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Published:  23 July, 2008

Ben Robson, Co-owner, Bat & Bottle Wine Merchants, Oakham, Rutland. Interview: Josie Butchart

Bat & Bottle Wine Merchants 9 Ashwell Road Oakham Rutland LE15 6QG Tel: 0845 108 4407

Ben and Emma Robson set up Italian specialist wine merchant Bat & Bottle in May 1994, with the dream of selling both cricket bats and bottles of wine. Unfortunately, the cricket bat supplier went bust before a single bat could be sold. But they recently found a new supplier, Bullfrog Cricket Bats, run by a farmer called Giles, who grows and seasons the willow to make handcrafted, single estate' cricket bats that fit the Bat & Bottle philosophy.

Who are the Bat & Bottle customers? The restaurant business is difficult for us, because of the high level of service and short delivery times, so I try and keep the number of restaurant customers down to as many as I can phone in a morning. Our core business is private clients buying mixed cases, and we talk on the phone to as many of them as we can, although there is a strange species of customer that has forgotten how to speak to people and does everything by e-mail. I've got a proportion of this strange species in my customer base. We also hold regional tastings, and try to do a tasting for the north, in Harrogate or Newcastle, once a year, and in the southwest twice a year.

How important are tastings to your business? Not very in terms of direct sales, but, because we haven't got any other way of meeting customers, they are actually very important. You have to put your head above the parapet every now and then and it's a very gentle marketing opening, if you like. Even if you know a customer is unlikely to come to a tasting, sending an invitation is an opportunity to give them a call, so for that reason alone, they are well worth doing. We've become a much more simple business recently.

In what way is the business simpler? Well, we started off based in Staffordshire and spent eight years trading out of a beautiful gatehouse in the middle of nowhere, with the Earl of Litchfield as our landlord. We built up local trade, with case distribution going from Worcester and mixed cases from our place, but it all became more and more complicated, as local restaurants came on board and the on-trade business expanded. Then we started doing outside bars. It climaxed in 2000 with the Millennium bash in Greenwich, where we lost our shirts. We were doing a wine bar for the BBC's number-two event, and we expected the 14,000 people attending to drink two glasses of wine each on average. They drank an eighth of that and left us with over 100,000 worth of stock that we didn't need.

How did you cope with that situation? We could have just folded - that was probably the most sensible option - but we gave the Champagne house we owed money to three options. They could take the wine back; we could close the business and they would get the wine back; or they could give us extended credit so that we could pay for the wine. They went for the third option, but in order to sell that stock, we had to write to all our trade and on-trade customers to tell them we could no longer supply them because we couldn't re-order any of our Italian wines until we had sold the Millennium stock. Our turnover dropped by two-thirds, but we nearly made a profit that year. That taught us that perhaps trade and on-trade customers aren't the best ones to have, because when we were entirely private client-focused we nearly made money. Our turnover was gradually creeping back up until we went to Italy last year, which screwed things up again. Our accountant had just told us we had produced our first good year. He asked us what we were going to do to improve it and we said: Go off to Italy for six months.' He looked at us in abject horror.

Why did you decide to go to Italy? I met a monk in London who told me to go and see an Italian lady who imported Italian wine. Being scared of the Catholic faith, or any form of religion for that matter, I did what I was told, and that's how I met Mrs Felicita Pask-Hughes. She was the first one to import wines such as Isole e Olena and Sassicaia to the UK. When she sold to restaurants, she would first go into the kitchen, and if the kitchen wasn't clean she would walk straight back out again. Over the years she became my grandmother' and my major supplier. Then four years ago she said: Ben, it is time for you to buy the business.' Being quite afraid of her, I bought the business! Whenever I look at this goodwill' sitting on my balance sheet, I think, Why the hell did I do that?' It meant I ended up heading straight down the Italian path, and I had to learn Italian, because hardly any of my suppliers spoke English. So that was one of the main reasons we went off to Italy. Also, we had started getting a lot of press attention, and people were always asking us about Italian wine. The only way to catch up with the big boys was to spend some time out there. So we took the children out of school and put them into a school in Padua.

What did you do while you were there? We collected what I call the school-run wines'. They were the wines from vineyards close enough so that we had time to drop the kids off at school, visit the vineyards, have a decent lunch and get back in time to pick them up again. We also spent five weeks in Puglia and three in Abruzzo. We saw all our suppliers, all our suppliers' neighbours and all the recognised producers in each area. We now have enough new wines to keep us going for at least ten years. I keep hoping some of my suppliers will de-list me!

Would you consider doing it again? It was brilliant for a six-month period, but I have a great love of Italy that I don't want to be tainted by actually living there for too long. The romance would be blown to hell!