Claire Carruthers and Mo O’Toole have turned a passion for wine and travel into a nationally recognised business. Dean Bailey drops by their enoteca and wine shop to learn from two of the region’s leading food and drink experts
Claire Carruthers and Mo O’Toole – founders and co-owners of the Newcastle enoteca and wine merchant Carruthers & Kent – are at the top of their game.
Having left behind very different careers – Claire a graphic designer who was working in retail for wine chain Oddbins, Mo a political economist and academic – today their shop just off Gosforth’s high street is a mainstay of the region’s food and drink community.
Founded in 2010, today it is the go-to for expertly selected wines from across the world – a continuing research project which is both vital and tremendous fun – and a place to enjoy wine and grazing boards in the enoteca (an Italian word derived from Greek which means wine repository) while chatting about vineyards, winemakers, trends and – naturally – travel.
“We travelled a lot in Europe in the early 2000s and the enoteca, and the slow food movement more generally, was something we loved,” says Mo. “Wine also satisfies my nerdy academic side. I enjoy the research and reading behind it and I get a lot out of hosting events with winemakers and experts, sharing knowledge to make wine more democratic and bringing as many people as possible into the culture.”
“We’re both 60s children, so there wasn’t much wine in the UK growing up,” adds Claire. “My passion developed at Oddbins’ Gosforth shop over a 20-year career, and staying in Gosforth was important to me. Like Mo, it was travelling and visiting fabulous places in Europe that inspired our own business.”
Mo’s sharing board secrets
Variety is the most important element of any sharing board, particularly when you’re catering for a larger group. Aim for a diverse mix of cheeses and meats and keep flavour and texture to the fore. For further diversity, you might choose to represent a mix of regions. Colour is important and there’s real artistry in presenting a great board. When pairing cheese with wine, remember not all cheese works with every wine. Test all your options before serving – to improve your own palate and to check if the cheese or wine fits with the match you’ve been told or read about. High acidity cheeses can work well with high-acidity wines, and cut through richer wines. Include full-fat cheese for those who enjoy it. Good hard cheese is always popular. They work with many red wines and with lots of whites, so try those as well. In addition, pick up a good book. My favourite is The London Cheese & Wine Guide, while Matt Skinner’s Heard it Through the Grapevine and Joanna Simon’s Wine with Food are also brilliant.
The plan was long in the making, and it was some six years after first putting pen to paper before Claire left her job with Oddbins, around the corner from the shop which would become Carruthers & Kent. The challenges of any fledgling business followed – kitting out a shop with a limited budget, long hours, securing the licence for the shop then becoming an enoteca four years later. There were long evenings of wine tasting with a select group of friends who were also roped into painting the shop, as well as studying and earning Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications.
“There were lots of challenges, and a lot of fun,” says Claire. “To go from ordering wine from a list to visiting vineyards and talking to winemakers was so much fun, and it still is today. We both enjoy wine of course, and we also enjoy creating a balance for our customers by choosing wines which meet our two criteria – it has to be interesting, and it has to be value for money.”
“The range is diverse, and while we stock things we like, we also keep up with what’s going on in the industry,” adds Mo. “We’ll not be bowled over by a trend – for example, we’ll only stock orange and natural wines which we think are worth the money, while we stock lots of organic and biodynamic wines because we think they’re good.”
Through those early days also came a great camaraderie with other early-stage food and drink businesses which were disrupting the status quo in North East.
“The Boiler Shop Steamer was a huge step change, and Adam Riley and Dave Stone deserve huge credit for the way food in and around Newcastle has developed,” says Mo. “Those events inspired many businesses and energised all of us.”
Claire’s summer wines For barbecues: Crios Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina A cabernet sauvignon from winemaker Susana Balbo which can stand up to big barbecue flavours. It’s quite alcoholic (14.5% ABV) but is also soft, and a steal at £13.49. For parties:Zín Fiano Salento, Apulia, Manduria, Italy A versatile, dry white wine which works brilliantly with shellfish and caters for many palates. Our most popular wine in June 2022. 13% ABV, £14.99. For evenings in the sunshine:Chandon Garden Spritz, Mendoza, Argentina A champagne blend with a touch of orange peel and rosemary. Like an Aperol Spritz but 50 times better. Exceptional and very refreshing. 11.5% ABV, £23.99.
Now an established business working with some of the people they looked up to when starting out, Mo and Claire are delighted with their place in the industry and the recognition which has followed.
“To work with people like Terry Laybourne and be talked about as part of the food and drink circle in the region is fantastic – something we didn’t think would be possible all those years ago. Outside the region, our first mention in The Times was a good feeling,” says Claire. “Then we began to be recognised in the Decanter awards and the International Wine Challenge, and it became more satisfying as the scale of the awards increased and we became recognised by our peers across the UK.”
Carruthers & Kent has been named UK Independent Wine Merchant of the Year 2019 by Wine Direct, finished runner-up in the Decanter Retailer Awards’ Best Local Wine Shop category in 2021, and reached the final three in the International Wine Challenge UK Merchant Awards’ Northern England category in 2022.
While they earned more and more recognition, Claire and Mo say they lost the balance between the shop, enoteca and lives outside of work before Covid. The pandemic offered them a chance to focus on what they wanted Carruthers & Kent to be.
“While we faced the same challenges of every small business, it was also a chance to take a breath and rebalance the business,” says Mo. “The enoteca could be serving 50 people in the evening, and that was unsustainable. Today, having done lots of different things to survive during lockdowns and built an amazing sense of community with our customers through those challenges, we balance the days as just a shop and as a hybrid serving wine and food better, and that’s a big improvement.”
Throughout those challenges, Claire and Mo, who married in 2016, have continued to work well together. “Working and living together isn’t what we intended,” says Mo. “We work well together and look after different parts of the business to suit our strengths.”
“It’s surprisingly okay,” laughs Claire. “We still go out together on our days off, which must mean we’re getting it right.”
Having redressed their work-life balance, and once again hit the road exploring vineyards and meeting winemakers, there’s much to look forward to.
“We’ve got more shortlists to find out the results of, and then who knows what will happen?” asks Mo. “The North East’s food and drink industry is moving so quickly and becoming more and more recognised nationally with different parts of the region developing all the time, so it will be so exciting to see where we go next.”