So, let’s start at the beginning – you were born in Canada, and you seem to have a background closer to landscape architecture than the wine business. Could you tell us about your story up to now? Was a career in drink always on the cards for you? You bought the business in 2015, when the original owner Peter Bowen passed on. He was something of a mentor to you, right?
So nice chatting with you. You’ve done your homework! Yes, I completed my Landscape Architecture degree in Canada, which had little to do with my family background, but captured my interest in design and the environment. I guess it also gave me some grounding in viticulture. Another interest I had was in wine – so after working for a couple of years in a landscape architecture firm, I decided to go back to school and focus on wine marketing and management.
I completed a post-graduate degree in Canada and then my MBA in Bordeaux. As part of my degree there, I interned at Friarwood and Peter Bowen, the owner, became my mentor. Both he and his wife, Isabelle, took me under their wings. When Peter passed away, in September 2014, Isabelle came to me and offered me the opportunity to purchase Friarwood so I went from internship to ownership in only a few years.
You’re now known as something of an innovator in wine distribution. What challenges has Friarwood faced since you took over, and how have you gone about addressing them?
Thank you for that compliment. The wine industry, like many others, was stagnated by tradition. New thinking and new technologies have blown the lid off the way things can now be done in almost every industry. When I took over Friarwood, we had to update everything – all the systems, the technology, and the methods of communication. Our thinking wasn’t limited by tradition and with a young and dynamic team we were able to bring the company into the 21st Century.
We continue to think outside the box. For example, Friarwood was one of the first wine services included in Deliveroo.
What’s your personal favourite wine, or most memorable wine experience? Asides from wine, what may we find you enjoying a glass or bottle of?
Wine is so personal and often tied to an experience or celebration. It can be a romantic dinner at home or a joyous occasion celebrated in a fantastic restaurant. Of course, I’ve had some amazing stand–alone wine tastings too. We opened a double magnum of 1970 Chateau Figeac at the closing dinner when we purchased Friarwood. That was pretty special.
From your unique perspective, do you see any exciting trends emerging in wine, or anything that you think people should be looking out for?
Wines are now being produced in every corner of the world. During my lifetime, the wine world has expanded exponentially due to new technologies and creative minds.
We’ve just become the exclusive regional distributor of Exton Park from Hampshire and the Benjamin Bridge Brut from Nova Scotia, Canada is a personal favourite of mine. There is also a trend towards lighter, less oaky whites like Chenin Blanc from the Loire.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the wine business?
Oh my goodness, I wear so many different hats! Some days I am out on the road all day with our sales team dropping by clients and making wine recommendations. We might stay for an hour or two and try some wines and make some food-pairing recommendations. Other days, I am in the office all day catching up on correspondence, and talking to the other members of our team.
Our Head Buyer, Auriane, will also have us tasting new wines for inclusion in our portfolio – we always do that as a team. And I still work in our retail shops. I like to spend a day in there and connect with the consumers. It’s the best way to take the pulse of the local community.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
We’ve landed some great accounts and brought some fantastic wines into our portfolio. I wouldn’t want to choose one over the other.
Where do you get your ideas?
If you are willing to think outside the box, you can get your ideas from anywhere. We spend a lot of time together as a team and feed off of each other as well.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
Technology – it is the bain and benefit of our existence. Keeping track of wine – when the labels are so similar and the prices vary by vintage – requires keen product knowledge and a careful eye. We’ve learned to double-check everything so we’ve implemented processes to do just that!
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
My father has had the greatest influence on me. He’s also a fantastic cook! He has instilled in me the value of hard work, the respect we should all have for one another, and the fact that the smallest details are sometimes the most important.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
The greatest joy comes from working with such a terrific team. My least favourite part of the job is chasing overdue accounts!
What advice would you give to aspiring food and drink entrepreneurs or wine professionals who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Never give up and look always at the bigger picture.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Travelling the world and drinking wine – I only get to do it part-time in this job. I’d be happy doing it full time.
If you could get anyone to try your wines (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the wines would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
I would love to spend an evening with Bruce Springsteen. I am a big fan of his music and his spirit and I have always admired his energy on stage. Which bottle we will drink, I am not sure but I hope we will have a few! Having him as a brand ambassador would be terrific – who wouldn’t take his recommendations seriously?
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for the business? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
My ultimate goal is to continue to build the company until it is a household name.
Where next for you and Friarwood?
Continue growing the wholesale business by growing the team, see how Wimbledon does, and continue to expand the retail side of the business. We are always searching for ways to improve customer service and expand our delivery systems.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you could swap lives for the day with any fictional character (and you’d be guaranteed to return to your life after 24 hours), who would you choose, and why?
I’d like to be James T. Kirk from the USS Enterprise. I could ‘go places where no man has gone before’ and given that I’ve only got 24 hours, I’d feel that I was really able to accomplish something. I’d hate being lost in space – so your 24-hour guarantee would make me feel better too.
If you had to become some kind of vegetable related superhero, which would you become, and what would your superpower be?
I would choose to be “Superhuman Spinach-man.” Spinach is a fairly humble superfood and it is very versatile. It can be the star of a salad or it is content to play a supporting role -simply adding flavour and texture to any dish or sauce. We all know it’s loaded with good things for every part of your body and that Popeye’s arms became super-sized after eating it. Definitely, I would choose physical strength as my superpower – wine cases are very heavy.
If you were forced to fend off an alien invasion and singlehandedly save mankind using only the tools available at Friarwood, how would you do it?
I would get the aliens all drunk and have them fall asleep! Then I would bind them up with our shipping tape. Of course, I’d keep all the good Bordeaux for our celebratory party afterwards.