Behind the Scenes with Elizabeth and Wine
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Hello everyone, and welcome to my brand-new blog.
I’ve had a lot of time to come up with new ideas during Covid-19 lockdown, and I am so excited to share my thoughts with you on this blog.
For this first post, I wanted to share a little more of myself with you – who I am, how I’ve built my business and some of my best and worst experiences as a woman in the wine world. I’ve been working in wine and hospitality for over 15 years, meeting amazing people, learning a huge amount along the way and experiencing some unforgettable things which have all helped me to get to where I am today with my own business, Elizabeth & Wine.
The art of hospitality and a passion for service comes naturally to some people, and it was clear from a very young age that one of those people was me. My parents weren’t ‘into’ wine, but we loved eating out as a family and could be found in the restaurants of London without fail every Wednesday and Saturday night. I have loved this experience for as long as I can remember and used to get so excited at the prospect of getting dressed up and going out with my parents. One of our favourites as a child was barbecue, and I often ended our evenings out covered in sticky sauce from ear to ear! I still adore the experience of eating out, although I now tend to spend more time eating my food and less time getting covered in it!
I was a lucky child. Food and travel were a huge part of my life, and I spent a lot of my childhood discovering the amazing cuisine in places such as France and Italy. Even then, it was clear that I was a people person. As an only child, I had to learn very quickly how to reach out and make new friends, and 5-year-old Elizabeth could often be found on holiday scanning the breakfast buffet for potential new playmates. Even if we didn’t speak the same language, we would always find a way to connect and make friends, very often in the pursuit of ice-cream and lollies!
This ability to reach out and make connections with people is invaluable for anyone wanting to pursue a career in hospitality. When the time came to decide what my career would be, this industry felt like the most natural choice in the world. By the time university came around I had chosen to study Hospitality Management at the University of Essex. This kind of course is offered widely around the UK today, but at the time Essex offered one of only three hospitality courses in the entire country.
Meanwhile, my first big adventure into the world of hospitality came at the age of 20, when I found myself running a Lebanese-themed bar and restaurant alongside my studies. It was a memorable time to say the least, with a restaurant upstairs and a hot, sweaty, smoky club downstairs where the party would often continue into the early hours! But I loved working there. Not only was I getting paid to be in the club (unlike all my friends spending their student loans at the bar) but I thrived on connecting with customers and having a lot of fun. This was long before the smoking ban and I can still vividly remember the haze of smoke hovering over the dancefloor and having to wash every item of work clothing I owned after each shift.
From Hotels to Bars
On graduating, I was accepted onto the management training programme for the Red Carnation hotel group, a huge hospitality franchise with properties spread across the world from London to Botswana. This was a huge learning curve for me, thanks to the emphasis that Red Carnation placed upon their ‘twelve values of hospitality’ and the help of my mentor Liz McGivern.
Liz was my first strong female role model in the hospitality business, a compassionate and ambitious woman who cared deeply about every single member of staff in her group, regardless of where they were or what their role was. She taught me that no detail is too small when it comes to customer care, and that you are only ever as good as the team you manage – invaluable advice in an industry where rates of staff turnover can be notoriously high. Working with Liz was a formative experience and we are still in touch to this day.
I had viewed hotels as the Rolls-Royce of hospitality jobs, expecting the kind of glamour and behind-the-scenes excitement that we are all used to seeing on TV. However, I quickly found that the reality was an endlessly churning machine that felt soulless and unrewarding. My interactions with customers were transactional and brief. Instead of just handing over a room key from behind reception, I wanted to create real connections and be the person that made visitors feel special.
With this in mind, I moved to leading wine specialists Corney & Barrow, who operated a number of upmarket wine bars in the City of London. I had to apply 3 times to get the job – Corney & Barrow confirmed my fears about hotel work by saying that they didn’t want applicants from a hotel background, but were looking for unique, energetic and free-thinking staff. However, I Was determined, I knew I had the right qualities and after several applications and interviews, Corney & Barrow hired me to run the wine bar attached to the Lloyd’s insurance market building in 2009.
The rise of ‘brosé’ culture
Despite – or perhaps because of! - the 2008 credit crunch and Great Recession, the wine bars of the City were still thriving. The excess and unbelievable spending of the boom years had subsided, customers were still looking for a good time but could no longer be seen entertaining their clients (and each other) to the same level of excess. This was also a time where women began to be seen in the formerly hyper-masculine environment of finance. Women were definitely still a minority, but bars actively began trying to attract the ‘LK Bennett’ types (smart City women making their own money) for the first time and started to move away from the boy’s club image that had pervaded City culture up to the early 2000s.
Drinks lists became shorter and less focused on heritage brands in favour of up-and-coming trends such as prosecco, rosé and sauvignon blanc. Men were more likely to be seen in a pink shirt enjoying a glass of ‘brosé’ than sunk into clad in a three-piece suit and clutching at a claret. City bars and restaurants really started to take the female market seriously, and to cater for women in terms of atmosphere, service and wine lists.
Working in the City at the end of the Noughties was so exciting. It was a great learning experience for me and working for Corney & Barrow it was almost impossible not to fall in love with wine. I was lucky enough to work closely with Paul Masters (now the Corney & Barrow Group Commercial Director). Every week Paul would visit my bar and challenge me to recommend a wine, to justify my choice, explain food pairings and to execute the perfect serve. We had afternoon wine training sessions every Friday (the perfect end to a working week!) and I completed the Level 2 and 3 qualifications with the prestigious Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the world’s biggest wine educational institution.
Time for a change
After Corney & Barrow I was asked to run the very same bar in the Lloyd’s building that I had worked in previously, which had been given a 500k refurbishment. It was here that I had the privilege of working with the late Gerard Basset OBE, one of the wine industry’s most legendary figures and one of the most warm, humble people I have ever met. Gerard was a fabulous mentor, and we worked together on building new wine lists and events ranging from small tastings to huge parties. One particularly memorable event was a Whispering Angel party where absolutely everything was decked out in shades of pink and the jeroboams were flowing all night long!
I loved my years working in bars, but I soon found myself feeling that I had exhausted all my avenues for growth. I had learnt so much about wine, hospitality, events and fine dining, as well as enjoying some amazing events such as an all-expenses paid holiday to Egypt after being voted site manager of the year up against 600 others – but I felt I had hit an invisible ceiling and that I needed to do something different. The culture around me had changed, too. Today, Lloyd’s has a no-drinking policy and the bar I once ran is a coffee shop.
Elizabeth & Wine
The idea for Elizabeth & Wine was conceived in 2018 with my husband Mark, on holiday in a rooftop pool in Colombia of all places! Mark had seen me helping to sell men’s business shirts as a favour at a friend’s soft launch party for his business and had observed my sales skills firsthand. And not long before, the two of us had attended a wine tasting run by a sommelier with a group of young people all attending using Groupon vouchers and realised that there was a market for fun and accessible wine experiences.
I had wanted to start my own business for a long time and the idea of building a business around wine tastings seemed to tick all the boxes in terms of my strengths and interests.
I knew I was on to something after attending an annual tasting with a large, well-known wine merchant. In my days as a bar manager, I had been welcomed with open arms at these kinds of events as keen winemakers and agents sought to find a starring role for their wines on our latest wine lists. However, as an entrepreneur, I immediately felt a change upon entering the room. Nobody was interested in talking to me without a business to represent, and the room was full of men in suits catching up with their old mates and not giving me so much as a glance. Despite feeling somewhat intimated, I steeled myself and headed for the female winemakers in the room, where I discovered a lot of common ground.
Talking to amazing female winemakers such as Claire Allen of Huia Vineyards in New Zealand and Riane Strydom at Strydom Vineyards (currently the only female on the board of South Africa’s Cape Winemaker’s Guild) I started to find out more about the subject of women in wine. I find the theme of women in wine absolutely fascinating and realised that this was the niche I wanted for Elizabeth & Wine – to empower amazing women to love wine. Ever since, many of my tastings have showcased the best of female winemakers, from Claire at Huia to the wonderful Laura from Catena Zapata. My tastings are often specifically aimed at groups of women, showing wines made by female producers.
Since day one, running my own business has been the most amazing and challenging experience of my life. I had to switch from learning to sell ‘business to consumer’ to ‘business to business’ and start to understand how to engage corporates rather than individual customers. My first year was definitely challenging because of the pressure I felt trying to get people to believe in me. More than once, I heard comments such as ‘she’ll have a real job again in 6 months’ and felt under a lot of pressure to prove that I was could do this and that I was serious! I invested heavily in tangible things such as business cards and a website, which I felt were essential in making my business look and feel legitimate.
Year on year, Elizabeth & Wine has grown and now my third year is looking healthy, despite some nimble manoeuvring when Covid-19 hit! I’m always slightly nervous about what tomorrow might hold but I am always looking to the future and working hard to make sure Elizabeth & Wine becomes even more successful. I try and imagine where I want to be in five years’ time and work back from there, keeping the bigger picture in mind and never letting self-doubt overwhelm me. I have seen women in business behave in a more conscientious and reserved way than their male counterparts. I believe that self-doubt comes much more easily to women, so I always try and remember to be confident and capable of doing incredible things.
Looking to the future
COVID-19 hit my business like a train. All of my corporate clients had to cancel their events although they were good enough to pay my invoices. Running a business through the pandemic has brought its own unique challenges and it forced me to be creative, make a rapid pivot and rethink what I was doing and how I was doing it. Overall for me it has been an interesting and exciting time where I’ve been able to spend much more building my self-worth, working on my confidence and skills and innovating to make sure that Elizabeth & Winestays successful. My advice to women in the wine industry would be to never forget your self-worth and value your skills and experience – but don’t forget to work hard and play hard, too! I’ve loved having more spare time, and I’m looking forward to travelling more post-lockdown, as well as spending more time playing the piano and learning French to help me in my wine travels … and sharing more about myself and all the wonderful women in the wine industry on the Elizabeth & Wine blog!