Birmingham’s oldest wine merchants Connollys is spreading its wings outside the city for the first time in more than 100 years.
Connollys Fine Wine & Spirit Merchants, which has had a presence in Birmingham since 1908, is to open a new shop in Solihull in May.
The last time the in Livery Street-based business ventured beyond Birmingham was when its founder, Louis Connolly, opened premises in Wolverhampton in 1910.
Managing director Chris Connolly said the expansion was in part prompted by the collapse of the upmarket off-licence chains Threshers and Oddbins, which he felt had created a “gap in the market”.
“I see it as an opportunity as much as anything,” he said. “There are increasing opportunities for the independent wine specialist.
“Frankly since the whole Thresher collapse getting on for two-and-a-half years ago and Oddbins going down the pan this time last year there are very few specialist off licences around and I think there is probably an opportunity for someone such as ourselves
“The demise of Threshers and Oddbins has led to a resurgence in independent specialist wine retailing. People are increasingly prepared to do something that is a little bit different to the supermarkets.”
It is the supermarkets, where most people now buy their wine, that Mr Connolly has in his sights in his mission to offer people “something more”.
“An awful lot of wine is sold by supermarkets and a lot of it is really dull. A lot of the time they don’t do anything other than put the stuff on the shelves and take your money,” said Mr Connolly. “I don’t think the customer is terribly well served by what is on offer in supermarket wine aisles.
“The ranges tend to be very safe for obvious reasons, because they can’t hand sell anything to their customers. They need to put it on the shelves and let it sell itself.
“As a consequence of that, the only wines they are going to choose are going to be wines the customer recognises and is produced by a concern that can afford to pay their listing fees.
“Because of their size they can’t go to a small grower who is only producing a few hundred cases a year and say we want to buy from you. It is inconceivable.
“Yet from our point of view that is exactly what we do. We visit estates, talk to them, bring back samples and do tastings. We have a terrific relationship with some really good growers from around the world and some good suppliers in the UK.
“We buy wines from people we know and trust and we can then talk to our customers about them.”
It is in the tasting area where Mr Connolly believes they will be able to offer something genuinely different to the supermarkets.
As well as having samples for customers to taste, the new base in Dovehouse Parade will also have a tasting room that will host events for members of the public and companies wanting to host corporate events.
Connollys’ new outlet will also be making much of its trained staff, who all have qualifications from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and there are even plans afoot for a wine school that will take people from the basics, through to looking at wine production around the world.
“It is about educating as much as possible and getting our customers to enthuse as much about the wine as we do,” Mr Connolly added.
“Essentially as far as the customer is concerned we are the solitary link with them and the bloke that is actually putting the wine into the bottle.
“It is not just about shoving a lot of bottles onto the shelves and saying come and buy them. We don’t do brands as such, we would much rather deal direct with the growers.”
As well as a range of around 1,000 wines, Connollys will also be selling an array of bottled craft beers, particularly from the fast-growing US market and a range of spirits including malt whiskey, rum, gin and vodka.
Mr Connolly feels the firm’s expansion is in tune with the public’s growing interest in food and wine.
“Yes there is certainly more interest in wines generally,” he said. “People are increasingly interested in learning more about wines and things like food and wine matching. Every time you turn on the television there seems to be some cookery programme going on and people are exploring ways of messing around with food and flavours.
“There are thousands and thousands of wines made around the world. It really is very frustrating that so many customers will only see a very narrow range and they will buy the same things they recognise and feel safe with.
“Why, every time you open a bottle of wine, would you want to have the same flavours?
“Yes we want to make money but we also want to provide an opportunity for people to try something that is a bit different.”