First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 4th February, 2017
Location is everything, and not just for your property investment portfolio. Wisdom has it that a wine shop or off-licence should be situated well away from competition, the supermarkets in particular. It also needs to have easy access to ample free parking, enabling customers to drop in and pick up a case of wine. So what possessed Frenchman Joel Durand to start up Blackrock Cellar on the busy main street of Blackrock, with very limited parking and competition in the form of two large shopping centres, each featuring a major supermarket with a reputation for its wine selection?
Five years on, Blackrock Cellar is still there, boasting one of the finest selections of wine, craft beer and spirits in the country. Recently it won the ultimate drinks-business Oscar, the Noffla National Off-licence of the Year award. The premises first opened as a branch of UK off-licence chain Oddbins in 1997. When Oddbins ran into difficulties, its four Irish stores closed down, bequeathing the Irish wine trade a cohort of well-trained individuals, many of whom have achieved success elsewhere. Durand had been working at the Blackrock branch and knew it had potential. Prior to that, he trained as a chef in France, working there and at restaurants in Italy and the UK.
“At first, we were going to do just wine, but it didn’t make sense,” says Durand, “Oddbins had been importing quality beer and were always running out. So craft beer has been there from the start and has really helped us.” As for the supermarkets, he thinks they help each other. “SuperValu are not the worst neighbours,” he says. “I can’t do the big-label brands and they cannot stock all the small producers we do.”
It took a while to get the landlords’ agreement, but they finally opened in March 2012. Two months later, Durand contracted a flesh-eating bacterial infection from a small shoulder wound. “The staff in St Vincent’s were fantastic,” he says. “I made so many great friends there; the doctor is now my customer.’ Six months and 40 operations later, he went back to work.
So how does Blackrock Cellar survive? Basically by doing things the supermarkets can’t: having well-trained staff, a vast (450 wines, about 450 craft beers, and copious spirits) and eclectic selection of interesting drinks, free local delivery and a lively online presence. More than anything, it is a friendly, really well-run shop.
Other Noffla winners include Jus de Vine in Portmarnock, which won the Wine Specialist of the Year award for a record 10th time; McHugh’s in Artane, which grabbed the beer award; and Redmond’s of Ranelagh, which not for the first time carried off the Spirits Specialist award.
Three of this week’s wines were chosen by Joel Durand, while Julie Cullen of Jus de Vine selected the Vigneti Zabu.
‘A baby Châteauneuf du Pape, with dollops of red fruit and warm, spicy flavours. Moreish to dangerous!’
Stockists: Blackrock Cellars.
‘A rich ripasso style red from Sicily – a real winter warmer!’
Stockists: Jus De Vine; 64 Wine; Blackrock Cellar; Callans; Donnybrook Fair; Drink Store; Grapevine; Martins; McHughs; Red Island: Wine Well; World Wide Wines.
‘A staff favourite; floral, aromatic and full of ripe and vibrant fruit. Just great.’
Stockists: Blackrock Cellar; Corkscrew; Clontarf Wines; Donnybrook Fair
Deveney’s Dundrum; Drink Store; Fallon & Byrne; Grapevine; Jus de Vine; La Touche; Martins; Red Nose; Sweeney’s; Wineonline.ie; World Wide Wines.
‘A cracker at the price – the label doesn’t do it justice; it is very nice inside. Fresh perfumes, crisp apples, pineapple and hay, clean and dry.’
Stockists: Blackrock Cellars; Bradleys; Leopardstown Inn; Martins.