I’ve known about the Old Butcher’s Wine Cellar since I moved to Cookham. They’re on the High Street and every now and again their name will come up in discussions with friends and local businesses and producers, and it’s not surprising because they seem to be somewhat of a hub for the Cookham food and drink community. Paul and Angela Stratford have been at the site, selling wine in one form or another for over 30 years. I was amazed by this, because if you think of the inhospitable climate that retailers on even the biggest High Streets are braving these days, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the Old Butcher’s Wine Cellar is still kicking on the sleepy Cookham High St. And not just getting by either, but thriving.
A combination of customer service, range, quality, flexibility and the fact that Paul and Angela are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, all feeds into the success of this independent beacon of retail success. What started with Paul taking over his father’s mail order wine club business, grew into a wholesale agency, servicing the biggest supermarket names and restaurants. It was only in the last 10 years that Paul and Angela sold the business as the death-grip of the big chains took its toll on the wine industry, “the quality of the big labels, just kept getting worse and worse” said Paul “through no fault of their own but due to the choke-hold of the supermarkets.”
So they started a new business, same site, same product, different model. The next iteration of the business would go back to retail roots, focusing on providing a carefully curated range of good quality, good value wine and spirits. But things weren’t always easy. “We tried to get the locals to come in for wine-tasting events but it just wasn’t working out” says Angela, “we had to try something else to get people into the shop.” Paul adds, “we were fighting a preconceived notion that wine tasting was all a bit posh, and we realised that perhaps it was rather an intimidating scenario for lots of people. So we opened up the shop of an evening and started having a wine bar once in a while.”
What started as an irregular, low-profile event, has become the one the best places in the village to be, Thursday through Saturday nights, and Sundays from 12-6pm. The OBWC wine bar nights have become a place where locals can come and try an ever-changing selection of different, unusual and decidedly non-supermarket wines, by the glass and in the comfort of the bare-brick, cellar-ambience of the shop. Cheese and charcuterie plates can be ordered to accompany the 16 wines and small batch gins (including Penn St distillery Griffith Bros, and Sacred) on offer each night, each one selected by the couple in the spirit of encouraging their guests to try something other than a Waitrose-own-brand chenin blanc or a Yellowtail cab sav. Angela and Paul have managed to boost their business by offering tasting opportunities in a casual setting, where even if you’re flying solo, you’ll find someone to chat with. “We’ve had people come down for the night and meet neighbours they’d never met, or spark up conversations with other locals about wine and everything else” says Paul, “it’s relaxed, and easy and everyone always seems to have a good time.” With up to 40-50 visitors passing through most nights, the wine bar offers a refreshing alternative to the neighbouring pubs and restaurants. Paul and Angela have a refreshing down-to-earth approach to wine, selling bottles ranging from £7 (but up to £200) and their genuine passion shines through in the enthusiasm they have for their range and their growing community of friends and customers.
Not only a social hub, the Old Butcher’s Wine Cellar is also becoming a locus for the local food community. They sell local Cookham Bakehouse sourdoughs and bread, Marlow Cheese Company cheese, they used to host the Cookham Secret Supper Club, and now play host to Prema’s Kitchen Sri-Lankan pop-ups on the first Wednesday night of each month. Less often, you can book a place on the whisky tasting nights, hosted by Maidenhead resident, Scotsman and whisky aficionado Paul Sweeney. Paul’s easy charm and encyclopaedic knowledge of whisky, makes for an informative, entertaining and rather lip-smacking evening. Since becoming friends with the Stratfords, Paul has helped shape the current whisky range which includes a very robust selection of Scottish whiskys from smaller, more interesting distilleries including Springbank, Benromach and Tullibardine – an offering you won’t find in any local supermarket no matter how hard you look.
As the future grows ever bleaker for retail, The Old Butcher’s Wine Cellar is leading the charge, bringing the creative, flexible and community-driven focus needed to succeed on the High St these days. you can visit them on the High St in Cookham, Maidenhead SL6 9SQ, or give them a call on 01628 819027 or visit online at www.oldbutcherswinecellar.co.uk.