Words by Lucy Studley images by Sally Mitchell
In the shadow of Truro Cathedral stands a former chapel dedicated to the vine.
At Old Chapel Cellars in Truro, sun streams through stained glass windows, a lofty ceiling reaches heavenward, and a huge church organ presides over the cavernous space. The congregation, however, are no longer Methodist parishioners, but neatly stacked boxes of wine shipped in from all over the globe.
Presiding over this unlikely flock are Old Chapel co-owners Louisa Fitzpatrick and Jamie Tonkin. Jamie started in the business straight after university, working at Laymont and Shaw in what would be considered an old school wine trade apprenticeship. The award-winning firm specialised in Spanish and Portuguese wines, so it helped that Jamie spoke fluent Spanish. Before long he became Warehouse Manager and then Head of Buying. Laymont and Shaw was sold in 2003, so Jamie went to work in London in various roles in the wine trade, but Cornwall – where he grew up – drew him back irresistibly.
“I saw that the original Laymont and Shaw building – the Old Chapel - was on the market, and it just seemed too serendipitous,” Jamie recalls. He scraped together the funds to buy it with help from his grandparents (Headley Rothwell, the name of Old Chapel’s holding company, were their married and maiden names) and started his own wine business from scratch. “I’ve never looked back,” says Jamie, whose open and friendly approach has won him many loyal accounts over the years.
He was joined in the business in 2020 by Louisa Fitzpatrick, who’s early experience in the wine trade was conversely gained in Northern Europe. “It was whilst studying for my Business Management degree in Germany that the vineyards and wineries caught my interest and led me to pursue a career in the wine industry,” Louisa explains. “For me, the trade is all about people. On the one hand it’s about the people making the wine, shaping what’s beneath the label through tradition, knowledge and innovation. On the other hand, as a wine merchant, my job is about building relationships with clients and customers. I feel like a translator sometimes, explaining a wine’s origins in a way that people can engage with and relate to.”
Louisa’s career has seen her working for large wine merchants in Manchester, London and Bristol, before she finally fulfilled her dream of relocating to Cornwall. “I’d worked at a pub on the north coast as a student, so I knew Cornwall was ultimately where I wanted to end up. I joined St Austell Brewery in 2005 and in 2015 became Head of the Wine Department.”
By 2020 Louisa was hankering after a project; the scope and potential offered by a small independent wine merchant like Old Chapel Cellars appealed. She joined forces with Jamie, and they now make a formidable team, jointly heading up one of the UK’s top independent merchants and dealing directly with wineries all over the world.
Wholesale customers, including some of Cornwall’s top restaurants and hotels, benefit from Old Chapel’s unique access to exclusive wines carefully sourced from estates which share their ethos and values. Meanwhile, visitors to the characterful wine store on St Clement’s Street enjoy an eclectic and constantly evolving selection of wines, spirits and beers displayed with helpful information and friendly advice on hand should you need it. A new website allows customers all over the UK into this world of specialist knowledge and privileged access to not-on-the-high-street wines. Carefully curated wines, expert knowledge, personal levels of service. These are the core values of small independent wine merchants the world over. However, Jamie and Louisa have also achieved something that no other merchant in the UK has to date; in March 2022 Old Chapel Cellars officially became a B Corp.
B Corps are companies that voluntarily meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance. They go through a rigorous certification process, which involves a comprehensive assessment of the company’s impact on all stakeholders. B Corps consider success by looking at ‘the triple bottom line’ – people, planet and profit.
The B Corp movement is gaining unstoppable momentum, as more and more organisations see ‘business as a force for good’ as the future of commerce. It’s a helpful correction to the greenwashing trend, which is increasingly used as a marketing tool to attract customers who try and make sustainable choices. For example, vegetables which tout their organic status but fail to draw adequate attention to the fact that they are flown halfway around the world in single-use plastic.
By contrast, B Corp status signifies a thorough, holistic approach to safeguarding people, planet and profit which has to be recertified every three years. As Louisa sees it: “Our business is not going to solve the world’s climate crisis and neither are we perfect. However, becoming a B Corp commits us to transparency and continual improvement. We’re really excited to see where the journey takes us.”
It all starts at the point of origin, in other words, in the vineyard. “When looking at new wines we find out about sustainability measures being taken in the vineyard and winery,” explains Jamie. “Organic practices are great, but like our own business it’s a holistic approach we’re looking for. So operations that encourage biodiversity, reduce waste, support the local community, and preserve traditions whilst innovating for the future – they are our ideal partners.”
In terms of carbon emissions, wine – as a liquid contained in heavy glass bottles, which often travels many thousands of miles from its point of origin – is problematic. Whilst Louisa and Jamie can’t fundamentally change that, they are continually finding ways to improve their practices. “Our wines are never transported by air and we work with other wine merchants in the Vindependents buying group to consolidate our orders and ship the wine in full loads to maximise efficiency,” explains Jamie. “Once the wine is with us, we carefully plan our delivery routes to minimise journeys, and recently invested in an e-bike for carbon-neutral deliveries around Truro.”
Louisa adds: “Whilst glass is used for the majority of packaging, we also stock wine in can and keykeg – which means it is dispensed on draught, saving on packaging and transport. These newer formats have a place and are something we’ll be seeing more of in the future. A chilled can of wine on the beach, at a festival or on a train really works!”
Sustainability goes way beyond carbon emissions. Louisa and Jamie share an ethos of valuing people and being part of the local community, playing their part in helping a new generation of talent into the business. For example, Digital Marketing Manager Emily Bone is an aspiring 22-year old recruited via the government’s Kickstarter project, whilst Shop Manager Jake Thompson (29) has risen through the hospitality ranks and found his niche specialising in wine. Old Chapel also jointly delivers local WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) training, helping to upskill the hospitality trade and potentially create new career opportunities for local people with the highly regarded qualifications.
Meanwhile, Old Chapel’s longest-serving member of staff is former fire-fighter Steve Brown, who the team joke kept coming in to buy wine and one day never left. Earlier this year, Steve and Jamie together undertook a 24km climb up Pen Y Fan in Wales carrying 16kg Bergens (equivalent to 12 bottles of wine) in order to raise money for Cornwall-based men’s mental health charity, Man Down.
Both Jamie and Louisa have forged successful careers in the wine business, whilst living in the place they love. Both are outdoor enthusiasts, with Jamie’s surfboard riding in the back of the delivery van and Louisa’s camping equipment stashed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. “I think living in a beautiful place informs your view of how you want to do business,” says Jamie. “For both of us it’s important that we have a net positive impact on where we live – whether that’s by stripping some of the carbon out of our transportation, raising money for local charities, or giving young people the opportunity to forge a career in what is a very rewarding and fun industry.” Louisa adds: “I simply wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, anywhere else!”