James Nicholson tells Niamh Mac Sweeney how he has the enviable job of travelling, tasting and deliberating before buy wines from around the world for people’s drinking pleasure.
Q: Can you give me a brief background into how you started JN Wine?
Back in 1977 when the wine world was a Mateus rose colour and people were only starting to show some interest in grapes, I left the family restaurant business and started JN Wine from scratch.
Q: Where does your love and passion for wine come from?
I suppose from the restaurant, it just seemed to be more than just a beverage. There is a mystical element, tremendous diversity in countries and regional tastes, and at 23 years of age, the business plan didn’t look so scary.
Q: When it comes to selecting wines, what is your criteria?
Really, firstly the producer – is he or she passionate, do they have the vineyard site capable of creating good to exciting wine, and can we work together with them?
Q: When importing wines, how much of your decision is based on what you think will sell and what you want to drink?
That’s always a difficult one but during the 38 years we have imported wine, we have tried to blaze the trail as opposed to just following trends.
Q: With regard to importing, are there any challenges that could be changed to make the process easier?
Like most people in the import business bureaucracy in Europe holds up so much progress. We have one person dedicated to dealing with the paperwork when they could be much more engaged in the positive side of the business.
Q: Given the pace of change in the global wine industry, are you constantly trying to stay ahead of trends?
Things change but quality is a constant and is never a result of an accident. Following trends are dangerous, it’s very often repetition not innovation that keeps the wages paid.
Q: Given that you must travel a lot, does the professional and personal merge a lot? And what drives you and keeps you motivated?
My life is a mixture of hope and optimism and I am normally positive. I hate travelling but love arriving and I am privileged to do the job I do. I am so fortunate to have made good friends with the people I work with throughout the world.
Q: Are there particular wines that are easier to sell than others?
It’s always easy to sell on price but much more rewarding to build up a following for an intelligently produced bottle. Quality and value for money are a cocktail for success.
Q: Are there wines that sell well, that are in your opinion successful more for the branding and marketing machine behind them than for the taste and quality?
It’s always important to have some volume in any business and be competitive, but if you want to stand out from the crowd you always have to take the less travelled route and always be on the lookout for new growers and varieties, for example the grape Godello is stunning and well worth a try.
Q: What are the hot wine regions right now?
Two spring to mind that I have visited in the past 18 months: Swartland in South Africa is on the up, and Bierzo in Northern Spain is going to become an important source of top notch wine.
Q: How have you grown the business over the past 35 years?
Sweat tears, working with really talented winemakers and surrounding myself with a great team of people.
It’s very often repetition not innovation that keeps the wages paid
Q: What have been the noticable challenges in growing the business and what drives you to overcome these challenges?
Again, having great administrators who can deal with the regulations and red tape, which allows the rest of us to get on with spreading the news that good wines from around the world are worth drinking.
Q: With regard to the wine distribution industry in Ireland, what have been the changes over the last three decades?
We handle all our own distribution in Northern Ireland and largely use couriers in the Republic. Quality of service is vital if you want to build a successful business, retain customers and attract new ones. Ireland still lacks companies that can walk the talk. I suspect regulations also trip them up.
Q: What are the new trends for the industry and have their been any noticable innovations in recent years that have driven the industry to grow and expand into new markets, opening up new opportunities?
I think there is less interest in brands as people become more knowledgeable and confident in their choices. Equally, it is going to be very difficult to grow interest in bland, safe and boring brands. People will always love Pinot Grigio, or what ever is hip, but people are now comfortable just buying the generic wine.
Q: Who are your customers, what kind of experience can they expect to receive, and why do they continue to do business with JN Wine?
We supply some of the best hotels and restaurants in Ireland and we all enjoy good food so we have some wonderful opportunities to run wine events, bringing the winemakers along. Supplying the trade is now more of a partnership where we can add value to the relationship. We want to make quality and service the watchwords, but there are a lot of good companies out there so you have to be really good to survive and prosper. We need to always be ahead of the curve.
Q: What are your future plans for the business?
We are always looking for opportunities whether travelling, which we do for three months of the year, or expanding the business in Ireland where we are currently looking at the possibility of acquiring some other wine businesses.
JN Wine: The story … so far
For a company that has been around for a long time – James Nicholson has been part of the wine scene in Northern Ireland for over 35 years – JN Wine is as modern and forward-thinking as you will find.
Starting out in 1977 in the restaurant trade, James Nicholson began by doing what no one else in Ireland was doing at the time – going out to the vineyards and sourcing his own products, only buying wines he tasted himself and was happy to stand over.
JN Wine operates from a contemporary, shop, in Crossgar on the outskirts of Belfast. In person in the shop and online, they are delighted to share their enthusiastic, independent and totally personal selection of wines with their clients – individuals, groups of friends, and hundreds of restaurants, bars and hotels all over the island of Ireland.
JN Wine – a company passionate about wine, winemakers and their stories, is staffed by expert wine adventurers. This independent spirit informs every aspect of JN Wine to this day.
An all-island business, JN Wine delivers anywhere in Northern Ireland free of charge with their own drivers, and through a courier company throughout the rest of Ireland, from their Dublin warehouse. JN Club deliveries are free throughout the entire island of Ireland.