D. Byrne & Co - family wine merchants in Clitheroe

PUBLISHED: 11:13 06 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:13 06 November 2014

Joseph Byrne

Joseph Byrne

Archant

Independent wine merchants are surviving in spite of the intense competition from supermarkets, writes Roger Borrell

Detailed wine bottlesDetailed wine bottles

If Hollywood film moguls wanted to shoot scenes in a Victorian wine cellar, they would probably spend a small fortune building a set. They could save their cash by simply taking a trip to Clitheroe.

Below King Street are a series of small catacombs that contain every drinker’s dream - thousands of bottles of red, white, rose and fizz. Bottles from all over the world pack wooden cases and cram walls. People who love wine come here to worship at this unpretentious little shrine to Bacchus.

There has been a business on this site at least since the 1870s. Denis Byrne was born in Manchester in 1871 to an Irish surgeon and a Lancashire mother, who came from a family of corn dealers and cotton manufacturers.

In his father’s will, Denis received enough to buy a share in the business of a Clitheroe merchant called Mr Thistlethwaite. Denis eventually bought him out and D. Byrne & Co was born. From 1890 the business supplied most of the townspeople and local farmers with groceries, animal feeds and a few wines and spirits. Deliveries were often made across the fells by horse and cart.

Joseph Byrne in one of the wine celllarsJoseph Byrne in one of the wine celllars

The groceries that were the cornerstone of the business disappeared in the 1970s, replaced by wine and spirits but not much else has changed.

It is a company with a long and successful past, but it also has future in the shape of 27-year-old Joseph Byrne. He’s the fifth generation to be in the business, which is owned by his dad Andrew and two uncles, Phillip and Tim. Several other members of the family also play a part in its success.

Joseph rattles through the awards they’ve won in recent times. It has been Wine Magazine’s northern wine merchant of the year at least ten times. They have also been named several times as the top merchant for Australian wine. But the truth is, says Joseph, ‘we try to specialise in everything.’

Despite Joseph representing the younger generation of Byrnes, modern technology plays little part in the everyday running of the business.

D Byrne and Co Wine MerchantsD Byrne and Co Wine Merchants

‘How many bottles of wine do we have? I know there are 6,000 different products for sale, but we really don’t know exactly how many bottles of wine we have here and at our warehouse. We keep it all up here,’ he says, pointing to his head.

‘We have a website but we don’t sell wine through it and we don’t have a computerised stock-list. We just have very good memories.’

Joseph has been working in the shop since he was seven. ‘I was never pressurised to go into the family firm. It wasn’t necessary because it was something I really wanted to do. I love working here – it’s a job for life.’

Most of his training was on the job but he did travel to France to attend the Academie de Champagne. If that sounds like a cushy number, well, it did involve tasting a lot of champagne but Joseph was expected to attend lectures and pass exams to gain his qualification. At 20, he is thought to be the youngest to have made the grade. He has also travelled to South Africa to develop his knowledge of their wines.

Byrne’s entry in the Which Wine Guide read: ‘First time visitors always find it a shock to see such a huge, high quality range of wines displayed and sold in such an unpretentious manner. A further shock are the price tags, which you’d be forgiven for thinking were exclusive of VAT.’

That is particularly relevant when you have four major supermarkets all selling wine on your doorstep. ‘It means we have to be very competitive,’ says Joseph. ‘Our most expensive bottle is probably a Petrus for around £400 but you can get a good red from us for £4.99.’

Byrne’s also sells an experience that you don’t find down a supermarket aisle. The main shop still has all the fixtures and fittings from its early days – scrubbed floors, oak counters and a brass hand-turned till as well as those steps to cellars full of delights.

‘More people seem to be eating out again but during the recession they stayed in more and spent their money on a decent bottle of wine. Happily, they’re still doing that.’

Joseph is a great advocate of South African wines but his all time favourite is red Burgundy. ‘I love this wine – it’s a really elegant complex style of wine. It goes in phases but there has been a resurgence of interest in lighter wines and South Africa has now started producing some wines that aren’t so heavy.’

Is Joseph, a wine expert at 27, considered a rarity among his friends? ‘I think a few might be a little envious of what I do but I’m pleased to say younger people are getting into wine. People I know who drank beer and spirits are now wanting to try wines. That has to be good for the future of independent wine merchants.’

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