• Simon Reilly

Freed from buying by the dozen

An edited version of this article was first published on JancisRobinson.com on Wedensday, 26th April, 2017.

The way I buy wine has changed.

I started buying wine in earnest when I moved to Australia in 2004. An early visit to the Hunter Valley with friends struck a chord. It gave me my first taste of aged Hunter Semillon from the Mount Pleasant cellar door. I was hooked. My obsession with wine had begun.

But it wasn’t until I got back home to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and discovered the delights of spending an afternoon browsing in Kemeny’s on Bondi Road, Vintage Cellars in Rushcutter’s Bay or the ultimate Aussie wine Mecca; Dan Murphy’s in Double Bay. I would happily wile away hours of a weekend, armed with the latest issue of James Halliday’s Wine Companion and a pen and paper (what a loser), collecting myself a mixed-dozen of Aussie wines. I was like a kid in a sweet shop.

With these Aussie wine gold-mines close by and with minimal storage space (and importantly no air-conditioning or central heating) in our Tamarama flat, the thought of buying a whole case of the same wine never crossed my mind.

All this changed when I returned to London in 2008.

The market appeared to be dominated by big merchants – Berry Brothers, Justerini & Brooks, Lay & Wheeler and a few others. I started to buy wine online, but I found many wines that I read about in the wine press were only available by the case. This made experimentation more difficult, not to mention expensive.

To this day I have full cases of wines in my cellar I have not yet tasted. Will I like them? Who knows, I hope so, I only bought them because someone in Decanter liked them. Based on some of the wines I have bought and drunk in this way, I’ll probably like most of them but few of them, if any, will be wines I love enough to justify buying a whole case.

Luckily, however things have changed. There are more wine merchants. Lots more.

And they all seem much more flexible, allowing you to pick and choose a mixed dozen or half dozen or even one bottle if that’s all you want. Those Saturday afternoon’s I spent trawling Dan Murphys and Kemeny’s can now be done on my sofa.

The wines are different too. The world of wine is so much bigger than it was ten years ago. The range of wines available in the UK is mind-boggling. Gone is the reliance on the classical wine producing areas of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Tuscany. Consumer tastes have changed, broadened.

Partly driven by economics (have you seen price of Bordeaux and Burgundy?) but primarily a result of inquisitive minds, a hunger for diversity. We want wines from Alto Piemonte, Jura, Galicia and everywhere in between.

And how has this demand for variety been met?

I don’t see any new large wine merchants with broad ranges opening. They already exist. We don’t need more of those. Today’s new merchants dive deep into a specific geographical area or wine type. Their ranges are smaller and more specialised. A niche is created. Many import wines directly so they are the only place to go, taking price out of the equation at the same time.

If I want small batch Italian wines I might go to Tutto. If I want a German Spatburgunder I’ll probably go to Howard Ripley. Loire Valley? I’ll give Under the Bonnet a call. Want a wine from the Alps? There’s even a specialist in that too - the imaginatively named Alpine Wines. And it’s not just geographical diversity that exists but stylistic too. If I want to buy aged wines I go to Blast Vintners. If I want natural wines, Cave de Pyrene is a good bet.

To support these start-up ventures a lot of the new generation of wine merchants have set up their businesses around restaurants and wine bars (Winemaker’s Club, 161 Food + Drink and Ten Cases to name but a few) where I can try before I buy. All of this makes me much better informed about the wine I buy. I buy what I know I will like. And if I don’t like it I’ve only got the odd bottle. With so much available why would I buy loads of the same thing?

This variety is not just available in the off trade. I can now drink more interesting wine out and about. Restaurant wine lists have never been more fun.

It wasn’t always like that. Twenty years ago, a handful of importers supplied most of the London restaurant trade, many of the wines still shipped in tanks and bottled under the railway arches in Tooley Street. The wine on most of London’s restaurant lists was all a bit unexciting and samey.

One of the first people to do something about this was Trevor Gulliver, co-owner of St John, which opened in 1994. While his business partner Fergus Henderson transformed the London food scene with his nose-to-tail eating In St John’s kitchen, Trevor headed off to rural France to create a wine list to drink with it. Fed up with the choices available from London merchant’s he went direct to the producers.

How did he do it? “knocking on doors”, says Trevor, sticking resolutely to his simple rule “I never buy without visiting”. Just like I don’t want wine in my cellar I haven’t tasted, Trevor doesn’t want wine on his list he wouldn’t drink himself.

As people started to enjoy the wines they had at St John that they couldn’t buy elsewhere, they asked where they could buy them, and so St John became a wine merchant too. The entire list is now available to buy at retail prices, delivered to your door.

It is not just the customers who enjoy the results. St John has created a real community amongst the winemakers on their list. Once a year they all descend on the restaurant in Smithfield for an afternoon of eating, drinking and being merry for the St John Vignerons’ lunch (see picture above of the Janauary 2017 lunch). Sophie Lafourcade, winemaker at Domaine Les Luquettes in Provence, makes a very fine Bandol, which St John list along with two of her other wines. St John have been listing her wines since 2004 and she really believes in the approach, “the way St John work directly with the wineries with no one in between, it is a fantastic relationship”.

Not only have restaurants like St John improved the variety and quality of wine I can drink when I eat out, but nowadays I can drink better wine by the glass. If I’m out for dinner I don’t want to drink one style of wine all night. You might have picked this up by now, but I like variety.

Everywhere I go now, the wine is on tap, with great choice by the glass. Merchants like OW Loeb, Robersons and Vinoteca have all started importing wine in keg to sell straight from the taps in restaurants and bars across London and beyond.

Rupert Taylor of OW Loeb is a passionate spokesman for the wine on tap revolution. With taps in more than 55 venues across London, he works closely with his customers to offer a platform of typically 3-4 different names which complement the restaurant and its menu. He then holds regular tastings inviting all his customers so they can taste and choose which wines they want to add to their roster.

Rupert has created a “tap map” which maps out all the venues. A closely guarded secret, only his customers have access, so they can pop in and taste what’s on the taps at other venues. If they like a particular wine they can bring it into their restaurant next. “We are part of a movement, part of something that is changing the way things are done”, enthuses Rupert. And it doesn’t just stop at restaurants, Rupert wants to get wine on tap into the pubs as well, “if you go to a good pub, the wine will be rubbish. When I go to a pub I drink beer, I want to drink wine!”.

So, I’ve come full circle. The variety I have now feels just like the variety I had when I was discovering wine like that kid in the sweet shop in Dan Murphy’s. The difference is that the sweet shop is a whole lot bigger. And that makes this kid even happier.