Having heard on the grapevine that the site of an old transport depot on the outskirts of a village had been transformed into a multi-million pound wine business, Peter Barron went to investigate

IT sounds like the kind of job dreams are made of – tasting wines for a living.

But, for James and Sam Goodhart, that’s only part of an inspirational story which began as a budding interest in wine but has grown into business turning over £4.5m a year.

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And, unlikely as it may seem, the couple’s international wine business is based at the stylishly renovated site of a dilapidated old transport warehouse which had been plonked just outside the pretty village of Melsonby, near Darlington.

The seeds for Bon Coeur Fine Wines were planted in London when an 18-year-old James was trying to fill his time profitably during his gap year between A-levels and university.

He’d been brought up on a Yorkshire farm and “pick-your-own” fruit – strawberries, raspberries, loganberries and the like – was an important part of the family business.

James, however, always found himself more drawn to grapes. A summer job, working among the French vineyards of Chateau Montlabert, in Saint-Emilion, provided an initial taste of the wine trade.

A year later, with the gap year ahead of him, James wangled a van driving job with Yorkshire Fine Wines, at Nun Monkton, near York. It was there that he met celebrated wine-maker Paul Lapsley, who was on a business trip from Australia.

Paul was working for the Houghton Winery, a subsidiary of Australia’s second biggest wine producer, BRL Hardy, and James seized the moment by asking for a job.

Houghton Winery happened to have vacancies for two apprentices to spend four months helping with the harvest. By the time Paul was back at his desk, James’ CV was waiting for him and, within weeks, he was flying into Perth Airport to work in the Swan Valley.

He gained an invaluable insight into wine production before embarking on a business course at Newcastle Polytechnic and, after further experience in Bordeaux and Burgundy, James decided his future was definitely in wine.

After graduating, he got a job with a Burgundy specialist in London, but the £13,000 salary hardly covered his rent. He went for an interview with another company who told him that a permanent job would be his if he could sell £100,000 of wine a year.

“If I was going to sell that much wine, I thought I might as well be doing it for myself,” he says.

At 24, he launched his own business, selling wine to friends, under the company name Bon Coeur – French for “good heart”, in deference to his family name.

“You get the sympathy vote to start with – your friends want to support you – but then it comes down to how well you operate,” he says.

Progress was slow so James earned money with a house removal firm to invest back into buying more wine stocks, and he gradually built up his client base.

It was ten years later that he met Sam at a charity ball at York Racecourse. She was working as an independent corporate financier in London and, apart from their blossoming romance, the couple’s skills and knowledge complemented each other perfectly. James knew about wine, Sam knew about finance.

They married 18 months later in October 2005 and, having sold her own business, Sam started delving more deeply into the figures behind James’ business as a sole trader and instigating a financial restructure.

The couple rented a farmhouse at Masham, North Yorkshire, spending the weekends there and continuing to work from a satellite office near their flat in London during the week.

With a significant number of northern customers on their books, they gradually began to trade more from Masham, to the point where they were effectively running two operations.

In 2008, Sam reviewed the figures again and they both decided it was time to consolidate the business in Yorkshire. By sheer coincidence, the stock market crash, caused by the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, began to unfold later that morning.

Despite the recession, it proved to be an astute move and Bon Coeur soon became too big for the Masham farmhouse, so the search began for bigger premises, close to the A1.

A friend, who lived at Melsonby, suggested that they should look at the run-down, corrugated site of the old Durham City Transport depot.

“We thought it was far too big but we put in an offer and it was accepted within 20 minutes,” says Sam.

The site was bought in August 2014 and, with the support of Richmond District Council, HSBC bank, and a Regional Growth Fund grant, a startling transformation into a modern wine distribution centre began.

One year on, the company is selling thousands of bottles every week across the UK and Bon Coeur has become a wine oasis on the outskirts of the village. Even the family’s two black Labradors, Malbec and Merlot, have been given wine labels.

The business has 18 employees and also acts as a training base for the Wine and Spirit and Education Trust, as well as hosting corporate events. They include a fun challenge along the lines of TV’s The Apprentice, with teams given an empty bottle and told to blend a wine, brand it, label it, and make a complementary dish for a panel of experts.

“Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves when we turn up for work and realise we actually own this place,” says James. “It’s all been about creating a quality customer experience.”

“We have seen a food revolution in this country over the past 15 years, and it’s our job to raise wine up to the same level,” adds Sam.

A showroom, called Cellar 21, opened for business in June and visitors can call in between 9am and 6pm Monday to Friday or 10am to 6pm on Saturdays to buy wine or just have a look round. The couple, who now have two children, are confident of further growth and more jobs.

In the meantime, the sample bottles of wine continue to arrive, and every one of them will be tasted by James’ expert palate before becoming part of the Bon Coeur distribution network.

Does he never tire of drinking wine? “No, because it is so incredibly varied. There’s always something different,” he replies.

“I’m always looking for that bottle of wine that costs £10 but tastes like it’s worth £15. When it comes down to it, business is about over-delivering on expectations.”

Bon Coeur has clearly over-delivered on the expectations of its humble beginnings. It’s a business that’s matured rather nicely – like a fine wine.

BON COEUR’S TOP SIX RECOMMENDATIONS

Le Saint Andre, Provence Rosé 2015 - £8.99: Lovely summer fruits, some floral characters fused with a touch of spice, great price for a Provence rosé

Jacques Boncoeur Brut Reserve Champagne N/V - £21.99: Our own label, award winning Champagne that takes on the big names without having to pay for their marketing budgets

Saint Veran, Terres Secretes 2014 - £11.99: Outstanding vintage from one of the best wineries in France. Always in my fridge.

Pinot Gris, Esk Valley, New Zealand 2016 at £10.99: Fresh, zingy aromatic with an uplift of spice, lovely balance. Bored with Sauvignon… you’ll love this.

Verso Rosso, Salento, Puglia 2014 at £12.99: Luscious style that has the X Factor. Rich, velvety and very drinkable.

Los Vascos, Grand Reserve, Carmenere 2012 at £12.99: Chateau Lafite’s Chilean winery. Plenty of power yet elegant fruit style with a touch of spice.