The Totsoc Plaques Project

Totnes Treasures

I am sure that all of us who are lucky enough to live in this area appreciate the unique, individual shops that far outnumber the national and multinational chains and have thankfully so far prevented Totnes becoming a "Clone Town": we must ensure this always remains the case. With this in mind I intend to write a series of features on some of these treasures although, as our Contact Magazine only comes out twice yearly, it will take me a little while to achieve this!

My first stop is The Totnes Wine Company near the top of the High Street. Nigel Pound took over ownership of the shop ten years ago. It had been a store selling jeans for about 5 years but before that had been a haberdashers for many years.

Nigel is a true Devonian: born near Dartmouth and attending school in Kingsbridge. After finishing his schooling he moved to Oxford where he completed a Diploma in Management. Some 35 years ago he started in the wine trade by accident or fate - Nigel prefers to call it fate - he and his wife were holidaying in Devon when Nigel spotted a job advertised in the Western Morning News for work with a large national brewery, Bass, at their Regional Office. He got the job and learned the trade: Bass also ran a wine department and Nigel soon discovered that his interest lay mainly in that side of the business. For the next 15 years or so Nigel learned the wine trade, working for many different companies and building up a fund of knowledge and experience which has stood him in good stead in his role as owner of Totnes Wine.

I asked Nigel about the range of his customer base and he divided it into thirds: one third local (in Totnes or within 3 miles); one third within 30 miles and the final third from all over the country. He doesn't think the business would survive with just local trade, but acknowledges that the local trade is important as a sort of interactive deal - local people expect their traders to have good product knowledge, to provide a good service and be part of the life-style of the town in that the customers share more in common with the traders that just buying their goods - there is a strong community link between 'them' and 'us'. People attending lectures in the town, those attending Ways with Words or the annual International Music Festival at Dartington often take the opportunity to pop in to buy some of Nigel's wines.

This seems to me to be the essence of the excellent shopping in this town. Nigel enjoys the mix of his local customers - from composers, film producers, T.V. personalities to nurses, refuse collectors, ordinary families who like to buy a special bottle of wine for a weekend treat. The shop is a splendid wood panelled Aladdin's Cave and Nigel himself is the antithesis of what we perhaps think of as the typical stuffy, aloof wine merchant. He welcomes all whether they are buying cheapish wine for a party or chateau bottled at £100+. Advice is what he is so good at: tell him what you want the wine for, what you want to drink it with, roughly how much you have to spend and he will come up trumps.

I asked him to hazard a guess about the number of towns in England who could still boast an independent wine merchant. He was unsure but thought the numbers were falling but in the west country there were only about ten who met up every so often under the auspices of the West of England Wine and Spirit Association.

Asked about his future plans Nigel was very clear. These are two-pronged:

  1. to keep up with the timesand focus on his product range offering what he called "benchmark wines": wines with good credentials and qualities which means sourcing good quality but reasonably priced estate-produced wines retailing at under £8 per bottle.
  2. to expand his trade business - selling on to other wine merchants who perhaps don't have the expertise/turnover/willingness to import their wines direct. To attain his "benchmark wines" and to continue to expand trade business he takes between 4 and 5 buying trips to Europe each year.

There are also wine tasting lunches and dinners, river trips to the Sharpham estate to sample their wines, spring and summer tastings, visits from famous winemakers, and an annual Christmas Extravaganza with a regular newsletter to keep customers up-to-date with the latest special offers and events.

Nigel's enthusiasm for the wine trade is palpable and infectious: "every wine has a story" he says. The story could be that of the producer of the wine, the shipper, the consumer who may have an attachment to a certain wine, maybe drunk on holiday or on a special occasion, or Nigel himself, the wine merchant and how he manages to find his "benchmark wines".

Sue Bennett
March 2009