Belfast Telegraph

The Big Interview: Grape expectations... how James Nicholson got a taste for the wine industry

By Margaret Canning

A young James Nicholson imagined a glass of red wine would taste like Ribena before that first life-changing sip at the age of 19. Decades later, and youthful misconception cast aside, his name is synonymous with wine through his wholesale and retail business JN Wine, based in Crossgar.

He says he counts himself "blessed" in life and has no plans to slow down, continuing to take trips to vineyards and producers after 37 years in the trade. "A desk and a chair is not my prime position," he says.

Mr Nicholson is as big a player as ever in wine - and in sport, as a long-term sponsor of the Champion Chase at Down Royal. The keen golfer is also supplying a special Champagne to the DubaiDuty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down - which he describes with relish as a "nice, delicious, uncomplicated, joyful drink".

Last year, he won regional merchant of the year for Northern Ireland at the International Wine Challenge Awards in London for a record 22nd time.

But such accolades were unthinkable in 1970s Northern Ireland, the era of branded wines like Black Tower, Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch.

He started out selling wine from his Ford Cortina after borrowing £12,000 from Ulster Bank. He souped up the big green car, adding springs so that the boot could carry 60 units of wine, and would spend four days a week selling and two days a week delivering. "When I graduated to a Hi Ace van I thought I'd hit the jackpot," he says.

His first exposure to wine had been through his older brother Michael's fine dining restaurant The Villager in Crossgar. Michael, who died aged 68 after a long illness earlier this year, later owned Balloo House but then moved to London where he owned Blades Hotel close to Victoria Station.

Fine dining was a novelty in the 1970s, and trade in venues like The Villager was sustained by high-rollers like George and Angie Best, who Mr Nicholson recalls visiting.

Mr Nicholson, who's married to Elspeth, remains passionate about wine. He says he's fortunate to be doing what he loves but says that he's faced plenty of adversity in life. Eight years ago, Elspeth lost her arms and legs. "She came to work in the Villager and my command and control lasted for about three weeks before it moved to her. Eight years ago, she got meningitis and lost her limbs. She's an inspiration in terms of how she handled it. She said to someone, 'James doesn't seem to realise I'm disabled'. But, of course, I treat her the same. She's just terrific how she handles it. She's in Portugal at the moment. She's in good form."

He grew up in the Saintfield area, with his parents, Ellen and Neil, and only sibling, Michael. Ellen was a full-time mother while Neil worked in the Spalding tennis racket factory in Whiteabbey. But the family was dealt a blow when James was just 11 and Ellen died of cancer.

Four years later, James moved to Belfast to share a flat in Stranmillis with Michael, aged just 15. "I was quite young and certainly it was either a sink or swim situation. And it made me quite resilient. It's just the way you deal with the cards you are dealt - you deal with them or you don't. I can probably deal with a lot of adversity."

He had started out as a pupil at Down High before transferring to Methody. "I was thinking about studying law. I finished my education at A-level in a photo finish, but my grades weren't good enough. I studied history, English and British Constitution, which we'd now know as politics. My grades weren't up to it ­- and you only needed two Bs then for law - so I decided to opt out and go into pubs and the restaurants."

After a couple of years working in his brother's business, he saw the potential in the wine trade. "I was 23 when I started the business. I didn't really think too much - it was only the blind faith and when you are doing something you enjoy, it's a lot easier."

JN Wine has grown over the decades into a major force, selling wine across Ireland, the UK and into some markets overseas - though a brief foray into China selling crates of £14,000 Chateau Lafite was not to last.

"The Chinese economy certainly isn't where it was. There was a while where we were selling cases of Chateau Lafite. But it was good while it lasted and we would have sold cases for £14,000."

And he's confident about continuing to sell into the middle part, and top end, of the market. "It's very hard to survive by not reaching into the middle tier of any market - if you see a market as a pyramid, you have very few people at the top but you have to attract the tier of people in the middle of any market. Everyone is fighting over the bottom - the Aldis and the Tescos, everyone is chasing over that. I'm not interested in that because I can't buy anything intelligent at 50p per bottle."

His involvement in racing at Down Royal came when they couldn't find a sponsor for a major race. "I decided then I'd sponsor it for the first year, and now here we are, 14 years later." He also has a strong interest in horses, and has a share in Si C'etait Vrai, a horse which formerly belonged to Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary.

He vows that you can never stand still in business - and an acquisition across the water is a possibility.

"We've been spending some time with a company and we've become quite good friends. And I just want to make sure we make the right move to grow in the UK. We have a 70-odd million market over there compared to 1.6m here and 3.4m in the south."

His travelling to wine regions continues but he confesses he's no great linguist. "My French is pretty bad and my Spanish worse but they have very, very good English." And he remains fired up about wine. "I think you are lucky if you can do what you enjoy. If you like what you are doing then you can go anywhere. Once someone enjoys someone there's no limit. I'm blessed in that department though I just wish there was less red tape for businesses."

Mr Nicholson is also intrigued by wine-drinking habits. "I've always been thinking that people will go back to drinking a lot of Chardonnays again but there seems to be no end to the interest in Pinot Grigio." He finds the continuing success of Prosecco a bit "surprising" but it's "easy to drink, easy to understand and a lot less expensive than Champagne."

And he will soon get his first allocation of Felton Road, a New Zealand white which will make it into the finest restaurants in Ireland.

Business is good at the moment, Mr Nicholson says. "It's a lot better than it was and has gone up substantially, say by 18 or 19% this year - and that's after going up 12% the year before that.

"The Irish economy is a lot better, but it's never going to go back to where it was in 2005/06."

At 61, with a 37-year-old business employing nearly 40 people, he's not interested in retirement. He and Elspeth do not have children.

As to whether he'd ever sell up, he jokes: "We'll look at it in 20 years time."

Belfast Telegraph