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The Interview: Benjamin Furst, Co-owner, The Sussex Wine Company, Eastbourne

Published:  23 July, 2008

Where did your interest in wine come from? Does it run in the family?
Wine was present at many of our meals when we were growing up - Chteau Musar was one I remember. Mostly, though, I think my passion for wine has come through my love of food and from a friend of my father's who is wine nuts, too.

You're a Scotsman. How did you find yourself in Eastbourne?
It was a natural progression - from Oddbins in Glasgow through to specialist merchants in London, then completing my WSET Diploma. After 15 years of selling wines for other merchants, my wife Georgie and I wanted to make the jump for ourselves.
So we started looking for somewhere with potential, a growing marketplace not saturated with high-street wine names.

You give far more space, proportionately, to Italian wines than most wine sellers.

Italian wines offer an extra degree of sex appeal for us, with richer fruit, more complexity and a greater use of indigenous varieties. You can find Italian wine gems at all price points, like the Umbrian wines of Lamborghini, the Tuscan wines of Tenuta Sette Ponti, Michele Satta and Collazzi, and Varaldo from Piedmont, to name a few.

Do you find that customers need educating' to the joys of Italian wine?

We don't force our clients to buy things they don't want. If we can gauge what someone wants and the client is willing to trust us, then we can lead them in a certain direction. But we have good wines across the board, and we believe in all of them.

You also put on wine events.

We hold monthly tastings in the shop. We also organise at least one gourmet night per year. Our tastings are expanding, and we have travelled both east and west from Eastbourne, for corporate and private bookings. We are also looking into setting up various wine clubs with certain publications.

How do you compete with off-licences, multiple retailers and supermarkets, especially in quite a small town?

In the main, we are more concerned in focusing on our own core beliefs and values. We don't stock big brands because we don't believe in them; we are keen to offer better wines from smaller growers - wines that are truer to their terroir and nature, and also wines that are less saturated in chemicals because the growers are under less pressure. We are also trying to help people make better choices about what they drink.

Has the new ubiquity of wine impacted on the age of your customers at all?

Only inasmuch as we sell wines to all ages, from 20 to 120! As a society, we have become aware of the health benefits that wine offers, and the wine industry has benefited from this. Wine is seen as a healthier drink. As a natural follow-on from this, wine consumers are younger than they used to be - it is also a trendy drink. Perhaps it's also a backlash against cheap alcopop drinks: it's far more sophisticated. Dinner parties are the new going-out', and that might have made a difference, too

How long can the youth appeal last? Is the bottom going to fall out of it?

Why should it? Wine does have some health benefits, and it is part and parcel of our growing interest in eating better and more varied food. And wine is no longer about yoof appeal'. It is fast becoming the drink of choice at all social gatherings and evenings in. As such, people want to know more and try different things, and this will continue.

Working with your wife and, presumably, needing to make a couple of good wages must be difficult. Is the business more of a hobby than a way to make a living?

You've hit the nail on the head. There's not enough money yet for either of us, but we believe in what we are doing and what we can achieve. We entered into this as wine lovers, passionate about doing something different. Money was not the key element, but at some point we'd like to make some.

Do you and Georgie have clearly defined roles and responsibilities?

Georgie brings creative spirit and flair. Her background as a designer adds the strengths you need to create a corporate identity. It is also important to have a female touch in what is still perceived as a man's world. It is vital to bounce ideas off someone with a different perspective. Perhaps most importantly, we motivate each other.

Do you source all your wines yourself?

We rely heavily on our relationships with UK agency houses. They keep us informed and are generous with samples. In addition, we work with some smaller, more direct sources, like our Champagne Laherte Frres.

How important is your Web presence?

Vital. It is a 24/7 shop window where you can always be selling. Our website is continually developing, and mail order is a key area that we wish to expand.

The Sussex Wine Company, 47 South Street, Little Chelsea,

Eastbourne BN21 4UT, Tel/fax: 01323 431 143

The Sussex Wine Company has evolved from the cumulative experience Ben has gained working for various specialist merchants over the past 15 years or so. The business is split between Ben, working primarily front of house, and his wife Georgie, who handles much of the design work.

The couple's aim is to offer great-value wines that are unobtainable in the multiples and to be as flexible and service-driven as possible. The store now boasts more than 300 wines, including a large selection for under 6, organic wines and fine wines from around the world. It also offers case discounts.

The Sussex Wine Company occasionally sells to a couple of local restaurants, but its main forward thrust is towards corporate and private tastings, gifts and mail order.

Suppliers include: Stratfords, Eurowines, Berkmann, Vintage Roots, Sommelier's Choice, Legwork, Novum Wines.