At a recent networking event, a friend and fellow businessman described Chris Connolly as “someone who sells wine”. Then he corrected himself: “Actually, what he sells is a really, really good time.”
Chris chuckles as he relates this. Then he says that, actually, he’s the one having the really, really good time. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked since I started in this business 35 years ago, but I can honestly say that I’m also having more fun now. There’s a real buzz about it, and I love that.”
The wine trade has changed considerably since Chris joined his father Pat in running Birmingham-based Connolly’s Fine Wine & Spirit Merchants in 1980. This has created more opportunities (a far wider selection of wines; more wine drinkers to imbibe them) but also thrown up a lot more challenges (the rise of the internet; the availability of cheap booze).
Yet like many of the wines it sells, Connolly’s has matured and improved with age, successfully blending old-fashioned with funky. The service is traditional, but many of the wines and beers are quirky and cutting-edge.
The main store, in the aptly-named Livery Street, on the edge of the city’s Jewellery Quarter, exudes an air of retro cool: in April 2015 it underwent a major refurbishment – the first since the firm moved there 20 years ago. Situated beneath the historic railway arches carrying trains to and from Snow Hill Station, a false ceiling previously concealed this architectural gem. Removing it to reveal the shape of the arches not only gives the store more character; it also makes it airier.
Whilst working hard to retain the ‘authenticity’ of the business, Chris has also embraced the need to change and adapt. It’s paid off: in 2012, Connolly’s opened a shop in Solihull’s Dovehouse Parade, and 55-year-old Chris isn’t ruling out launching a third outlet. And with wines ranging from £5 to £500 a bottle, the company sells to customers all over the country.
Although the present-day Connolly’s was founded in 1976, the Connolly’s story goes back a lot further, to 1878, when Chris’s great grandfather, Louis, upped sticks and moved his family from County Longford in Ireland to Birkenhead. He later moved to Wolverhampton, where he found work in pubs.
“He then bought his own pub and in a short space of time had opened a chain of pubs around Wolverhampton,” recalls his great grandson. “Later, he sold them and set up a business called Louis Connolly Wines, winning the contract to bottle Guinness locally.”
In 1906, Louis bought another business, Scorza and Olivieri, the largest importer of Alter Wines in the UK. Based on the corner of New Street and Pinfold Street in Birmingham, Chris can still remember going there as a child.
Louis’ son – Chris’s grandfather – started working for the business in about 1912, but when war broke out two years later, he joined up. After being invalided out of the army in 1915, he returned home, bought his father out of the Birmingham side of the business and changed the name to Connolly & Olivieri.
When he died in 1960, the business was sold to Harvey’s of Bristol, becoming known as Connolly and Swift, with Chris’s dad, Pat, running it. “It was based in Highgate, Birmingham, and at the time was the biggest wholesaler in the region.”
But in 1970, the retail outlet closed and six years later Connolly and Swift went the same way, with Pat being made redundant. Rather than the end, however, it proved to be a new beginning: in December 1976, Pat launched Connolly’s Wines. “It was all he’d ever known and done, and he still had Connolly and Swift’s customers,” recalls Chris.
So, at the age of 52, Pat set up shop in Edmund Street, Birmingham, opposite what is now Hotel du Vin. As well as a retail side, the business also serviced local offices and dining rooms. After dropping out of university, Chris joined his father in 1980.
“It wasn’t my original intention to join the business; I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do,” he remembers. “I worked for an estate agency for a few months after leaving university, and at one stage I had elevated ambitions to become the 1980s’ version of Robert Peston, but that never happened. Then I decided I’d help out my old man for a little while – and that was 35 years ago!”
In 1980, the range of wines the firm sold was “tiny” compared to the wide variety – from all corners of the globe – it carries today. “If it wasn’t made in Europe, you just didn’t bother,” says Chris. “Spain was only about Sherry; Portugal was only about Port. Italy didn’t have anything of any consequence, so it was really just France and Germany. Germany accounted for at least 50 per cent of the white wines we sold.
“Today, of course, so many countries are producing wine, and the UK – because we don’t have a serious indigenous wine industry – remains the best place in the world in which to buy wine. We have to import 99.9 per cent of the wines we drink, so we have access to so many different types. Every wine-producing country in the world wants to sell into the UK market. And people are so much more open-minded now than they were; happy to try wines from less familiar wine-producing countries such as Romania and Croatia.”
Back then, the competition included the likes of Victoria Wine and Peter Dominic, and the majority of business came from corporate dining. “We supplied only one or two restaurants at that time, and also did a bit of retail,” says Chris. “We did a lot of Christmas gift packs and some private client stuff.”
Connolly’s turned a significant corner when, in the mid 1980s, Chris – who was made a director of the company in 1984 – realised the future lay in shipping wine direct from the vineyard. So Chris took himself off to the Rhône region of France to visit winemakers, and came back with the company’s first direct consignment. “We’re still working with the Muscadet growers we first bought from in 1988 – Domaine du Bois Joly. When I first visited, I dealt with Henri. His son, Laurent, was a schoolboy. Now, Laurent is running it with his wife. Their wines just get better and better.”
Shipping in their own wines has allowed Connolly’s to sell to restaurants, and this – along with corporate wine tastings – now accounts for 60% of the business. “We avoid brands as much as possible – brands are all about bling; we want to sell wines that are a bit different – our focus is authenticity,” Chris explains. “For example, there’s a Cahors we picked up two years ago: it’s a tiny property – only about two hectares – run by an English couple who moved to France to escape the rat race, and we turned up on their doorstep a couple of years ago and have been working with them ever since.
“The Champagne we ship, Gardet, we’ve been stocking since 1989 and it’s fabulous Champagne, with lots of depth and character, and no more expensive than the some of the big brands. If you look at the prices being charged for the flashy brands, you can see that it’s a triumph of style over substance. Yes, of course we stock some brands, but there are so many more interesting things with which to fill our shelves.
“And that’s really what flicks my switch – finding something that’s a bit different. Because customers – especially younger ones – are a lot more open-minded these days, if you can find something a bit quirky, it will sell.”
But hasn’t the internet had a damaging effect on small, independent wine merchants like Connolly’s? “There is a lot of wine sold online and so we’ve moved into that too. We could go in for a much flashier, more sophisticated website, but it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere and approach of what we do through a website. I’d much rather get people in, talk to them and put a glass in their hand so that they know the wines and the stories behind them.”
Connolly’s remains a family-run business: the nine-strong staff include Chris’s wife, Tania, who is the company secretary-cum-accountant. Chris is excited about the future. “It’s never been a better time to be in Birmingham, with the restaurant and food scene, and we are developing the wholesale side. In terms of retail, would we like to open anywhere else? Never say never. I’m having a lot of fun now and get a real buzz from what I do.”