“You just don’t know the sentimental value attached to each bottle; the history; the story behind each case. What may be stock in a typical warehouse is the customer’s prized possession at Octavian, with huge personal value, so we handle it as if it were our own.”
The very nature of its stock differentiates Octavian from any other warehouse environment, explains Stephen Fox who joined the Company five years ago after twenty years spent working within the fresh, chilled and frozen foods industry – environments in which products can be viewed as much more of a commodity.
“Conventionally, warehouses focus on stock turnover which can occur up to 20 times a year, whereas we offer long-term storage and the average case at Octavian stays for eight years.
“And in a typical warehouse, operatives can be trained up and working on the floor within a matter of days.
Some environments are so automated that they require very little human interaction. But it takes a full six months to train someone to work within Octavian’s Operations team so that they have the skills to deliver the world’s best fine wine storage service. And in the main, cases are owned by private customers rather than companies – hence the emotional connection. So I say to everyone joining us, ‘Remember, the wine’s not ours, but how would you look after it if it did belong to you?’ That’s the approach we take.”
Octavian’s quality of care starts from the moment a consignment is received. “Products arrive without bar codes so each case must be verified against paperwork,” says Stephen. “In fact as much as 40% of all stock we receive has insufficient paperwork so additional work is required to obtain the right information to enable it to be landed and to conform to HMRC regulations.”
Logging the condition of stock upon arrival is crucial and while in most warehouses packaging is simply for the protection of goods, in Octavian’s case, it is considered part of the wine’s value. “As more secondary market stock is being traded, the increased movement of goods means a higher incidence of damaged stock arriving,” Stephen points out.
“A high percentage of wine is purchased unseen, so we have more notifications going out to customers to ensure they are satisfied with the condition of what they have purchased while they still have the opportunity to push back on their supplier. There’s no recourse if this is left to a later date.
“Customers can instruct us to repair damage incurred in transit where possible, and if woodworm is detected, we’ll treat it to prevent cross contamination. We apply a unique identification number that stays with the wine for as long as it is stored with us. Of course, our aim is not to disturb a case and wherever possible, we’ll seek to preserve the integrity of what is often the original, from-Chateau case banding. This may have been in place for some twenty years or more.
“Verification continues as the cases travel on our train underground – they’re logged whilst in transit and re-checked again when they reach their allocated space within our cellars.”
Should photography be required, Octavian’s state-of-the-art underground studio, staffed by a team of four, offers high quality images and photographic evidence of condition. “With so many wines being bought and sold unseen, professional images that show the condition of wines provide tangible verification and this is a crucial part of our service today,” Stephen points out.
Ask Stephen what else differentiates Octavian from the everyday warehouse and he doesn’t hesitate. “What we do is different but where we do it couldn’t be further removed from typical, purpose-built warehouse space. For starters, we’re the only underground cellars in the world; a million square feet of premium storage space and 157 steps down into Bath stone. Our environment alone makes us unique and within this space, we strive to ensure the very best possible wine storage conditions and services.”
Stephen goes on to explain that underground temperature levels are naturally stable, though carefully monitored nevertheless, there is no vibration and humidity gauges located throughout the mine are checked frequently throughout the day to maintain constancy of conditions.
The adoption of technology, such as sensors on material handling equipment, helps ensure that stock is handled safely. “Drivers know that they are monitored constantly and this is important since for the majority of the day, they are not visible due to the size of the mine; it’s such a vast and cavernous area.
“What’s really different at Octavian to any other warehouse environment is that we appreciate the emotional and financial value that wines hold for our customers and rather than storage providers, we see ourselves as custodians. This is not without its challenges, but we genuinely feel proud of what we do and how we go about it. When I meet new people and they ask what I do for a living, it takes some explaining. I tell them, ‘it’s storage, but not as you know it!’”