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Wine without the attitude

Roger Trapp reports on a merchant that believes in value, but not snob value
Even though it has been sold in supermarkets for years, wine still has a stuffy image thanks to the cachet that is held to accrue from vintage years, French labels and musty bottles. It is a perception that a west London wine merchant is determined to change.

Based on the top floor of a building on the edge of Notting Hill, rather than in a fusty City cellar, John Armit Wines says it has always taken a different approach to its rivals.

Not only are the offices out of the ordinary - they form part of a building designed by the individualistic architect Piers Gough - but a good proportion of the 21 employees are, like joint managing directors Susie De Paolis and Amanda Skinner, female. The dress code is more "smart casual" than formal.

But the company stresses that its dedication to content over form extends to the product. True to its founder's principles, John Armit Wines refuses to set store by labels; it is the liquid behind them that counts.

Wines that offer superior quality for their price, and a commitment to personal service, are the qualities cited by the company to explain its success in a competitive industry. Turnover last year was about pounds 10m, says finance director Andrew Murray, and it is anticipated this will rise by about a third over the next two years without much increase in staff.

During a long career in the trade, John Armit himself has earnt a reputation for refusing to accept the status quo. He worked for the wine merchant Corney & Barrow from 1962 to 1978, and is credited with bringing modern management methods to an old-style operation. He is also said to have been one of the first British merchants to travel to meet growers.

In the late Seventies Mr Armit ended his day-to-day involvement in the wine trade and saw the world. His business interests have also widened - including stakes in the London rock venue Dingwalls, and media hangout the Groucho Club.

But the wine bug lingered and Mr Armit established an investment business aimed at serious collectors. In the early Eighties, he set about expanding this into the fully-fledged wine operation that now exists.

The main focus remains a mail-order operation that serves 3,500 private clients. These range from people spending pounds 100,000 a year on wine to more modest quaffers with a budget of pounds 500. But there are also arms serving some of Britain's best-known restaurants, hotels and corporates, including the Bank of England; an agency using exclusive agreements with vineyards to provide wines to delicatessens and restaurant groups; and a trading arm that deals, primarily in Bordeaux wines, with merchants around the world.

The proportion of business that comes from overseas ranges from 12 to 24 per cent, says Ms Skinner, while Mr Murray points out that the amount of trade in particular countries largely depends on the state of their economies. The Far East is picking up again after a tough period, while the US is booming. The strength of the American market is appropriate since California was one of the first New World markets to which Mr Armit's renowned "nose" led him. Now he and his colleagues have strong relationships with wine growers in places as far apart as Italy and South Africa.

Like many other mail-order firms, John Armit is establishing itself on the internet - via an interactive website that will, for example, allow customers to establish the state of cellars as well as order new wines.

But Mr Murray says technological advances should not divert the company from ensuring that anybody who calls within working hours talks to a person rather than voicemail. Moreover, it is a tradition that everybody in the company knows everybody else's business - to the extent that admin staff can take wine-appreciation courses.

Perhaps that's why much of John Armit's business round the world results from personal recommendation.