The Expat Revisited: Nigel Tollerman

Nigel Tollerman in his Abasto tasting cellar.
CV: Nigel Tollerman
From: Surrey, UK
Age: 36
Profession: Sommelier and wine consultant, founder of 0800 VINO
Education: Masters degree in philosophy at St. Andrew’s University
Currently reading: The Economist
Last film seen: The Iron Lady
Gadget: Vintur, which alleviates the need for a decanter

Why did you first visit Argentina?
I came here for a change of scene, a change in lifestyle, good weather, and to be able to live like a rock-star with what was in those days off a few, very overvalued pound sterling, to take advantage of the devaluation. To take advantage of the sun, the great grass-fed beef and I knew beforehand that Argentina was a very exciting destination from a wine point of view.
A revolution was underway back in 2002, and in the back of my mind I had the vague idea that I would like to work full-time in the wine trade.

What has kept you in Argentina?
The fact I have a niche wine business, which I have been slowly building up since then, which has acquired something of a legendary status in this town. On the tastings side it has been building up slowly. I think when we last spoke it was pre-Lehman Brothers and Argentina had taken a hit, as nowhere in the world has weathered the crisis without great difficulty.

Has your business been affected?
In terms of the numbers of foreigners travelling here, and taking wine home, moneyed foreigners who will fork out for a private tasting of the best wines in Argentina, I’d say yes, I’ve felt it. But the biggest difficulty I have felt is the inflationary one.

Where have you travelled to?
All over Argentina. In the past three years I’ve been to Neuquén, Río Negro and Patagonia to check out some relatively new but very exciting projects. I’ve been to Valle de Uco, which is one of the boom zones of Mendoza, as well as in Lujan de Cuyo, and last year I spent some time in Salta, in Cafayate, visiting the marvellous operations that are Colomé and San Pedro de Yacochuya among others. That’s a very exciting place to see the changes going on in the Argentine wine world.

Any surprises?
There are some many interesting new wineries producing good wine. In Mendoza, Durigutti is producing better and better wines every year, and getting more success abroad. The Malbec speaks for itself, but I’m also a massive fan of their Cabernet Franc, which is excellent, and Bonarda.
In Patagonia, there are a few more projects such as Patritti, which is a boutique winery making very good Merlot and Pinot Noir, whose chief wine-maker came from Rutini-La Rural fame. It has a decent Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon too, which makes it one of my favourite Patagonian wineries at the moment.
In Salta, the main new thing in Cafayate is Amalaya which was bought by Colomé and is top-end stuff.

What’s been your biggest business success?
Surviving! Surviving the Argentine tax system, inflation, the economic crisis, a 70-percent rent increase a couple of years ago. I had to cut my costs to the bone but I’m still in business and still in profit.
And probably not looking at Excel spread sheets of my retail sales, but promoting my brand. From a private tastings point of view I have a lot more of the market now with my experience, and a reputation on that front.
I am also the in-house sommelier for (Francis Ford Coppola’s) Jardín Escondido hotel which is full most of the year, so I shift quite a lot of wine through that hotel as well as host some events there. I have also started food-and-wine pairings for some puerta cerrada closed-door restaurants too.

Would you start up the same business today?
A lot of wine stores have opened up in the past three years — I’d estimate there are more than double the number now — and a lot more informal resellers who work out of their garage who have deals with a few wineries who are a bigger part of the market than before, and on price it can be quite hard to compete with these operators.
Wine is being flooded onto the market as trucks are regularly held up at gunpoint and wine is stolen, which will end up on Mercado Libre, plus wineries with cash flow problems are now paying suppliers in kind.
If I hadn’t been in the business this length of time, and built up good relationships with my providers and ability to get a bit more margin from them, but as the market is more competitive, I probably wouldn’t invest in a business like this.

Just how are prices affected?
I almost never sell any of the Old World wines I do have because the prices are a lot higher, locals want Argentine wines and it would be cheaper for a foreigner to fly to New York, Paris or London to buy a first-growth Bordeaux and fly back than it would be to buy it here.

How has Abasto, where you work, developed?
Abasto has a few more eating and drinking options, more students and some more middle-class professionals than there were before. I feel that the process of gentrification has progressed somewhat. Quite a few old buildings have been restored, there’s a bit more life on the streets in the evenings, some foreigners are living here and it’s been playing quite cleverly with tourists for its tango heritage, the Carlos Gardel museum, and other tango places.
The Peruvian element of the neighbourhood is also being more celebrated as people come here specifically to eat Peruvian food, and there’s lots of construction going on.
Abasto has become nicer, it’s more pleasant to walk around and it’s still got a lot of character. It used to have a certain image for being a bit of a rough neighbourhood but I feel as safe walking around here as I do walking around Barrio Norte where I live.

What do you miss from the UK?
Good pubs, good beer, an English pint. I used to miss spicy food but I now have a favourite Indian restaurant here. I miss my friends from school, my friend from university, don’t miss the weather… the selection of wines and imported products, cheeses, the quality and variety of goods available at a supermarket. I miss Borough Market in London, the greenness of the countryside. But I can’t say I miss cricket as I play it here!

And what do you miss from Argentina when you travel?
I’m lucky enough, despite living in central Buenos Aires, to have an extended balcony with a parrilla on it. I actually bought that before a bed or a dining-table or sofa. I love asados, and the fact it can be a Saturday evening or Sunday morning, and I can call up a few friends, they come over with some meat to throw on and a bit of booze, and you have a social event. You can have an asado in the middle of winter here as the weather is quite mild.
I love the social aspect of Argentina, the energy of Buenos Aires, the nightlife and culture options as there is always something to do, such as dancing tango on a Tuesday evening.

Tell me about the cricket scene.
Well, the national side hasn’t won a game for quite a long time… I play for the Hurlingham Club. I think there could be more Argentine kids playing in schools at grassroots level, learning the game. Some started a few years ago but they have now moved onto football, so it’s not as easy as it was to get a full team together.
At Hurlingham we have good relations with an Indian company who sends us a steady stream of Indians, who apart from being very nice blokes, are universally good cricketers and they help us keep going.
It’s great to do if you want to escape the mayhem of Buenos Aires on a weekend and see a bit of green.

Who else plays?
There’s a few Australians and we’ve just had the Anzac Ashes at Belgrano, which sees the best English players go up against a combined Australian-New Zealand team. In the past few years, England has had the upper hand, mirroring real life.

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
I occasionally put salt on my salad! And hairdressers aren’t too good — I’ve been left with a hideous mullet a few times but I do my best to keep it under control.

Not even wine heroes can fight inflation
The owner of a small business, Nigel Tollerman set up 0800 VINO due to his love for the sacred grape and after completing a sommelier qualification in Buenos Aires. Delving into tastings, delivery, pairings and consultations, the entrepreneur has had to make cutbacks in order to keep his Abasto-based business going, but his greatest enemy has been inflation.
Tollerman says: “Previously, Argentine wine was a bargain to pick up and now in some cases, the same Argentine wine is retailing for double what it would retail for in the US or in the UK. The overall market for limited production, top-end premium wine is very small in Argentina. There also isn’t any competition from imports which are few and far between due to prohibitive import duties and a prohibitive import region, and because of the rather conservative power to the consumer, there’s no competition and prices will go up.
“If you’re a tourist, are you going to pick up a bottle of wine for US$50 when you can get the same wine for US$30 back home? Obviously there are some you can’t, so my job becomes harder, searching out new wines coming onto the market which haven’t made it to the US or Europe.
“So, I would say business is definitely harder. I’ve moved away from commercial brands which has been interesting for me, which has also contributed to my continuing wine education which never stops, and a lot of interesting products have come on the market in the past three years.
“Let’s also take the cost of doing up a premises — I have a tasting-room and offices — which is about three times more expensive today than it was three years ago. A lot of my machinery was imported and I doubt I’d be able to get the components from France and Brazil to build the same cellar conditioning system. I imagine doing it again would take even longer and cost even more due to the import problems.
“Given the uncertainty regarding the economic outlook, the exchange rate, the political and economic uncertainty, I’m not sure if I would invest in something like this if I arrived in Argentina today.”
Inflation doesn’t just affect Tollerman’s wine business, however — it also affects his sporting passion, too.
“It’s absolutely impossible to get cricket kit. But members of the national team who regularly travel abroad kindly bring us back what we need as it’s impossible to buy it here,” he adds.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on March 4, 2012
Photo by Mariano Fuchila

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