Some 10 years ago, when I first started out as a wine, journalist I was commissioned (by a certain Tim Atkin) to write about why people bought the wines they did. I spent a week or so lurking in the aisles of supermarkets and high street wine shops, vox popping people as they scooped bottles off the shelves and into their shopping baskets.
Most of the people I talked to admitted they were baffled by what I came to think of as ‘the wall of wine’. And, faced with a choice of some three or four hundred different bottles, their response was to cling to the twin supports of familiarity and price. I can still remember a woman telling me that she always bought ‘Australian red’ from one of six big-brand producers because ‘…There’s always one of them being sold cheap and they all taste the same’.
In theory, getting people to expand their wine choices – and maybe even spend a little more – is the holy grail of the wine industry. The people running the stores where I did my research certainly paid lip service to the idea, telling me that they were investing large sums in training staff to provide recommendations and had plans in the pipeline to ensure that shoppers got more of an opportunity to sample wines in-store.
Fast forward a decade and plus ça change… Back when I wrote my original piece, the price of a bottle of wine sold in the UK averaged around £4.30. These days, the average price is £4.85. But, by the time you’ve factored in rises in duty and VAT – not to mention inflation – wine prices have pretty much stagnated for a decade. What’s more, the last time I took a stroll round my local supermarket, both wine experts and tasting opportunities were as rare as bottles of Château Lafite.
But while the big retailers have been treading water; smaller, more flexible merchants have risen to the challenge. Try before you buy has hit the high street, and it comes in two different flavours.
London has had a rich wine bar culture since the 1970s, but when Vinoteca first opened its first branch in Clerkenwell, it offered its customers something a little bit different. Not only did it have one of the most diverse, innovative lists in town, it also had a small area devoted to off-premise sales. The idea now seems to be a no-brainer: people drink wine in wine bars, they try something they like and they buy a bottle to take home and enjoy later. Wine bar owners round the world must be slapping their foreheads and asking themselves why they didn’t think of the idea themselves.
‘Being able to try wines before they buy them gives our customers the confidence to spend a bit more or buy something they weren’t familiar with because they know they won’t be disappointed,’ says Vinoteca’s co-founder Charlie Young.
Young and his business partner, Brett Woonton, must be doing something right because Vinoteca now boasts three branches, the most recent of which opened in Soho earlier this summer. The premise at all three outlets is the same: a daily menu of informal, Mediterranean-inspired food, each dish of which is matched to a wine from the by-the-glass list. The glass pours change each day, and are selected from a wider list of some 300 wines that range from the safely familiar – Sancerre and Rioja – to the truly exotic – Traminer from the Jura and Croatian Plavac Mali, for instance. All these wines are also sold in the on-site shop or via Vinoteca’s website.
More contentious, perhaps, than the desirability of indigenous grapes from the Balkans, is the issue of natural wines. Some praise them for their purity of character and their ability to reflect the essence of their terroir, others believe that the current enthusiasm for natural wines is a matter of style over substance. The best way to work out where you stand on the issue is to try some of the wines for yourself at a specialist wine bar, such as Dulwich’s Green & Blue (www.greenandbluewines.com), which offers a range of biodynamic and natural wines for enjoyment at home or over a meal cooked by a kitchen team that earned their chops at Terroirs.
Even established restaurants like St John are in on the off-premise act. Restaurateur and co-owner Trevor Gulliver is a big enthusiast of French wines, particularly those from roads less travelled – not to mention vineyards less known. His keenness to share his enthusiasm is, he says, at the root of his decision to make all the wines on the St John list available for take-away sales.
‘It’s not about selling the wines in any kind of volume,’ says Gulliver, ‘but because we import directly and the wines we bring in are relatively obscure and come from small growers who don’t sell their wines anywhere else, we have quite a large following. I think of it as being like giving our customers the opportunity to take a loaf of bread home with them because they like our bread. In fact, selling wines and bread for people to enjoy at home was what our second restaurant, St John Bread & Wine, was all about.’
Arguably, though, if you want to try the widest possible range of wines before you buy, you need to go with the technology. The installation of enomatic machines in a handful of shops have opened sampling possibilities hitherto only afforded to those working in the wine trade. The principle is simple: buy a card pre-loaded with credit and use it to buy a sample of wine from a bottle stored inside one of the machines. As the wine is dispensed into your glass, the space inside the bottle is filled with inert gas, keeping the remaining liquid in perfect condition.
Jamie Hutchinson was so impressed with the machine when he saw one in action while on holiday in Chianti that he quit his job in venture capital to open a wine shop with eight enomatics back in 2006. His pioneering shop, The Sampler (www.thesampler.co.uk), was soon followed by a number of other shops, all of which have installed enomatic machines for the benefit of their customers.
They’ve found that the machines get used in different ways. Some people come in looking for something specific, sample with that focus in mind, buy their wine and go. Others come in, sometimes alone and sometimes in a group, and make an evening of it, trying as wide a range of wines as possible. I even know of some MW students who’ve been for an enomatic session in the run-up to their exams, using the sampling opportunities as a way of getting a fix on wine styles they’re less familiar with.
However you enjoy your enomatic experience, there’s little doubt in Hutchinson’s mind that the machines help to sell wines. ‘At any one time,’ he says, ‘we have 80 wines out of the 1,500 in our shop available for tasting through the machines. And about 60% of the wines we sell at any one time are the wines that are in the machines that day.’
Nevertheless, it’s less clear that sales of wines out of enomatic machines reflect a permanent change in customers’ buying habits. ‘There can certainly be a spike in sales when a wine’s on tasting in the machine,’ says Bottle Apostle’s Chris Sherwood, ‘but that spike doesn’t necessarily last long once the wine’s been replaced.’
Out of sight is clearly out of mind when it comes to our wine buying habits. Regardless, enomatics do have a role to play in encouraging us to experiment a bit more than usual.
Over at Selfridges, Dawn Davies, the store’s wine buyer, believes that the enomatic machines in the Wonder Bar have had a definite impact on sales of less familiar wines. ‘There’s no doubt that sales of the quirkier wines have increased since we started with the sampling machines,’ she says. ‘We’re not talking huge quantities – we might sell 24 bottles of Koshu from Japan while it’s in the machine – but it certainly takes some of the risk of stocking it away.’
This risk-abatement strategy also seems to be working well at Vini Italiani. Italy’s splendid diversity of wines – along with the fact that many of its indigenous grape varieties are seldom planted outside the country – only serves to confuse most wine lovers. The constantly rotating stock in Vini Italiani’s two enomatic machines should certainly help to provide an introduction to some of Italy’s more obscure vinous treasures: last time I looked they included Cabernet Franc from Friuli, a Sicilian Nerello Mascalese and an Albana from Faenza in Emilia Romagna, as well as a handful of the more usual suspects from Piedmont and Tuscany.
Enomatics aren’t the silver bullet to the wine trade’s problems, though. The machines have to be handled carefully as, although designed expressly to control the risk of oxidation, they can’t prevent it – especially if the bottles are poorly loaded. As a result, the wines have to be monitored to ensure they’re showing at their best – and, if the sampling is less than enthusiastic, the wines do eventually become tired and oxidised.
In addition, at around £10,000 a pop, enomatic machines require huge financial commitment. The money should be recouped over time – at least in theory – due to increased sales.
Perhaps, though, the final word goes to Thor Godmundsson, co-owner of The Kensington Wine Rooms (which, like Selfridges’ Wonder Bar, boasts enomatic machines and a wine bar, as well as a shop). ‘Enomatic machines are only a tool. If we didn’t have well-trained, well-informed staff working for us as well, they’d be pretty useless.’
In short, recommendations work. I could have told them that 10 years ago.
Some wines to try before you buy:
Moorooduc, Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula, 2008 (£21.99, Selfridges). There’s been a lot of fuss made recently about the new styles of Chardonnay emerging from Australia. This refined, elegant version from Victoria, with its restrained, savoury style, is absolutely typical of this new generation. Buttery and creamy, with just enough ripe peach and apple fruit to balance the spicy oak. But the most striking thing about this wine is its satiny texture and vivid acidity.
Catherine et Pierre Breton, Trinch!, Bourgeuil, 2011 (£13.30, St John). Bourgeuil at its drinkable best, with perfumed notes of violets, green peppers and blackcurrant fruit, as well as crunchy tannins and lively acidity. Not complex, but thoroughly delicious, especially on a warm summer’s evening (if we ever get one). Chill for a half hour prior to quaffing.
Vallana, Spanna, Colline Novarese, 2008 (£13.20, Kensington Wine Rooms). Nebbiolo may well be Piedmont’s most noble grape, but most Barolo and Barbaresco needs cellaring for a decade before their tannins are tamed. This version, with its easygoing ripe tannins, provides a gentle introduction to Nebbiolo, but still has some of the grape’s hallmark hint of tar, along with cherries and chocolate on its rich, plush palate.
Torre do Frade, Virgo, Vinho Regional Alentejano, 2010 (£15.50, Vinoteca). People in the wine trade get really excited about Portugal’s potential, but most wine lovers still need convincing. A sip of this lusciously mouth-filling wine – an eclectic blend of Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Aragones and Syrah – should do the trick. It’s chock-full of dark berries, plums and spices, with a gentle hint of oaky vanilla. If this were any richer in alcohol, it would be a pumped-up bruiser, but with 12.5% alcohol and juicy acidity, along with gently grippy tannins, it’s just seductively voluptuous.
Pittnauer, St Laurent Alte Reben, Burgenland, 2009 (£38, Bottle Apostle). OK, so this isn’t a cheap wine, but it is a stunning example of just how good the top Austrian reds are these days. The St Laurent grape is related to Pinot Noir, and the relationship is clear in this wine’s silky, elegant texture, as well as its plush red berry fruit, tinged with spices and an earthy richness. Plush, deep-pile tannins provide a framework for the long, eloquent finish.
Go de Godello, Bierzo, 2009 (£20.50, The Sampler). A superbly rich, complex wine with plenty of tropical fruit and a nutty richness, brought into focus by zippy acidity and a creamy richness on the mid-palate. There were lots of wines to admire at The Sampler’s recent press tasting, but this was the one I wanted to go back to and taste again at the end of the day.
Lapierre, Raisins Gaulois, Vin de France, 2011 (£11.75, Green and Blue). If it wasn’t for the fact that some of the grapes that go into this wine come from Morgon while the balance come from the wider Beaujolais region, this would be an AOP wine. It offers a hit of quintessential Gamay, with plenty of bright cherry and berry fruit, tinged with a hint of summer flowers. The acidity is fresh and bracing, the tannins are supple. Chilled down a touch, this would be dangerously easy to drink, especially with some charcuterie or a piece of grilled salmon.
Montenidoli, Tradizionale, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, 2009 (£18, Vini Italiani). The nose is very subtle and neutral – very Italian, in fact – but the palate shows an almost chewy minerality, along with juicy pears, dried herbs, almonds and hints of honey. Very fresh and clean – and incredibly persistent.