than anything else. About a third of our stock is French and we sell a lot of Bordeaux because of the Leith/Bordeaux connection. We have about 30 clarets, although only one of them has a back label that gives an indication of grape content and cellaring potential. With most claret, customers are floundering. The problem is that you have to go to a wine book to get the information you need. I know a lot of back labels are nonsense and bear no relation to the contents of the bottle, but at least they give you a basic idea.

Why are South American wines popular?

They are good value and there has been a lot of positive press coverage about the Tannat grape being good for bloodflow. People are picking up on that and I often joke with them that one day they will be coming in with an NHS prescription for a bottle of South American wine. People are also keen to try new things, and South America is the area that is producing the most new wines from new producers on a regular basis.