James Tanner of Tanners Wines

PUBLISHED: 12:33 21 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:31 20 February 2013

James Tanner of Tanners Wines

James Tanner of Tanners Wines

There can be few businesses that are as entrenched in county life as Tanners Wine Merchants. Rachel Crow meets managing director James Tanner to discover <br/><br/>how the old family firm stays in such good health

There can be few businesses that are as entrenched in county life as Tanners Wine Merchants. Rachel Crow meets managing director James Tanner to discover how the old family firm stays in such good health.

Still family-owned and run, Tanners is a fine example of how a business can thrive in a rural county. While remaining firmly rooted in Shropshire, resolutely preserving its sense of history and heritage, the business is now one of the largest independent wine merchants in the country and boasts customers across the UK. The fourth generation managing director, James Tanner, also promotes the county as a place to do business and is helping to form the county councils business policy, in his role as a Shropshire Business Ambassador.

Tanners distinctive HQ in the heart of Shrewsbury, its Tudor frontage disguising later Georgian and Victorian additions and the interior a labyrinthine amalgam of musty cellars, wood-panelled offices, cobbled corridors, cosy snugs and draughty warehouse is, in a way, symbolic of how the business itself has evolved and grown over the years. The result is what James describes as a rather quirky business.

It started life in the 1870s as a partnership between former ships captain William Tanner and his brother Henry; the firms cellars were those of the now demolished Shrewsbury Victorian Market Hall while the offices were in Shoplatch. Through the course of the next three generations, Tanners stretched its tentacles across the county and into neighbouring Wales, absorbing five other established businesses within its own, including, in 1926, Thos. Whitefoot and Sons wine merchants of Bridgnorth and then Thomas Southam and Son in 1936, moving into the latters premises at Wyle Cop during World War II. It was from here that Jamess father introduced the first self-service wine shop to the town in the late 1960s.

The latest to be welcomed under the Tanners' umbrella was Terry Platt Wine Merchants in Llandudno, North Wales, five years ago, bringing the total time of trading for the six old companies that make up the present day Tanners group to 921 years. Its not easy to absorb other, very well-established businesses, explains James, and it does take time. You see other people change things too quickly and then they lose staff and the support of customers, so its very much a softly, softly approach. Ours is a long-term business rather than looking at short-term gains.

Since 2001, transport and warehouse operations have been run from Welshpool where the firm has had a presence since before the First World War, allowing the historic premises on Wyle Cop to become the flagship wine shop, serving both private and commercial clients, and an evocative environment for tastings and wine education. The cellars are examples of a very few left in the country where wine was once bottled, and on display are examples of the old wooden barrels and equipment used, with bottles are still arranged in the traditional bin stacking system.
The old wine cellars are retained as a museum now, to show how it used to be done, says James. Operating a building like this is not cost effective, but its a lovely reminder of the past and for customers, Im sure, makes the buying experience so much more enjoyable.

James was born and bred in the wine trade. He accompanied his father on his first trip to Bordeaux at the age of four and before joining the family business as purchasing director in 1992, learnt the wine trade in London and Sydney as well as working at wineries across Europe, Australia and Chile. It was always pretty much assumed Id go into the family business and I would have been a fool not to, he smiles.

Jamess father, Richard, shifted the focus away from beers and spirits with the growth in red and white table wine in the 1970s, and over the decades since the firm has increased its spread of suppliers to complement the rise in popularity of wines from different regions throughout Europe and the New World.

Quality has always been very much at the heart of the business. Prior to the wine trade, the family were breeders of Herefordshire cattle and Shropshire sheep and that focus on quality properly transferred into wine; Its a similar trade in many ways, adds James.

While on the surface it appears a very romantic trade, behind the scenes it is a carefully executed and sometimes nightmarish logistical operation. It needs to be remembered the journey these wines go on. So when there were the earthquakes in Chile that affected our supplies, and because we do seek out the best, smaller producers, it is sometimes a struggle to get lorries up small, frozen farm tracks, explains James.

About two-thirds of the firms 115 employees are based in Shropshire, a significant proportion who came straight from school or university, and James puts the success of the business down to its people. We have a good team that can mould new people into our way of working and I think it is important for the culture of the company to have the premises here in Shrewsbury. Hopefully people appreciate us being here, and I think we draw in quite a few visitors and we are very much part of the community.

With a keen sense of social responsibility, the firms involvement with the community extends to supporting many local charities, as well as sponsoring a wealth of county events from small sheep dog trials to the Shrewsbury Flower Show. We spread our support fairly wide because of the number of events we are asked to do, James confirms.

A keen horse-rider, like many of his predecessors, James also helps to run the Point-to-Point, while his wife, Katy, is a Deputy Lieutenant for Shropshire and involved with various charities. With a long family history of farming in Shropshire, James acknowledges how important it is to him that the business retains its strong links with the farming community. Shropshire is not as agriculturally based as it once was, but it is still very important to the fabric of the county and its agricultural roots is one of its selling points, he says.

There are quite a lot of companies who dont get involved in county life but we enjoy it and are committed to living and working in Shropshire.
I certainly look forward to a time when I am less involved in the business to be more formally involved in duties within the county, but at the moment the focus has to be the business.

My Shropshire Life

Where do you live and why?
We live south-west of Shrewsbury, about two miles from where I was christened. I love the hills and have always lived on the west side of Shropshire. It also makes sense work-wise because half of the business is in Welshpool. Its a lovely drive to work across the Long Mountain.

What do you enjoy most about Shropshire?
I love the opportunity to be out and about in such beautiful countryside and I think it is a very together county. It is very much centred on Shrewsbury, which is the centre of county life. Theres a very cohesive county spirit within Shropshire and theres not a huge amount of commuting, which means people do get home in good enough time to partake in activities in the county, be that sport, charity events, or entertainment.

Where is your favourite spot in the county?
Probably the western side of the Long Mynd, particularly in early autumn it is very beautiful.

What is your favourite view?
I was brought up with the panorama of all of the hills from the Wrekin right round to Corndon Hill and it is difficult to beat the view down to Clun Forest and as far as the Black Mountains from the Long Mynd.

Which do you consider a quintessential Shropshire town or village?
I never think of Shropshire as a villagey place communities have seemed to build up more around hamlets. The prettiest villages are in the southern part of the county, such as Cardington. On our side, many of the buildings were destroyed and ransacked in various Anglo-Welsh wars, but the upside is we have the biggest concentration of castles to anywhere else.

How do you think tourism could be better promoted in the county?
I think the county tends to attract more short-stay visitors, so its very much advertising the short break accommodation. A lot of that has to be through word of mouth rather than advertising on the London Underground, for example, which is expensive and not that effective.

What would you advise a first-time visitor to the county to do?
To get out and walk in the Shropshire hills, but also go to Ironbridge and see the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and try to imagine what it was like at the height of industry there; what a contrast it must have been to the countryside just a stones throw away.

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