A second round of target-busting crowdfunding on the Seedrs platform has just raised £1.2 million for the London-based independent merchant and bar group that founder Dawson expects will turn over £10 million by 2019.
Exclusive sourcing gives customers a choice of 400 wines, by the glass (starting at £6) or bottle (£17) from 11 countries.
Ones they might never have encountered otherwise, these have been produced by sustainable, organic and biodynamic (holistic) cultivation in single vineyards – usually six hectares or less.
“Our customers love our hand-picked artisan producers, their commitment to nature, their personal stories and their hand-crafted wines,” explains Dawson.
“A new generation of drinkers has arrived who care about how products are sourced, about ethics and authenticity.
“Our role is to transport customers on a journey, as they nose and sip so drinker and maker connect.”
A South African who came to the UK in 1997 with just £50, he is no fan of stuffiness and on a mission to demystify.
James Dawson’s Humble Grape brand are set to open their third wine bar in London this week
Our success has been about what we choose and how we present that. We create experiences
“We cut out all the jargon and snootiness,” he continues.
“Most people don’t care a flying fig about things like ‘clonal varieties’. But they are interested for instance in how a vineyard was revived by two brothers after their father died, how they kept to his principles and today produce award-winning wines.
“Our suppliers appreciate we deal with them directly, there’s no aggressive discounting or mark-ups involved.”
The company’s bars, designed by architect Jean Dumas, include neighbourhood ones in Battersea and now Islington, which features a winemakers’ stories wall and an indoor urban garden, as well as a City business one in Fleet Street.
The venues, which have both shop and bar restaurant sections, have curated wine lists to suit each location’s particular ambiance.
The dishes feature ingredients from small British producers, such as the day boat fishermen from Essex’s Mersea Island and artisan cheese maker Wildes, while paper for the labels and menus is made from recycled crushed grapes.
App partnerships with Deliveroo and Uber have helped drive custom. “They make it easy for customers to add one of our bottles when they order and see us just nearby,” says Dawson.
The business, both ahead of its time and a telling reflection of the wider trends at work, grew from Dawson’s love of wines, acquired when he worked for HSBC in Paris.
Back in London he ran private tastings for friends then corporate ones, importing cases and cycling round to make the deliveries himself
The airy and bright Fleet Street bar where bottles of wine start from £16
This coincided with London’s accelerating popularity as an international destination, the growth in the craft foods and drinks movement and the new affordable ways to drive and finance enterprise that had emerged in response to the recession.
That incubator for so many of today’s successful small businesses saw Dawson stage pop-up events and when he had invested all his savings turn to crowdfunding to launch his first wine bar, spurred on by enthusiastic investor/customers.
Battersea took a year to find and business improved “when we put the shop upstairs and the bar below. Afterwards we got great reviews on Trip Advisor and then landlords started offering us other venues,” remembers Dawson.
More recently the impact of economic uncertainty has been noticeable. “Leases have definitely become more reasonable and flexible,” he remarks.
The company cut through the snootiness and focus on authenticity
More affordable wines by the glass from Chile and South Africa, and sympathetic credit terms from producers have helped balance out the higher import costs caused by the weaker pound.
Fifty per cent of the wines come from Europe, but Dawson’s biggest Brexit concern is about potential freight hold-ups at customs causing delivery delays.
While he wishes he had the funds to employ a hot-shot operations director from the off, learning the do-yourself-way has taught him far more about running a business.
Serious crowdfunding of the kind he has just experienced requires time, in this case six months, he says.
But it is there and earmarked for development of the wine club, stock and online sales as well as new openings. After the portfolio reaches 20 sites around London Dawson hopes to head to other cities in the north and Midlands.
The new bar will open in Islington and provide an exciting menu
As for recommendations from the Humble Grape cellar he suggests a sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne wine (£21.50) from French biodynamic pioneer grower Andre Bonhomme.
According to Dawson, “one of the most stunning value for money sparkling wines we’ve ever stumbled across – made in the same way as Champagne but in Burgundy, exclusively from Chardonnay”.
Another, Ghisolana Prosecco Over 100 Extra Dry (£16.50), comes from Ghisolana (a name derived from ‘purity’), a family-run three-hectare plot of super-rare organic 100-year old vines whose grapes are then fermented without adding sulphur.
“There are enough wine lovers and growers now to keep up with our expansion plans,” declares Dawson.
“Our success has been about what we choose and how we present that. We create experiences.”