Cheers to the future: Specialist wine importer looks to international growth
Set up in 2007 by Bruno Besa and long-term friends. Max Folli, Stefano Benato and Mark Perna joined soon after. Astrum specialises in wines and spirits from small producers where there is a limited quantity of stock.
It’s a competitive market; the wines and spirits it imports represent the exclusive end of the market and, as such, are in high demand, with the producers limiting supplies to different geographical markets. Astrum aims to have exclusivity on UK distribution.
Marco Michieletti, a long-term friend of the founders, joined as general manager in 2013 to look after the daily logistics. We asked him about Astrum’s business journey, lessons learned and future plans.
How did the business start?
The three founders, other directors and I have a background working in high-end hotels and restaurants and have all known each other since the 1990s. The idea for the business came one evening, sitting together around a table, enjoying a good glass of wine.
Maybe if we had been sitting around eating a good plate of sushi, it would have been a different story.
When the first stock was brought, we had to decide where to store it, as there was no warehouse. It ended up in one of our director’s garages, and we found customers by knocking on doors.
From the outset, it was decided to seek out and promote the smaller wineries rather than the big names. Often, they are family-run businesses and don’t have the ability and finances to market their products around the world.
This approach gave us a winning card because many of those small wineries do highly collectable wines which can be requested worldwide – Hong Kong, Dubai, and New York, for example.
We never go for the mass sell; we would never sell water, beers, or anything like that. The aim has always been to be known for high-end products that you can only buy from Astrum in the UK.
Any challenges along the way?
Many. In the last 15 years, we’ve had the financial crash of 2008, Brexit in 2016, the COVID pandemic and now inflation and supply chain issues with dry materials such as cardboard because of the Ukraine war.
With the pandemic, everything shut down, and we had to pivot quickly. Before COVID, we occasionally sold privately to restaurant customers, usually on the sommelier’s recommendation if we were their main supplier. It was no more than ten private sales a month.
Lockdown was announced, and everyone was stuck at home. What could they do? Drink. I came into the office, and overnight, ten private sales had become 250.
Direct-to-consumer and e-commerce weren’t something we had any experience with. An Oxford University business student offered to be our e-commerce consultant for free and created a business model to help us cope with the demand.
A sister company, Sociovino, was set up in a week, but we couldn’t get the workforce in the warehouse to do the picking and packing, so it involved putting in a lot of hours – I never saw the sunshine.
It was tough, but we managed it, and it turned the business around.
What are Astrum’s future plans?
We’ve expanded and taken on another warehouse space next to our existing unit and have applied for it to become a bonded warehouse.
This means that taxes and duties aren’t paid until after the sale. Without a bonded warehouse, that money has to be paid upfront. It’s one of the reasons small producers don’t last very long because they have to pay duty before the stock even reaches the warehouse, a sum which is often in the thousands.
We need the bonded warehouse to sell abroad and currently rent, but having our own gives us more control. It means we have our team handling the stock.
At the moment, we use brokers to sell abroad, but we want to become brokers ourselves, still working with small, family producers.
How have your space requirements changed?
We started small and in a location much further than where we are now, then our current unit came up. It was brand new, had very good access for our lorries, and was close to the M25.
It holds 60,000 bottles, and with the new unit next door, we can double that. We also have warehouse space in Italy that can hold 5 million bottles, with lorries coming over a couple of times a week. Additional units in the future are a possibility.
Our use of our UK space isn’t completely conventional, we’ve converted some of the upstairs office into a music studio.
It’s used for jam sessions on a Friday. Before the pandemic, the band produced CDs and played the occasional gig at one of our client’s restaurants.
Astrum Wine Cellars have been a customer of Mileway since June 2009, taking a 3,400 sq ft unit at Falcon Business Centre, Mitcham. The unit has a mezzanine space for offices and direct yard access. It has transport links to central London via the nearby M25. In May 2022, Astrum took a second unit of 3,400 sq ft adjacent to its existing unit with the intention of converting this space into a bonded warehouse.