Editor’s blog

march 16 2021

a hundred issues, a thousand thanks

This month we publish issue 100 of The Wine Merchant. What started out as a speculative 24-page pamphlet in April 2012 has become what many might call a proper trade publication.

Our first edition carried an editorial that tried to spell out how important independent wine merchants were becoming, even if it sometimes felt like the sector was being treated as an afterthought by some suppliers.

There were 660 indie wine shops at the time. There are nearly 950 now. And nobody needs reminding about the contribution that independents make to the UK wine market – except, perhaps, certain government ministers.

The Wine Merchant’s stated aims were “to provide independents with a source of information, conversation and inspiration; to reflect the good and bad things happening in our marketplace, and to signpost what may lie ahead”. We also promised “not to preach to our readers, or treat them as halfwits”.

It would be pleasing to think we’ve succeeded in those objectives, even if the hundred issues that have now rolled off the presses have contained some howlers along the way.

At least twice we’ve published lengthy interviews in which we’ve got the subject’s name wrong all the way through the piece. Some articles stopped mid-flow, indeed mid-sentence. We’ve spent the equivalent of months of our lives giving each page three thorough proofreads, only to create new typos in the process of correcting the ones we spotted. On a couple of occasions, the new issue has been flung in rage at the nearest wall and never spoken of again.

But enough of the self-congratulation and self-flagellation. At times like these, some thank-yous are called for.

Thank you to all those who have been, and in most cases remain, part of The Wine Merchant team, especially Claire, David, Nigel, Naomi, Sarah, Georgina, Hannah, Emma, Lippy and Kate.

Thanks to Tim, our printer, whose encouragement and expertise has guided us away from many a bear trap.

Thanks to the advertisers who’ve stuck with us from the very beginning; those who join the fun when budgets permit; and the suppliers, producers and agencies who have become our friends in more recent times.

Thanks to the merchants who have shared their opinions and experiences with us, in some cases involving information that’s sensitive for a variety of reasons. Earning, and maintaining, your trust is something we’ve never taken for granted.

Thanks to everyone who’s said nice things about the magazine. And even people who’ve said not-so-nice things. It all helps keep us on course – and true to that original mission statement.

August 24 2020

the presses shall roll again

The Wine Merchant returns to print in October. Judging by the response to our recent reader survey, this is something that 81% of independent wine merchants will welcome.

We always envisaged The Wine Merchant as a printed publication and, for our first eight years, it was. Before we launched in March 2012, some people were suggesting that magazines were finished. Yes, we might have responded at the time: they once said the same thing about independent wine shops.

Our first edition was 24 pages. Over the years we went through the gears and now it’s normal to expect the magazine to have 64 or 68 pages. The market we serve has grown from under 700 shops to something north of 930.

The Covid-19 crisis had an immediate effect on our revenues and the sensible thing to do was to pause for thought, take a break from print publication and its associated distribution costs, and focus for a while on digital activity.

We think it was time well spent. We’ve still been producing a monthly PDF edition of the magazine, and its readership has rocketed. We finally got around to improving and updating our website, so now content changes several times a week and it’s easy to search out older as well as current articles. And we’ve engaged with social media and newsletters like never before.

Like so many of our readers, we’ve been forced to adapt the way we work, and how we respond to the demands of our audience. That’s why, even when print publication returns, we’ll be maintaining the current level of digital activity.

We’re glad that readers tell us they’re happy with the website and digital edition. We’re determined to go on improving both. But what excites us just as much is taking delivery of our own batch of Wine Merchant magazines on October 15: smelling the ink, caressing the front cover, and then beginning the weary quest for the lone rogue typo that three rounds of diligent proofreading could not identify.

Thanks for your patience, everyone.

August 3 2020

CoviD-19’s impact on the independent trade

The Wine Merchant has teamed up with Liberty Wines to take stock of how much the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on the specialist independent trade since March.

We’ve carried many stories over the lockdown period about the good and bad things that have been happening to indies. Now it’s time to take a more forensic look at the broader picture.

Our questionnaire only takes a few minutes to complete. If you’re an independent merchant in the UK, we’d really appreciate your input.

Liberty Wines is kindly giving away five magnums of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV to five participants chosen at random.

June 15 2020

Online sales will be a fact of life for indies long after lockdown

To state the bleeding obvious: these are confusing times. What other word can you use when official figures show the economy shrinking by 20% in a month while some wine merchants saw sales leap by 60%, 70% or even 80%?

Indies have experienced this boom at a time when it’s been difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do much of the stuff that has brought them success in recent years. The tastings, winemaker events and cocktail nights. The casual, unhurried chats with customers. All the things that make winemongering feel like part of the leisure economy rather than merely a strand of the retail industry.

For many independent wine merchants, business has suddenly become rather transactional and impersonal. But just look at those numbers for April and May. Maybe some of us could get used to this new way of working.

Indeed it’s noticeable that several indies have recently revamped their websites – Cheers in Swansea and Vindinista in London have both done excellent jobs – to make the online buying experience more efficient and enjoyable.

Nobody really wants to see e-commerce replace the treasury of bricks-and-mortar wine shops that this country currently supports. But if lockdown has fast-forwarded the consumer trend towards online wine purchases, indies should certainly be claiming their slice of the action.

Until now, many merchants have given online sales a swerve on the basis that they can’t do as polished a job as the big boys, and will always be outgunned on price. Both of those points remain valid.

But perhaps that’s not the whole story. For many independents, websites can be unashamedly parochial affairs, with the simple aim of reminding long-standing and recently-acquired customers that their friendly local indie is the most interesting and convenient place to source their alcohol – either digitally or face-to-face.

Some merchants will be more comfortable with this web-based approach than others. A little technical and marketing assistance from suppliers could go a long way.

Not every indie website will be a work of creative genius, but it would seem reckless to risk hosting a site that greets the user with Christmas opening hours from 2018, or makes it hard to understand how ordering might be possible.

Transactional? Impersonal? Maybe. But if this is how some people want to get their wine kicks, that’s a market ready to be tapped. It doesn’t mean we can’t do the touchy-feely experiential stuff too – eventually.

MAY 15 2020

Our entry-level wines aren’t cheap options for most drinkers

Right, let’s see who’s been paying attention. What’s the average selling price of a bottle of still wine in the specialist independent trade?

If your answer is £13.71, you’ve either made a very educated guess, or possibly you’re looking at page 27 of our March edition, where we reported that exact number as part of our reader survey coverage. The figure has been steadily rising since 2017, when it stood at £11.62. The average for the off-trade as a whole – which is, as we know, dominated by supermarkets – is just £5.93.

Imagine if we asked those 179 respondents that same question today, based on the trade they’ve done over the past two months. What would their average be now? Below £13, almost certainly. Below £12? Below the £11.62 of three years ago? Below £10?

When the panic buying began in supermarkets, independents found themselves catering for a new kind of customer – one that has been trained to think that decent wine costs £5.93. They’d be lucky to find anything at that price – even the scruffiest bin-end – in a specialist shop. We may think of £9 or £10 as entry-level, but for vast swathes of the wine-drinking public, that’s 50% or 60% more than they’re used to spending.

The big question being asked by all indies right now is just how many of these new customers will stick around once life gets back to some kind of normality. The answer will depend in part on how much value the Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s refugees have found in the sub-£10 wines they’ve bought from their local merchant.

A number of suppliers are dismayed at the way their independent customers have pandered to the new wave of low spenders. “What about us?” they ask. “Are you going to delist our £15 wines – and risk your reputation as destination retailers – purely to hoover up some short-term volume?”

For many indies, the situation doesn’t have to be quite as polarised as that. This pandemic is giving the trade the opportunity to carry out a unique experiment: to see how much broader its customer base can become if price points start slightly lower than we’re used to. For many, the early results are exciting.

The strategy only really starts to hit problems if the £9 wines are no better than the £6 alternatives in Asda, or if the merchant starts to make reckless decisions about listings further up the quality and price ladder.

These are modern-day wine retailing skills. Specialists have to sell special wines – whatever the price point.

APRIL 16 2020

Capitalise on new customers now, because time poverty will return

It turns out that the British public really like their local wine shops. The ones they’ve driven past so many times on the way to Waitrose. The ones they assumed would be overpriced and aloof. The ones whose ads in the local magazine said something about free delivery, but whose services somehow always seemed less convenient than a subscription to Naked.

It took a pandemic to introduce many wine drinkers to their neighbourhood wine merchant, but it seems that all parties are getting on famously. “Amazing wines!” gushes the social media feedback. “Really impressed to have my box delivered on the day of order!” “My first order with you but definitely not my last!”

The resulting sales boom has in many cases gone beyond a 60% rise in takings, which will typically be enough to compensate for lost wholesale and drink-in business. Just as in all recent economic downturns, when people stop eating out, they turn to decent wine merchants for treats to enjoy at home. In the current crisis, they’ve been joined by those who don’t fancy joining the masked queues outside Sainsbury’s – or waiting five weeks for a delivery slot.

Any merchant who’s enjoying this sudden influx of unfamiliar or half-forgotten faces knows that they have to make hay while they can. The question is, how many of these grateful, lovestruck newcomers will stick around once life starts getting back to normal?

One of the few benefits of the current lockdown is that many people have more time on their hands than ever before. They can plan discretionary spending. To a furloughed employee gazing at a cloudless sky, wine can seem like a very judicious purchase indeed.

But eventually, for most of us, time poverty will return. Life’s normal hectic rhythms will be restored and there’s a risk that people will snap back into old buying habits.

But by that time, the idea of having decent wine delivered to your door, from a friendly local merchant, will be ingrained in a lot of households. Now might be the time keep the momentum going by gently persuading eager new converts to sign up for a regular case. And maybe, for some traders, to invest in a nice new van.

MARCH 30 2020

Life under lockdown: opportunities for indies at a frightening time

Welcome to another weird week. We hope everyone is keeping safe, and sane.

For some wine merchants, the best solution has been to stop trading altogether and to wait for the crisis to run its course. Many others are staying open, to some degree, where it’s possible to reduce the infection risk for staff and customers. (Alcohol retailers are classed as essential service providers.) But the big news is how well so many indies have been doing with local – and in some cases national – deliveries.

This has created an unlikely sales boom for hundreds of merchants, who are catering for the lockdown needs not only of their own regulars, but customers that they haven’t seen for years, and in some cases at all. Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants estimates that 95% of the people currently placing orders with his business are not on his customer database.

There’s a sense of solidarity and togetherness in the wine trade right now, and that’s something we should take comfort from. Producers are going the extra mile for suppliers, and suppliers are working hard to be as accommodating and helpful as they can to their retail customers. In many cases minimum orders have been reduced, and payment terms made more flexible.

But clearly there are points of friction. A number of suppliers whose order books have been shredded by the on-trade shutdown are selling direct to consumers, bypassing their indie accounts. Others are demanding upfront cash from customers who normally enjoy credit arrangements. Meanwhile there’s criticism in some quarters that indies are focusing too much on sub-£10 fare as they mop up the supermarket overspill – which could have consequences for suppliers who base their businesses on more premium wines.

These are all commercial issues, and they’ll eventually be resolved. For most of us, the biggest priority at the moment is simply staying healthy. Everything else is detail.

NOVEMBER 15 2019

You think you hate Vivino? Just imagine what might come next

Being naturally fearful of change, and not particularly up to speed with digital media, we were quite late to the party here at The Wine Merchant when it comes to Vivino.

Most, if not all, independents will have encountered the app by now. It’s a kind of Shazam for bottles of wine: simply snap a picture of the label, and within seconds you’ll have a wealth of information at your fingertips, including stuff about grape varieties, producer and region, and reviews from fellow Vivinists – possibly a word we’ve invented – telling you what the wine tastes like.

That’s all very exciting stuff, and it doesn’t cost anything to be part of the action. It’s quicker than a Google search and you get to store all your favourite wines, along with your own review, for easy reference another time.

Vivino also gives users a guideline price which is based on the kind of figure that an e-commerce site might be able to offer if you disregard things like courier costs and minimum orders. That detail doesn’t stop customers from using Vivino as a stick with which to beat their friendly local wine merchant or restaurant, against whom they believe they now have rock-solid evidence of shameless profiteering.

Many merchants despise Vivino for exactly that reason. They also resent the fact that some customers seem determined to keep their noses stuck to their smartphone screens, reading reviews that say “cracking red!” in the company of a retailer who would happily, if called upon, tell them everything they need to know about the wine in question.

But, as Edward Symonds of Saxty’s in Hereford argued at our recent round table event in Birmingham (see pages 41-45 of the October edition), this kind of technology is only going to get better, and if Vivino isn’t the long-term app of choice for wine drinkers, something else will come along. The technology is not about to be un-invented.

The challenge for indies is to find their own ways of engaging with their customers in the digital space. Some have apps of their own, admittedly not as all-encompassing as Vivino, but they do a job.

When 5G goes live, and technology moves on even more, we’ll probably look back at the current version of Vivino and smirk. But whatever comes next will pose more challenges for retailers, and possibly present lots of opportunities. Those of us who like to pretend digital media is an irrelevant fad would do well to at least try to keep up with developments.

JULY 15 2019

Keep your wits about you at wine tastings, or you’ll be eaten alive

There was an anecdote on Twitter recently about an independent wine merchant – hello Paola – who was involved in an unusual spat with a winemaker. The incident happened at a London tasting at which the producer was one of many pouring his wines.

The merchant was taken to task for having the temerity to sample the wines “in the wrong order” and the “rudeness” to step away from the table (surely a gesture of unselfishness?) as she did so. The story is so bizarre that the natural response is simply to laugh at the pomposity of the vigneron. But maybe it shines some light on the rather strange rituals that have grown up around trade tastings.

As we shuffle from table to table, struggling to absorb staccato sermons about elevation, soil type and rainfall and glasses are refilled almost faster than we can empty them, in noisy rooms full of sharp elbows and spittoons around which sockless sommeliers have chosen to have their water-cooler moments, concentration is rarely easy.

What was that last wine you poured me? Was it the 2015 or the 2016? What page of the booklet is it on, if it’s there at all? No, I think I’ve already had the Estate Syrah. Or maybe that was the Reserve that I tried. And actually it was only really the Riesling that I was interested in.

Bags slide clumsily off shoulders. Dropped pens are trodden underfoot. Notebooks are desecrated with Touriga Nacional. Smashed glasses create a momentary hush and glares from spooks in polo shirts. Glossy leaflets, never to be read again, are politely accumulated in back pockets or handbags.

That last wine was very nice. But can we be sure, with this noise, this pressure to rush, these friendly interruptions from old colleagues, these glasses, those miserly samples, and that weird background smell of fresh paint and meat stew?

We each have to make sense of trade tastings in our own way, with our wits about us and our defences up. Any sign of weakness and they’ll leave us dazed and exhausted, dragged into energy-sapping cul-de-sacs of alluvial fans, yeast cultures and genealogy. And unwanted wine.

So yes, we will taste in the wrong order. And we will sometimes step away from the table to gather our thoughts, and to make room for others to have their turn. But if exhibitors forget that this is supposed to be a two-way encounter, not merely a rather crass selling opportunity, we might not return at all.

JUNE 10 2019

It may take gimmicks to get casual wine drinkers engaged. So what?

There was a mild buzz of media excitement last month when Aldi press-released the announcement that it was on the hunt for volunteers to review its wines on a quarterly basis and post their thoughts on Twitter.

The discounter reaped the PR benefits of the idea even before it sent out the first batch of free booze. Once again, the words “Aldi” and “wine” were juxtaposed in a zillion social media posts. For independent merchants, it’s rarely welcome when that happens.

There were digital squeals of delight from the hopefuls eager to join Aldi’s happy band of citizen tasters. We can probably assume that few of the applicants are WSET Diploma students. Judging by a snapshot of responses I scanned on various timelines, they seemed to be, in the main, a bunch of cheerful chancers who love a glass of wine and are thrilled at the prospect of tasting the stuff for free and having their benefactor listen to their opinions on what they imbibe.

This kind of thing happens quite a bit in the independent trade, though without the same kind of media fanfare. Several merchants, such as Dalling & Co in Kings Langley, run regular events in which customers are invited in to taste a range of wines that suppliers are pitching. The ones that they like will probably be listed. The ones they don’t will be politely rejected, with the merchant able to blame the bad news on the public.

Just like Aldi, such independent retailers are discovering that even casual wine consumers can be brought into the fold, given the right encouragement. The object need not be to turn them all into wine connoisseurs. Rather, the aim should simply be to help people form a stronger bond with those who make and sell the wines they like, and to learn to trust their own palates.

Not too many people really want to achieve these things with interminable PowerPoint presentations, or with the aid of samples of schist being passed around a table by a visiting export director. But offer them the chance to support – supposedly – a struggling artisan vigneron in the Languedoc (© Naked Wines) or to taste free samples of wine in return for candid feedback, and suddenly they are engaged.

Some in the trade will reject such schemes as gimmicky. Poorly executed, perhaps they are. But too many consumers who love drinking wine have yet to form a real emotional or intellectual bond with the category. Using a little imagination, independents are in a pretty strong position to win hearts and minds.

JANUARY 10 2019

Isn’t it typical?

Yesterday we invited some wine merchants to taste some excellent wines from California. There were 160 in all and the 50 we liked most will feature in our California Collection supplement next month.

At one point there was a discussion about a particular Pinot Noir.

Judge A: What do you think of it?

Judge B: I’m not keen on the nose.

Judge A: I love the nose. Really farmyardy. I love the wine, it’s that lovely clean European style. Not jammy and sweet.

Judge B: So what you’re saying is you want California to make Burgundy, even though it’s obvious that it can’t. Surely it should be making wines with a sense of place rather than trying to mimic a part of the world with completely different growing conditions?

It’s a point that crops up all the time in tastings. Almost everywhere in the world, winemakers are opting for fresher, cleaner styles. Often that means trying to ape wines from Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire, Champagne or Bordeaux, which strikes me as a little unambitious and undignified.

For me (because I was Judge B), California Pinot Noir should taste like it comes from California. By all means dial down the jam and the alcohol, if you can. But have some faith in your own terroir.

DECEMBER 19 2018

Freshening things up

At The Wine Merchant, we fear change, and get stuck in our ways. The magazine’s design has barely changed since we launched in 2012 and frankly it was time for some tinkering.

So we’ve given the magazine a little overhaul and you’ll see the results of our creative burst on January 15.


It’s not a radical redesign, but we think you’ll enjoy the new look. We’ve kept the regular features that we know readers want us to retain but also introduced some new ones.

At long last there’s a dedicated spirits section, reflecting the category’s growing importance in the independent trade. We’re even bringing in a regular column about beer. And there’s a new section called Rising Stars, celebrating the contribution that younger people are making to independent wine merchants of all sizes.

And, if you haven’t spotted it already, we’ve also given our website a bit of a once-over. We’ll be updating more regularly than we’ve normally managed to do. Maybe that will go for the editor’s blog, too. We live in exciting times.

AUGUST 10 2018

It’s not nice being Ruthless

For a while, Ruth Yates was banned from The Wine Merchant magazine. She was one of a small number of high-profile independents who, through no fault of their own, were getting a disproportionate amount of media exposure. Or so it seemed to us when we launched the magazine in March 2012.

So for the first several issues of the magazine, we didn’t really mention Ruth at all, along with a few other big names. We were on a mission to demonstrate that the independent trade was bursting with innovative and interesting people, beyond the handful of personalities on whom the trade press at the time seemed to fixate.

This was of course grossly unfair to Ruth, whose only crime was to be an engaging, energetic and intelligent woman running a successful and expanding business, in the form of Corks Out. It wasn’t long before she started making regular appearances in the magazine – not because she was demanding it, but because it would have been ridiculous – and impossible – to ignore what she was achieving.

Ruth is parting company with Corks Out next month, which saddens a great deal of people. The company will sorely miss her drive, her vision and her charisma. From a wider trade perspective, we’ll miss having such an inspiring figurehead on the scene – someone who has helped revolutionise the independent market and who has always been happy to share her experiences, and talk frankly about the challenges she’s encountered over her 15 years at the helm.

It sounds like Ruth has said goodbye to retail, a least for now, but let’s hope that the next chapter in her career keeps her in touch with the independent trade. Nobody knows the business better.

JULY 15 2018

A growing problem for the wine industry

I spoke to a wine merchant recently who had made her first visit to New Zealand for several years. She was impressed by how much the wines had improved. And shocked by how many vineyards were being bulldozed to make way for housing.

There’s a very well-known producer in New Zealand that I understand is urging the next generation to find other ways of making money, because there’s precious little to be found even in New Zealand, a country which famously achieves RRPs that rivals can only dream about. How did we get to this point? It suggests that the wine trade’s economic model is broken.

South Africa has for some time been struggling to elevate its prices. Here in the UK we regularly praise Cape producers for their exceptional value for money. But things are coming to a head thanks to the drought, that helped reduce the 2018 harvest by 15%. With Europe also experiencing shortages, it’s a good time to demand higher prices.

There will be fierce resistance, but while the arguments continue, more South African growers will be ripping up vines and switching to citrus or beef production. Currently a third of them operate at a loss. That can’t be sustainable.

JUNE 22 2018

Pinotage in Sussex

Yesterday I fulfilled one of my life’s ambitions. I planted a Pinotage vine in my home county of Sussex.

Of course that isn’t true. As far as I’m aware, nobody has previously discussed the possibility of an English Pinotage vineyard, even as a joke. And yet now one really exists, at Leonardslee Gardens, near a colony of wallabies. I really did plant one of the vines. It even has my name on it.

As winemaker Johann Fourie says, the vineyard might make a decent red wine, and it might not. Nobody can know for sure. But if it doesn’t, it will add some South African spice to The Benguela Collection’s sparkling wines, due to arrive in 2023 with fruit grown at nearby Mannings Heath.

You’ve got to admire the ambition. I hope the people drafting the Sussex PDO are taking note.

JUNE 18 2018

Oaky Tempranillo and breaded haddock

We had one of those nights recently when there was hardly any food in the house and hardly any time to cook what was actually there. We resorted to the “orange option” of fish fingers, oven chips and beans.

What kind of wine would you match with a meal like that? There was a half-finished bottle of Ribera del Duero on the table. So we poured a couple of glasses.

It tasted absolutely fine. Maybe we worry about this stuff too much.

JUNE 15 2018

Bravo, Beaujolais

The Beaujolais tasting is turning into one of my favourite events of the year.

Not that I’m a particular aficionado of Beaujolais. I quite like the stuff – just not as much as the wines from most other corners of France. But I do enjoy the annual tasting, organised by Westbury Communications and held at The Trampery in Old Street, London.

It’s a venue that’s easy to get to (a couple of minutes’ walk from the Northern Line), has decent natural light and manages to maintain a comfortable temperature, even on a sticky day like yesterday.

The wines are numbered, so they’re easy to navigate and correspond with the listings in the tasting booklet. The booklet itself is spiral-bound, and full of clear and concise information about importers, producers, viticulture, vinification and prices. And there is space to write notes.

There are producers to chat to, if you want, but they won’t detain you if you just want to whizz around the tables in free-pour mode.

All of the above sounds pretty simple. Hardly worthy of mention, perhaps. Yet so many tastings get these things wrong.

MAY 18 2016

Turkish delights

Where would we be without wine journalism? The answer is Turkey.

Among the very many things I learned this week in a short visit to the brilliant Kavaklidere vineyards and winery in Pendore (a couple of hours east of Izmir) was that the Turkish government has banned wine criticism, at least as we would recognise it. Journalists aren’t allowed to review and recommend wines. Advertising is off limits. Taxes are punitive.

Wine tourism isn’t likely to get going any time soon so it was a real privilege for us, as foreigners, to see the scenery and facilities over a memorable couple of days in the company of a young and enthusiastic Kavaklidere team.

Our group of five independent merchants arrived with an open mind and left convinced that Turkey deserves the chance to prove itself on their shelves. The wines are terrific, but will need some hand-selling. They’re worth the effort.

A bit of media exposure will help their cause, too. It’s a tragedy that Turks don’t get the chance to read about their own wines, but thankfully Turkish law doesn’t apply to The Wine Merchant, and we’ll be reporting on the visit in more depth in our July issue.

graham with vine
My own vine at Pendore, with my name on it. I hope to come back one day to see its progress
MAY 9 2016

Freeloaders at the fair

Our stand at the London Wine Fair was pretty much packed from the moment we opened for business on Tuesday morning right the way through to closing time on Thursday evening. We had a great crowd and it was good to see so many independents tasting the Top 100 wines that we’d opened.

Not everyone who came along was an independent merchant, of course, and that’s absolutely fine. Indies make up a small percentage of the fair’s traffic and we expected to see our fair share of consultants, Majestic managers and the rest. We don’t tend to be sniffy about this: some of these people are the independents of tomorrow, and we’re happy to let them sample our winning wines.

But, as with so many London tastings, there’s a small freeloading element. They don’t tend to find much use for spittoons. They have a habit of talking loudly and leaning on counters, often with their lunch in front of them. They are particularly curious about expensive Champagnes.

We’ve become pretty astute at spotting these characters and moved them on without ceremony once we’d clocked them, and by and large they didn’t put up much of a protest. And to be honest, as proceedings drew to a close on Thursday afternoon, we didn’t bother chasing after the guy who swiped the two three-quarters empty bottles of red when he thought we weren’t looking. The well-dressed lady in her 60s who reckoned it was OK to help herself to the remaining bottles in our fridge was encouraged to find her fun elsewhere, without us resorting to any unpleasantness. But bravo to whoever nicked our branded hessian bag and our green stickers (required for any bottles removed from the show with the blessing of the stand owner) – we didn’t spot you at all.

Actually, by that point we’d started to feel a bit sorry for our freeloading fraternity. If getting pissed on the cheap at a trade fair is how you get your kicks, what on earth does that say about your social life?

APRIL 14 2016

Are independents beginning to look the same?

For several years now independent wine retailers have proudly broken the mould with their new (or refurbished) shops. Gone are the dark, intimidating caves of yesteryear and instead we have big windows, bright lights, exposed brickwork, stripped floors and chalkboards the size of snooker tables.

The trend has been universally welcomed as a good thing, attracting the kind of customers who were traditionally intimidated by wine merchants – typically women and younger or less wine-savvy consumers.

An interesting article in The Oldie skewers the concept, at least a little. “A common complaint about chain shops is that they make all towns look the same but most independent shops slavishly follow a look, too,” it points out.

“If you go to gentrified seaside resorts in Norfolk or Suffolk, everything is painted in pale blue. In cities, independent coffee shops are always decked out in white tiles with a chalkboard on the wall. They do identical-looking sandwiches that sit on black slates on the counter. It’s a similar story in bars with their exposed light bulbs, brickwork and mismatched wooden furniture. They often stock the same craft beers and get their wines from the same distributor.”

It goes on: “The staff all look the same, too, with their beards, tattoos and check shirts. They might as well being wearing a uniform.”


APRIL 6 2016

Don’t forget about the price tag

We all like to think we can spot a great wine when we taste one. But is it worth the price tag? This was a dilemma that reared its head all yesterday afternoon at The Wine Merchant Top 100 judging.

“We like this a lot,” judges would say. “We’re just not sure it’s really worth £21.99/£38/£45.”

So what kind of score do you give a wine that’s technically brilliant but which you’d feel uncomfortable selling at the same level as other wines that are even better?

In our competition, you have to deduct a few points. It’s harsh, but then it’s a harsh trading environment. If a customer walks into a wine merchant and is persuaded to spend £30 instead of their more usual £15, the seller needs to have faith that the buyer will see the benefit of that extra investment. If they don’t … why would they want to return?

FEBRUARY 11 2016

Why Saturday Kitchen really had no option

It’s not controversial to say that supermarkets have less interesting wine ranges than they used to offer. It’s absolutely true to point out that the number of wines available is falling. And it’s a basic law of economics that you can’t go on hitting £5, £6 and £7 price points year after year on the same wines – in the face of duty increases and an escalation in other fixed costs – without quality suffering.

Independent merchants don’t complain about any of this. It’s playing straight into their hands. While supermarkets gradually reduce their focus on wine, independents become even more distinctive with their offer.

That’s why Saturday Kitchen’s pledge to bring independents into the fold, as reported in our February issue, isn’t an act of charity, but a sensible editorial judgement.

It does mean a bit more leg-work on the part of the show’s roster of critics. But the results will be better for everyone: producers, suppliers, merchants and viewers.

Yes, it’s been a long time coming, but perhaps those of us who have carped from the sidelines about Saturday Kitchen’s supermarket fixation didn’t fully understand the regulatory environment imposed by Ofcom and the BBC. What seems to have emerged from recent dialogue ought to keep everyone happy.

JANUARY 26 2016

A question of taste or, more specifically, a lack of it

Most people involved in our trade will be routinely asked what their favourite wine is. It’s a question to which it’s hard to provide a useful or honest answer. Rory Stapleton, the original Jolly Vintner at Tiverton, had the right idea when he used to reply: “The one that’s in my glass.”

I find it just as confusing being asked the far more general question: what kind of wines do I like? It’s a subject that rears its head a lot in discussions with independent merchants. The accepted wisdom is that you get to know your customers, and their tastes, and recommend/sell accordingly.

I don’t think I’m a particularly helpful client. I have no idea what my own taste in wine is, and it’s not through any lack of experimentation.

Assuming we’re not talking about stuff that’s genuinely ghastly or bland, I find there’s something to latch on to with most styles of wine. I can experience pleasure with wispy Pinot Noirs and weapons-grade Shiraz. I’ve got excited by lean, austere whites but also oaky Chardonnays that almost resemble olive oil. I find much to admire in funky natural wines that make your head spin, but also appreciate wines so clean and precise that they might have been developed by NASA.

My buying history must look like it’s just randomised data. All I can really say for sure is that I don’t like retsina, but perhaps I just haven’t met the right one yet.

I know people who claim to have a particular taste in wine, and good luck to them. But I don’t envy them their narrowed-down choices.

I won’t live long enough to try all the wines on my to-do list. It would take at least another lifetime to rank the wines I have tried into any sort of order. And even after I’d done that, I’d want to change my mind.

JANUARY 20 2016

Armenia at The Oval

There are, famously, more Armenians living outside Armenia than within it. Thankfully Zorik and Yeraz Gharibian have returned to their ancestral roots and are making wine there.

I tried some of their efforts yesterday, under the Zorah label, at the Liberty Wines tasting. The back story is as captivating as the wines themselves.

Gorbachev wasn’t a fan of wine production in the Soviet Union and decreed that Armenia’s vineyards should be uprooted on public health grounds. And so it was that in the cradle of viticulture, vines were ripped out and winemaking abandoned.

Some vineyards escaped the purge because they were simply too high or remote to bother about. In the Yeghegnadzor region, where vines had flourished at altitudes of up to 1,600 metres, the vineyards just went wild.

Zorik and Yeraz, diaspora Armenians living in Italy, decided to go back to their homeland and revive an ancient art. They’re doing so with a choice of up to 60 indigenous varieties to work with, notably Areni Noir. They’ve tamed the wild vines and planted more of their own. The results are superb.

Wine selling, we’re told, is all about stories. I’m sure The Oval was brimming with them yesterday, but I doubt any were quite as inspiring as this one.