I still remember the first time I was offered a glass of wine at the hairdresser’s. I thought this was a great idea until, on picking it up for a second sip, I spotted a few hairs of various colours that had floated into my glass on hairdryer crosswinds. Wine may not be suited to every environment, but it’s increasingly common to find it sharing a space with other types of product or activity: in bookshops, in coffee shops, at music festivals and even at the driving range. And not just average branded stuff; wines to get excited about. The internet has jolted wine out of its traditional habitat of the wine bar and off-license, and as the high street reinvents itself in the face of this challenge, wellsprings of wine are popping up in a variety of unusual places.
The web has made wine shops work harder to prove their worth. With pressure from online retailers with huge ranges, low prices and next-day delivery, it’s no longer enough for a high street retailer to simply line a room with shelves of wines and pray that people will visit. The new generation of modern wine shops offer what the internet can’t – a more complete wine experience, with wines to taste, to drink by the glass or bottle, with or without food. And as wine shops become more akin to wine bars, the converse is also true; more and more wine bars and restaurants now sell wine to take away.
The traditional division between bar and restaurant (on-trade) and shop (off-trade) is dissolving. It has been replaced by a new dichotomy: online vs. offline. On the one hand there are retailers whose business models depend on the internet such as Naked Wines and Fine+Rare; on the other, there are generalist offline wine spaces exemplified by Vagabond in London and Loki in Birmingham. But this is just the beginning; as the division between on-trade and off-trade disappears, we are also beginning to see different types of hybrid space, combining various retail and entertainment propositions.
Take independent wine merchant Borough Wines. They have six shops dotted around London, most of which also sell wines by the glass. Their seventh shop, opening this summer, will be in the seaside town of Hastings, 50 miles southeast of the capital, in the bohemian America Ground quarter. Co-owner and marketing director Corinna Pyke, who grew up in Hastings, says that “we’re very community focussed… it’s a really exciting area that needed a slightly different offer”. As well as a wine shop and bar it will also be a bookshop. She hopes that combining themes in this way will lead to a relaxed environment where people will want to linger and browse, and is especially attractive to sole customers as “people can feel intimidated going to a bar on their own”. The new venture will be managed by wholesale director Jess Scarratt and her partner, author Michael Smith.
Brewer and wine merchant Adnams have ten Cellar & Kitchen stores across Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Lincolnshire, and are soon to open their eleventh in Bury-St-Edmonds. Their shops sell beer, wine, kitchenware and some specialist foods. Sourcing wines has shown senior wine buyer Alastair Marshall that “there is tremendous crossover everywhere”; the neighbour of one of his Côtes-du-Rhône suppliers is a grower of rose garlic, so they ship that over too. They even do a ‘garlic nouveau’ offer. “People are more interested by diversity” he says, “and it’s all part of the table, part of living, if you like.” It’s certainly rare to meet a wine lover that’s not also into food.
Wine and sport may not be obvious bedfellows but there is crossover here too. Greenwich Peninsula Golf Course hopes to attract wine-loving golfers with 600 wines to choose from, to be enjoyed at the driving range, in their fine dining restaurant or at retail prices to take away. If festivals are more your idea of fun, then try Wilderness in Oxfordshire. They take food and drink as seriously as music, with ‘long table banquets’ prepared by chefs such as Angela Hartnett and Raymond Blanc with wine supplied by Berry Brothers & Rudd and Sager & Wilde. If you can’t make it to either of these, don’t worry – Starbucks are soon to start serving wine from 4pm in certain branches.
Some of these businesses started life within the wine trade, some from outside of it, and they all have their own reasons for diversifying. Some are hoping to attract new customers; others simply want to enhance customer experience; several want to extend customer visits, or get extra use out of a site during quiet periods. Diversification on the high street isn’t specific to wine of course. Urban Outfitters stores, for example, major on clothes, but also sell music, gifts and homeware. But once you’ve got past licensing issues, there are clear benefits to including wine in your overall offering; it has mass appeal, puts customers in a relaxed mood and encourages them to stay and engage with other elements of the business while they finish their glass.
Whatever their reasons, that wine is seeping into new areas of the high street is good news for wine lovers – provided the quality is high (Starbucks doubters can see their list here – with producers like Vavasour from New Zealand and Joseph Mellot in Sancerre, it’s better than you might expect). Not only does it give us more opportunities to enjoy wine, but it enriches our shopping or drinking experience by providing related interests, whether it be books, music or kitchenware, for us to enjoy while we’re at it. It’s an offline equivalent of second-screening that suits the diminished attention span of the internet-weaned wine lover.
As high street sites seek to maximise takings to cope with rising rents and rates, I suspect we’ll see more of these collage sites that sit somewhere between the specialist and the generalist, that package up two or three subjects that provide an enjoyable experience aimed at a broad but defined segment of locals. Alistair Marshall agrees “I think we’ll see more interesting diversification popping up over the next couple of years.” But trust me – let’s draw the line at the hairdresser’s.