“We we made it!” just about summed up Joel Durand’s feelings when Blackrock Cellar, the South County Dublin off-licence on the site of the old Oddbins unit in Blackrock, was pronounced National Off-Licence of the Year 2017. It has been in existence for five years now.
“I was delighted,” he recalls as today we sit looking out across the expanse of Dublin Bay from the window of the shop’s petite wine bar ‘Wine With A View’ at the back of the premises.
“It was a big relief after five years in a business that started in the middle of a recession,” he remembers, “It was good to nail the business down with the award and it’s been brilliant from the point-of-view of customer recognition and ‘street cred’. If you win something, people trust you and listen to you more.”
The win was all the more poignant considering Joel’s personal history since starting the Blackrock operation five years ago.
Beware of the box
He’d just opened in 2012 when, three months in, he bruised his shoulder carrying a box of wine.
Innocuous enough, you might think, but the injury induced a streptococcal infection that rapidly became life-threatening. It began eating away at the flesh on Joel’s left and right sides – and much of his back.
While doctors worked to reverse and stop the disease spreading any further, Joel spent one-and-a-half months in an induced coma as surgeons carefully removed the necrotic tissue.
This was followed by another one-and-a-half months in Intensive Care then two years rehab during which time Joel couldn’t eat and needed help to walk or even stand up or sit down… “But I continued to bark orders from my deathbed,” he smiles, “It gives you another perspective on life. My first three months working in the shop had been happy – just the thought of going back to my shop motivated me to get through it.”
Today, five years on, the shop employs eight people – half of them full-time – to look after some 450 beers and 450 wines together with at least 70 whiskeys nestling in among the 150 or so spirits brands which also incorporate an ever-expanding gin selection.
Joel reckons that wine can take the credit for around half the shop’s sales by value with beer accounting for some 33% and spirits about 17%.
“We also do a bit of food which is responsible for around 1% at present and growing from 0.2% last year – and we’ve started to sell bread at the weekend,” he adds.
Diversification is clearly a hit with his customers.
If there’s a choice Joel tends to seek out organic wine wherever possible. It certainly helps differentiate his offering from that of the nearby supermarket in the Blackrock Shopping Centre across the road.
“A lot of French wines don’t have any barcodes as they don’t want to end up on supermarket shelves,” he observes.
His Champagne sales have started to improve again too – “Not, perhaps, the super-expensive ones, but we’re definitely selling more sparkling wines with people moving away from Prosecco towards sparkling wines such as Cava and Cremants and the less expensive Champagnes.
“If you can find good Cremant, people will buy it,” he assures me, “We manage to sell wine that other shops wouldn’t be able to sell as we train our staff to taste the wine and if we’ve an orange wine, for example, we have to be able to explain what it is and answer questions on it. People trust us to know this and so it works both ways.”
Argentinean Malbecs and Sauvignon Blancs prove popular purchases at Blackrock Cellar – and Chardonnays are finally coming back, he says.
“Austria is also becoming a big seller in my shop. I’m told that we’re ahead of the crowd on this one.”
He uses two or three Austrian importers and believes that, “If you’ve a good basic Austrian, people are prepared to step up from the bottom shelf.”
But Blackrock Cellar is perhaps more known for its beers.
“On first opening I knew that beers had to be done,” he says, “When I worked in Oddbins in this same place previously, we’d sell English Ale and were always running out of stock so I knew I had to stock them.
“The beer mania was really just kicking-off five years ago and it really helped put the shop on the map.”
Today, he sells IPAs mostly but this is moving towards sour beers and while the shop is selling about the same value of beer as last year, volumes have decreased so people are buying better quality beers now, he says.
“We’ve a New Beer section for people who come here every week.”
Good gins are booming at the moment.
“If you have them at the right price and quality they’re going to fly,” he predicts.
The shop runs tastings of gin and other spirits every Friday downstairs in the function room which Joel hopes to open soon as a wine bar proper, a bigger younger brother to Wine With A View.
Layout & display
All the best wine sellers are in the bins at the bottom of the shelves of the L-shaped shop which offers the wines by country.
In the middle of the shop sit two sections for the Reds and Whites of the Month alongside sparkling wines and ‘staff favourites’.
Having won the Off-Licence of the Year Award Joel can point to a number of perks and lead-on advantages such as greater recognition from consumers.
“There’s been a big incrase in footfall and new people coming in here too. Even people from around the area who haven’t crossed the threshold have decided to pay us a visit since we won.
“Others visit but don’t buy – but I know we’re on their map.”
Perhaps a visit to Blackrock Cellar should be on yours.