I must have told this story over a hundred times at my wine tastings. It’s a question you get asked a lot when you’re 23 years old, run a wine business and look about 14. How do you know so much about wine? Some people ask with genuine curiosity, others with a sudden desire for a career change.
“It all started with a bottle of Jacob’s Creek”, I would say, recalling how I remember sitting around a dinner table in my early teens asking my parents if I could have a small glass of the Jacob’s Grenache. I remember drinking it, pretending to like it, but really at the time just tasting two things: alcohol and acid. My taste buds weren’t ready but I smiled and asked for more. I don’t know why but I think I liked the way it was always a conversation starter, something you could learn about and discover.
The idea of becoming a wine merchant happened by accident really. I had no grand plans to get into wine. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was 16 I set up a magazine for young people and I ran it for five years. During that time I think I came to realise that whatever I did in life, I wanted the freedom self-employment brings. I like the challenge and the autonomy. I like having my whole day to achieve my way. It’s not easy – and for some people it’s a nightmare – but there’s many of us who wouldn’t trade it for the world.
One of the key lessons I learnt from my magazine days and time at University was that I wasn’t a great writer. I was a good writer. The problem with being a good writer is you can’t write about everything and get paid for it. That’s no good if you’re self-employed. I needed to specialise.
During my last year of sixth form and throughout University, I worked part time on Waitrose’s wine department. It was good fun but little more than a part time job until my life changed in second year uni. I started writing wine reviews.
I dread to go back and read some of the earlier reviews now – I’ve been on a steep learning curve in the three years since – but I took these reviews and I pitched an idea to my manager at Waitrose Bath. My idea was to write a review on one of Waitrose’s wines every week for my magazine in return for a free bottle of my choice. I submitted a pitch, had an interview and my manager very kindly agreed. So for the next two and a half years I wrote about a different wine every single week. I tasted, I learnt and I fell in love with it.
Two months before I graduated I passed my WSET Level 2. On reflection I might have waited until I’d done my final exams before embarking on my wine education, but nonetheless I achieved a Distinction and launched my consultancy and wine tastings business Ben Franks Wine as a sole trader. The following year I passed my WSET Level 3.
The great thing about a consultancy business in wine is you are always learning. You meet on-trade clients and learn the hospitality ropes. You host tastings and improve your people skills. You get invited to trade events like the London Wine Fair and try wines that blow your mind. It’s great but it’s hard work and, no matter how much you love wine, people aren’t looking for a wine tasting or brand new wine list on a daily basis.
When I finally took a holiday from my consultancy and a couple of web writing jobs I had going to supplement it, the idea for Novel Wines came spilling out. Why were none of the brilliant weird and wonderful wines available? Why was there only one Romanian Pinot Noir in Waitrose? Why weren’t more people taking notice of English wines and splashing out on them when they’re as good, if not better, than Champagnes? Why can I drink this gorgeous Japanese Koshu wine in a restaurant but not buy it from anywhere to enjoy at home?
I want to supply the ‘weird and wonderful’ wine to you. I want wine lovers like me, who are always learning, always curious, to have the opportunity to try exceptional, different wines.
Then I met Gyorgy Zsiga, my business partner. Here was a man as equally as passionate who was pioneering some superb wines from all over Hungary. Gyorgy knows logistics, great wines and has developed our Balkans and Eastern European list into a true showcase of undiscovered wines.
We founded the company in April and spent six months sourcing our full list of wines, which we launched at the Hilton Hotel just over three weeks ago.
And that’s how a 23 year old like me became a wine merchant. Curiosity and a drive to succeed in my own way.