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Oxford, Cambridge and Hennings ramp up joint buying initiative with first own label release

Published:  10 September, 2018

What do The Oxford Wine Company, Cambridge Wine Merchants and Hennings Wine have in common?

Well they are independent retailers, each flying the flag for quality vino in their respective regions across the south.

But they now share another link – one which has seen the three merchants increasingly combine their buying power to not only buy on their terms, but also ringfence margin and supply.

They have already experimented with importing wines as a trio – so far Prosecco and handful of Spanish wines, alongside a few others.

But the new wines, a 2017 South African red (Old Vin Cinsault) and white (Chenin Blanc/Viognier) pair called Leaping Hound, mark the first time the mini-collective has had a hand in blending and labelling, with Boutinot helping to transfer their ideas to the bottle.

“We all have strengths and weaknesses, so sharing ideas is really helpful,” Sandbach explained to Harpers. “We have to be prepared to work together, not against each other - and be innovative.”

The businesses are all the same size, turning over between £5-7 million a year, and all have “similar attitudes and problems”.

Pooling ideas is just one factor behind the joint project however.

It was also borne partly out of frustration with current system: out of the difficulty of making a “decent price” while the supermarkets continue to do, as Sandbach put it, “stupid things”.

Own label has become a way for retailers to differentiate themselves in recent years, and independents like Oxford, Cambridge and Hennings are no different in wanting something unique to get customers coming back for more.

But having the means to protect your own supply – one of the reasons Sandbach pulled out of Vindependents – is also a massive incentive for working this way.

“It means we have the advantage of knowing we have stock of our own label always in country. If there’s only three of four of us sharing, we know we can have it in a hurry,” he said.

The merchants aren’t the only ones looking at more agile ways of working.

Boutinot, which will be bringing the first shipment of Leaping Hound to the UK in the next few weeks, sees itself as much as “hands-on, dirt under out nails winemakers” as agents to its 150 producers.

Sandbach doesn’t rule out other merchants coming on board.

In the meantime, he has a new shop to concentrate on in Turl Street, in Oxford’s historic centre – more central than the flagship store on the outskirts of town.

Propping up this site in a 15th century building is another project to create and sell locally.

Partly with the passing tourist trade in mind, an inaugural gin and rum under the name Oxford Inspired are due to be released this side of Christmas, alongside a 4% ale called Dreaming Spires – a reference to the university town’s nickname.

“Everyone has to find their point of difference and uniqueness,” said Sandbach on the topic of carving out a niche.

“We live in world now where people just go online, and there’s always someone selling really cheap. If you’ve got something only one or two of you have and can agree on price, then you're in a good position.”