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Published:  23 July, 2008

Chris Scott, Director, ThirtyFifty Ltd, Twickenham, London. Interview: Josie Butchart

ThirtyFifty Ltd 24 Chestnut Road Twickenham Middlesex TW2 5QZ

Tel: 020 8288 0314

New Zealander Chris Scott and his wife, Jane Scott, set up ThirtyFifty (named after the degrees of latitude between which wine grapes can be grown) in September 2002, offering wine tastings led by WSET-qualified wine consultants at various venues around London, Greater London and the Home Counties. The company also sells wine through its website and was recently highly commended in the Best Use of Teleworking' category at the 2004 DTI E-Commerce awards. Chris previously worked in the energy industry and Jane worked in marketing for various FMCG companies. Suppliers: Ellis of Richmond, Hallgarten, Justerini & Brooks, PLB Group, Three Choirs Vineyards Ltd, Vintage Roots.

What was the idea behind the business? We initially spent six months researching the industry, trying to spot where the gaps were, and when we looked at where the wine industry had come from - compared to where it is now - we could see that there has been more and more consolidation. Initially high street retailers such as Oddbins came in and drove out a lot of the independents, but more recently supermarkets have been putting a lot of pressure on the chains, decreasing both the variety of wine on offer and the level of service available to the consumer. We decided to come at it from a completely different angle and try to increase the quality of service by providing more information about the wines.

How does the business function? There are five of us who run tastings and we have two support staff who help with pouring at the bigger tastings. The maximum number of tastings we will run in a day is five. When that happens I am happy! Currently, we are probably doing six or seven a week, which is reasonable for where we are at the moment.

You were highly commended for your teleworking at the 2004 DTI E-Commerce awards. Yes, when we set up the business the idea was that everyone could work from home, so when we structured the IT system we made sure that the wine consultants would be able to do everything they needed to do online. They can order wines, manage their customers or check out the details of the next tasting. We also use our IT system to monitor the preferences of people who attend the tastings by recording their individual wine ratings. We teach people about wine, but we also like to find out about what they like.

How does the rating system work? As we go through the wines at tastings we ask people to rate them. Some of our customers have done four or five tastings with us so we know exactly what they like and dislike. Quite often consumers don't actually know what they like, but if they have rated the wines, when they ring up to buy a case of wine it enables us to work out their preferences more easily.

Do you use the ratings for anything else? It's also really good for assessing the wines that we use in our tastings. There are some wines that everyone thinks are okay and others that everybody loves, but the really good ones are the wines that a small group really loves and everybody else really hates. I like having one of those wines in a tasting because it's usually something quite unusual. We had a Gewrztraminer that was really popular, even though most people couldn't even pronounce it. At least 50% of the population hate Gewrztraminer, but there is a core group of about 10-20% who really like it. You get to see all those things coming through in the ratings.

Who is your average customer? I would say someone who is around 28-34, has an interest in wine and has been drinking it for a while, but doesn't understand too much about it and needs some help to get over the initial learning hurdle. But I held a tasting for 33 19-year-old girls on Saturday night, and we do a lot of hen parties as well, so it's hard to identify the average customer.

How do you source your wines? We get them direct from the importer and usually we take wines aimed at the restaurant trade so that we don't have branded wines that are available on the high street. There are so many good wines out there that it's not really a problem! I think most consumers think that what they see on the high street is the entire world of wine, and they don't realise that it's just a small sliver of what's available.

I notice you've got an English wine and a Welsh raspberry wine on your list. The Welsh raspberry wine was an accident! Someone wanted it and we ended up ordering half a case too much. The English wine is there because I am patriotic about New Zealand wines and I think English people should be proud of their wines too.

How do you plan to develop your list? The list is constantly evolving because as our wine consultants get to a certain point in their training they specialise in a particular area and start creating their own tastings, which gives the list a natural growth. The next thing we want to look for is South African wines at the mid- to upper price points, because South Africa produces some very nice wines but most people are only used to the cheaper end. We are also just about to send a newsletter to our customers and they are then going to tell us what they want. We're asking them to email us with the wines they wish they knew how to get hold of in the UK.

What are your plans for the future? Our main goal for the next year is to get national coverage across the UK. By the end of next year we want to be able to run a tasting anywhere in England without any problems, and push into Scotland the following year.