I’m getting vintage skills blended with fine notes of innovation... Mike Hughes uncorks a tale of enterprise from wine dealer James Goodhart.
The setting is perfect as James Goodhart listens to me trying to ingratiate myself. His company’s new wine centre is a stunning Bond-like building in the middle of breathtaking Yorkshire countryside. And as I tell the owner of one of the county’s finest wine palettes that I have some experience myself, having progressed from Lidl (only those with a score above 85...) to the up-market wooden shelving round the corner from the £6 bottles in Sainsburys and on to the Majestic six-packs, I can sense him reaching under his desk for the button that opens the trapdoor down to the piranhas, or at least releases the hounds.
His company Bon Coeur (Good Heart...Goodhart) has just had its 21st birthday, and I can only guess at the quality of the wine at that party. James and his wife Samantha (helped by those hounds - black labradors Merlot and Malbec) only made the move to Melsonby in September last year, but their confidence is clear to see in Moor Park, a huge two-storey lodge offering meetings spaces as well as fully-equipped kitchen and tasting room and even a retail space as you walk in, to the left of the eye-catching wall made from James’s vast collection of case-ends.
The idea of drinking for a living might seem very acceptable, but with a recent trip to Bordeaux comprising tastings at up to 16 chateaux a day, the art of spitting becomes invaluable and the palette builds by the sip.
“It is all about experience,” James tells me. “I find the intensive white wine tastings harder because there is more acidity and they tend to attack your teeth a bit more, particularly if you are doing 150 white Burgundies a day. With the reds you just get coloured teeth - which doesn’t do much for your looks....”
I sense we are moving well away from my trips to Sainsbury’s wooden shelves, so switch to safer ground by looking at the entrepreneur at the heart of Goodhart.
“I was born and brought up in York and my dad had a farm in Beverley, but advised me not to go down the farming route,” he tells me. “He had a Pick-Your-Own fruit farm, so it was a natural transition to look into the grapes. Also, I was 18 and just thought it would be a fun industry to go into – I certainly wasn’t any good at sitting behind a desk all day, I would really rather roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.
“My first job in the wine trade was driving a van for Yorkshire Fine Wines and I met an Aussie winemaker. I really wanted to go travelling, so I faxed him my CV to make sure it as sitting on his desk when he got back to Australia and he told me to get over there.
“That was what ignited my flame – it was such a learning curve. I had been out for a harvest in Saint-Emilion, but in France it was all about the tradition, where in Australia it was all about computer analysis. I learned a lot, but they also asked me my opinion and got me involved. I did that for six months, then came back and did a business studies course at Newcastle Poly and then worked in the trade in Edinburgh and London.
“It is a very poorly-paid industry, in many ways, and I realised I would either have to work for myself or get a proper job and keep the wine as a hobby.”
One of the turning points for James – all entrepreneurs have them at one stage – was that one company offered him a job if he could sell £100,000 of wine. He realised that if that sort of prize was achievable he would rather do it for himself. “So I started when I was 24, borrowing £1,000 from my dad which helped me get an SBS grant – Small Business Start-up – which gave me £40 a week for six months.
“At that stage I was buying wine on the UK market and storing it in my flat and then moving up to bringing in some wines myself. My first list probably had about 25 wines on it, with my own notes attached.
“My friend gave me a desk in his office and then some storage space as I built the business. I think when people know you are starting out on your own they can be very generous. But when you have had that initial support you are on your own in the big wide world.
“The first order I got was from a university friend and then I got a bigger order from an entrepreneur who needed to entertain some potential customers and then it built up through word of mouth.
“You must always be ready to go to the next step. This is about hard work and getting out what you put in, as well as making your own luck. If you go to a good restaurant and have a poor meal, you will give it another go because perhaps the chef was just having a bad night. But if you have two poor meals then you might not go back again. I was only ever as good as my last recommendation.”
James then moved in to renting a Network Rail unit under the Eurostar operation in London and soon after met his wife Samantha. They were up in Yorkshire every other weekend, so decided to rent a farmhouse at Masham. “When we closed the London operation and focused on Yorkshire we thought we might lose some customers, but they have stayed very loyal. Also, London is now over-saturated with about 500 wine merchants, so we decided to follow our hearts and make a name for ourselves in the North East.
“People and businesses here support each other all the time. We all look after each other.”
The result of that support and the feeling that James and Samantha had ‘come home’ is reflected in the strength of the business and the impressive scale of Moor Park. They wanted to avoid the industrial estates and find somewhere with a character to match their business. They ended up in Melsonby to look at a site as least twice as big as they needed, but it was affordable and they had the vision to see what it could become, led by Samantha’s ideas and creativity.
“We started with a blank canvas and just pushed at the boundaries of what we could afford to get it as our customers see it today, with help from Yorkshire Forward, HSBC and Mark Hunter, our accountant.”
There are now 16 people on the payroll, supplemented by a home-grown graduate each year to keep the skills as cutting edge as possible. “I think most people are interested in wine, so this is about engaging the brain to think a bit more about what it is they like and why they like it and taking it to the next step.
“Pairing is important but I would choose the wine before the food, although the embracement of food is educating people about quality food and with that comes quality wine.
“I get fed up drinking the same thing, so I like to try different wines. The definition of a good bottle of wine – red for me, and white before Champagne – is one that makes you relax. I’ll lay some wine down to drink at different stages, although that is also to improve my own knowledge.”
James’s approach to his work is enviable. He travels the world, loves what he does, has developed a natural talent for it and it is something that customers from a wide spectrum can enjoy, from the two-bottle weekenders to the cellar-owning execs.
He’s like the mate you always give a call to when you’re having a get-together ‘Give Goodhart a ring – he’s always got a few stories to tell and he’ll bring some decent bottles with him.....’
One of those bottles now carries the company’s own name – Jacques Boncoeur – which is made for them by a small co-operative and gives them control over pricing of an important element of their stock. But that control is unlikely to spread to Bon Coeur having its own vines, given that James has a belief that running a vineyard “makes a very rich man rich”.
“It is very hard work and you need pretty thick skin, as tasters can judge in 30 seconds what you have taken two years to grow,” he explains.
That neatly underlines the nature of his business. His own palette is crucial to his business.
Not just his skill at knowing what makes good wine and what makes great wine, but a single sip (and spit) will help him decide whether to wait for the next harvest or get his wallet out and snap up the lot.
Precarious, you might think, but there is something basic and remarkable at the same time about the human senses – looking, smelling, tasting – being the core of an entrepreneurial business.