Profile: People’s Wine, Dalston

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London has its fair share of French-born independent wine merchants, but not many of them are based in its eastern boroughs.

Philippe Polleux is a rare example of the breed, opening his People’s Wine shop and bar in Dalston soon after lockdown was over.

Inevitably, many of the wines he sells are what you would expect in this trendy enclave. But Philippe prides himself on a wide selection of (mainly French) wines that suit a broader demographic.


East London is widely regarded as the achingly cool epicentre of the UK wine trade. A land of cycling, orange-wine obsessed hipsters plying funky Slovenian pet nat to waxed-moustached web developers.

Philippe Polleux doesn’t quite match the stereotype, though he does sell a lot of orange wine, and he does come to work by bike. (He got knocked off it once, by a bus, but he seems to regard this as unremarkable.)

He grew up in Creil, a small town north of Paris a long way from the nearest vineyards. He began to discover wine during his “lazy student” years and landed a job in the wine trade almost at random when he arrived in London about 20 years ago.

“I took my CV and walked along the high street and asked for work,” he recalls. “Oddbins gave me a job and I realised I enjoyed it.”

Two years at Oddbins were followed by spells as a sommelier, directorship of the regrettably-named importer Dago Wines and then five years at Vinarius, an enoteca in Bow.

Having sold his Vinarius shares in 2019, Polleux joined Vagabond in early 2020, only to find himself furloughed the following month. “I stayed with them during the Covid time,” he says. “I was helping them to do the online sales and to send out the little tasting bottles.”

Plans began to ferment in his mind for a wine bar and shop of his own. The unit he settled on was a former vegan brownie shop – mais bien sûr! – a short walk from Dalston Junction, in a part of Hackney where a Champagne cork popped in the street would stand a very good chance of landing on the doorstep of an independent wine merchant. (Not that Champagne is a big seller in these parts. But more on that later.)

It’s a tall, modern space where guests can spend a languid afternoon observing minor traffic collisions on the adjacent mini roundabout, while enjoying wines by the glass, perhaps in the company of some oysters, saucisson or Comté.

Polleux relishes the surroundings, which are light and airy, and enhanced by subtle variations in décor which subliminally delineate the retail and bar areas. At some point he might look at ways of muting the acoustics a little for the times when 20 or so customers are noisily appreciating his hospitality.

It’s not the only drawback of a high ceiling. “It’s very complicated to remove the spider webs,” he points out.



When you lived in France, had you already started to explore wines from other countries?
Not really. I remember trying wine from Chile once or twice. But I tried it when I was doing work experience in Germany. And most of the time, I was drinking wine with my parents at home, so it wasn’t me choosing the wine. After that, when I was a student in Paris, I was buying quite cheap wine and not really choosing with a lot of discernment.

How did you arrive in this location in Dalston?
Basically, I wanted to open somewhere in east London, and during the Covid time I visited quite a lot of venues. I thought this one was the right size, and a good space. And I thought the crowd in east London would be interesting to work with.

My concept was to specialise in French wine. First, because I wanted to go back to my roots. Whenever I can travel, it’s nice to be able to go to the countryside in France. Also, I wanted to work with artisanal producers, which could be organic, biodynamic and natural, but not only those things. Mainly the idea was to work with artisanal and small producers who actually care about what they do, and can express terroir and something interesting.

I could see what sort of things worked around this area, and I wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t isolated. There are other wine bars, wine shops and restaurants, which is nice to create a sort of network.

Is it a friendly kind of network or do people get a bit worried when someone new opens?
Well, with the people I know, it’s a very friendly relationship. It’s not uncommon for me, when I’m fully booked, I’m having an event or something like that, to tell people to go to another wine bar. If someone is asking for Spanish wine, or sherry, and I don’t have it, I tell them to go to Furanxo next door because it’s his speciality. And I think he also sends people to me. I think on the whole it’s positive.

Why did you choose the name People’s Wine? Presumably to take the emphasis away from the idea of big corporations?
Wine is a medium. It’s the reason why people will be sitting together and chatting. So I think “people” is quite important.

I want to work with artisanal producers, and connect them with people in London. I thought this was the most important thing. Afterwards I saw that there was a socialist connotation, and I’m like: yeah, why not? There’s nothing wrong with that.

I want to be a French specialist, so should I take a French name or a name in English? English is probably just simpler. Maybe French could have been seen as a bit too elitist, and I don’t want that. I want it to be approachable. Around here, a lot of shops sell wine and it’s hard to find anything below 20 quid. But that’s something I really want to have. Maybe because I drink a lot. I can’t spend too much money on a wine when it’s a Tuesday evening.



What’s the demographic in this part of London? Are people constantly moving in and out?
You’ve got people coming here from other parts of London and other parts of England, because it’s a dynamic place with lots of things to do. And it’s still connected to the city. But then you’ve got also residential areas, like nearby London Fields, where you’ve got communities with families who are settled here.

Do you mainly attract a young crowd?
I get older people here too, and I think it’s because I also try to have some classical appellations. I am not sure where else you will find Champagne in Dalston. You will see lots of pet nat but not actually Champagne.

Is that mainly grower Champagne?
Yeah, of course. I try not to work with big brands and I think right now all of the Champagnes I’ve got are organic. Not that I’ve got a lot.

Lots of indies find that with Champagne, they need the big names, because those are what people want to buy as gifts.
Maybe it’s because the crowd I’ve got knows that I’m not doing big brands and the big names that I don’t have any requests for those wines.

Maybe I’m cutting myself off from another crowd who could be interested. But overall I think people are quite keen to taste mine. It’s selling, so it’s working.

The main Champagne I’m working with is Lasseaux. They’ve got only four hectares. I put it on by the glass so people can try it. I think it makes them feel more confident with the product.

I think the fact that I’ve got the bar helps; I can play with this sort of thing. On Bastille Day, I did all the Champagne for 10 quid, and you could try some premium artisanal Champagne at a decent price. And you could see it was good.

How does your business split between retail sales and drinking in?
It really depends on the time of the week and the season of the year. Friday would be mainly bar; Sundays are fully retail. In December, the bar is really quiet but in January and February it’s mainly the bar that we’re pushing.

I can see it’s a £10 corkage fee to drink in. Is there a by-the-glass list too?
Yes, we have about 15 wines available by the glass. We try to rotate it and update the menu. So we always add something and remove something.

Where do you source your wines from?
I do a little bit of importing, which should be growing. I’m looking also to develop the wholesale business. I’m working with something like 15 wine importers. Again, I try to work mainly with smaller-sized importers and try to be supportive of small businesses.

I’m working with Swig, Les Caves, Portuguese Story … Sager & Wilde as well: they’ve started to import a bit. Iberian Drinks for some Spanish wines. Gergovie Wines for natural wine from Auvergne, which I think is an exciting region.

There are plenty of orange wines on your shelves.
Orange wine is a big chunk of the market. On Saturday we are part of the East London Wine Walk, so we get people from other bits of London and from outside of London. Whenever we mention orange wine, people from outside of London don’t really know it very well, or they haven’t really tried it. People from west London have tried it, but they’re not very familiar with it. With people from east London, it seems to be completely normal. We sell a lot.

Do you start people on more approachable orange wines and then guide them into the funkier ones?
It’s hard to say about the funkiness. Right now when I’m looking at my orange wine selection, all of them will be biodynamic as a minimum, and natural in a way.

I don’t know if I like to use the word “natural”, because I don’t really know where to start and where to finish. But I still try to choose orange wine that will be of good quality, well-structured, well made, even if there are more sulphites and more filtration. They also need to be tasty and fun.

As everybody’s asking for it, I sample a lot of orange wines which are not really that good in terms of quality. You need to really skim a bit to find the good ones.

Do you find that some French producers don’t bother with official organic certification simply because they find the bureaucracy involved too onerous?
That’s why I like to work with smaller-sized producers, because it’s easier to have the trust relationship, to actually get the information and to see what they do.

Sometimes I prefer a guy who doesn’t have any certification, but I know is going to work in a good way, rather than someone who is organic but was only working for certification, and doesn’t really care much about what he does.

Which parts of France excite you most right now?
It’s hard to say. The Loire Valley, because there is a lot of varieties and quite a lot to discover. Languedoc is always dynamic, and I think the quality is really increasing, even with the problem of temperature increase.

I’m excited by Auvergne even though there isn’t much quantity. Its red wines would be Pinot Noir and Gamay, and white would be Chardonnay, mainly. You’ve got very mineral and fresh red wine, which can be really exciting. Recently I’ve got more and more into white from Alsace as well. Again, there’s a lot of variety.

And what about the classics: Bordeaux and Burgundy?
I’m doing a Burgundy wine tasting next week, so it’s on my radar. I struggle with the prices, obviously. But when something is exciting, it’s extremely exciting. With Bordeaux I don’t have a lot of stock, and it seems to be more of a gift wine. It’s not something people really choose to drink at the bar. Or if they choose it, they choose the Bordeaux at around 50 quid. I’ve got Bordeaux at £20, which I think is very good value, but it doesn’t move as fast.

We are quite lucky that here people are interested in the lesser-known appellations and like to discover new things and to experiment. With Bordeaux there’s not much to experiment with.

Every two or three years, Bordeaux says that white Bordeaux is back on trend and it’s going to sell. I never managed to sell any. It never sells. They are good. But they don’t move.

Food is obviously important. How do you prepare it?
We do the food prep here at the bar. When I created this place, to start with I was working on my own, and I tried to build it in a way that I could prepare the food, serve the guests and organise the takeaways without having to run into the back room. The menu is simple, but substantial.

There are quite a lot of restaurants around here. We’ve got people who come here before their dinner, or they come after their dinner, to have a last glass. So I don’t need to become a restaurant and to serve more food.

With food, have you got one supplier that you use for everything or do you have to use lots of different people?
I mainly work with a guy called Geoffrey and his company’s called Tasting with Nivard. He’s mainly a cheese importer but he also does charcuterie. We use Belazu for nuts and olives and the bread I get from a new baker called Breadery on Roman Road.

How many staff have you got now?
I’ve got two full-time employees. It allows me to take two days off. And I’ve got a lady who almost works half-time.

Are you happy with how the business is going?
We’ve started to make money and now I’ll start to look at developing further. That’s why I’m looking to import more wine. Have a bigger portfolio and see where we can go.

Is importing a painful process these days?
Basically you need to be a bit more organised, or you need to forecast a bit better what you need to have, because it takes time. If you work with a winemaker who is proactive, the pallet could be ready in, like, 24 hours – or in a few days. But some winemakers are a bit slower, because they have a lot of things to do and can be really unresponsive on email. Then the transporter takes maybe something like a month to bring the wine to England, and the cost is much more compared to before.

Did you find anything good at Wine Paris?
Maybe from Alsace and Beaujolais. I looked for some Burgundy, but it seems so hard to find because prices are too high and a lot of the wines are already imported anyway.

I saw I guy who’s making natural Muscadet as well, which can be quite fun. Lots of lees; a bit more texture. Everybody says Muscadet was bad in the 70s. But I wasn’t born, so I don’t know. Actually nice Muscadet at a good price sells quite well.

Tell us about the ticketed events you run in the shop.
We have a cheese and wine afternoon on Saturday, run by my cheesemonger. It’s mainly him presenting the cheese and then pairing it with the wine. Usually people like it. It is quite fun. It’s a good way to start a weekend. It should last an hour and a half, but sometimes people stay longer. Last time we did it, I think some of the guests stayed for the evening.

What social media do you use?
For me it’s Instagram – it’s a big, big help. And whenever I do wine tastings, I send a newsletter. I try to do this more and more and to be less connected to a social network. Because when they change algorithm or something, it could affect my business.

How is Deliveroo working for you?
My feeling is that Deliveroo has been getting a bit quieter recently. I can see the sales figures are a bit lower. I don’t know if it’s just because of the time of the year or if actually people are using it less, or if there’s competition from other delivery companies that people prefer to use.



You’re hinting at expansion. What plans are in your mind? Will it depend on the economy?
Gradually the economy will recover sooner or later, so I’m not too worried about that. Maybe in Dalston we’re in a bubble, and we don’t really see [the downturn] as much.

I launched the shop just after Covid, and it was the European Championships as well. It was really hard because basically nobody really wanted to go to a wine shop, or wine bar. Pubs were busy with the football. So when I started it was really empty. I wasn’t doing any marketing whatsoever.

Now, I can see that it’s improving, and I’m getting busier. But I can still see that I can do better. I need to work on the selection. And I really want to work a bit more on the import side of the business. I think that’s this year’s project.

Do you think you’ll ever return home to France?
I don’t know. My daughter is in high school here. I’ve got a business. I feel that I’m pretty established.

My wife is from Thailand. So who knows? Maybe I will open People’s Wine in flip flops on an island. I would like that. One branch in Dalston, one branch in Koh Samui.

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