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Friday read: Are specialist wine merchants in danger of becoming obsolete?

Published:  10 November, 2023

The WineBarn’s multiple award-winning founder Iris Ellmann – an early champion of dry German whites and Spätburgunder in the UK – makes the case for somms to stick with specialist importers.

Like so many other independent wine specialists, my company The WineBarn was faced with the challenging task of surviving Covid, and has strived to recoup the 90% of our diminished pandemic-era sales from other, new markets.

When I reached out to the restaurants again, I was told ‘our cellars are still full and we have to sell existing stock first’, which was totally understandable. I waited patiently, but since the beginning of this year I have struggled to regain the valued restaurant and hospitality clients that we lost.

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When restaurants are offered a tasting, the most common response I get now (80% or so) is that ‘we are sorted for German wine’. This is because most of them are buying from much larger wine companies, which offer a wider portfolio of other countries, but perhaps carry just a couple of German producers. Or some merchants only offer subscription wines when the sommeliers take a certain number of German wines.

Obviously, buying like this will not nearly cover the depth and exclusivity of German wine, nor will it show the diversity and ability of German wine to pair well with so many different cuisines.

As founder of The WineBarn, I love my job and being a native of Germany I have always felt very passionate about our wines. But despite being ever optimistic and positive, I am getting more and more frustrated with the current situation. We have survived Covid and Brexit, though now seem to be struggling and there is very little hope of change in sight.

Have the sommeliers really lost interest in working with independent merchants that specialise and are highly knowledgeable in wines from a specific region like us? Or out of convenience and budgetary pressure, are they pushed to work with larger wine chains that offer bulk discounts? And what does that mean for the on-trade, as well as the specialists, long-term?

Following is what I consider a reasonable checklist and reminder of the value that specialist merchants can add:

When choosing wines from an independent merchant, you benefit from…

Hand-picked wines

Selected personally by a member of the team that has taste-tested the vintage.

Bespoke personal service

For the smaller wine merchant, their work is their passion. As such, they love to share their enthusiasm and knowledge.

Sourced directly from the producers

Independent wine merchants, particularly those that are specialists in wines from a specific country often source wines directly from the winemakers themselves. As there is no middleman the wine merchants' prices are competitive and the producers receive a fair fee for their wines.

Pioneers in their region’s Wine

As well as developing long-standing relationships with winemakers in their portfolio, smaller merchants rely on being dynamic and seeking out exciting new producers for their ever-evolving collection.

The WineBarn is a UK-based specialist German wine merchant, founded over 23 years ago. During that time, it has made its mark in the trade for a wide selection of exclusively German wines, ranging from the affordable to the luxury, from dry to sweet and from fresh to full-bodied. Founded in 2000, this was the first merchant to offer dry German wine and to introduce Spätburgunder (German Pinot Noir) to the UK market. Most sommeliers had no experience with either at the time and were only familiar with the old classification and noble sweet wines and founder Iris Ellmann and her team have long assisted in educating the trade about modern German wine.