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Why Dawn Mannis is happier than ever now that The Sampler is back to a single store in its original north London heartland. By Graham Holter


Islington is a word that is abused, misunderstood and ridiculed in much the same way as “woke”. Indeed for some people, the two mean the same thing.

That’s really a matter for Daily Mail columnists and their readers. In the independent wine world, Islington is synonymous with The Sampler. True, there are plenty of other merchants in this north London borough which can make a claim for our attention. Yet The Sampler is ingrained not just in wine trade lore, but the actual law.

When established in 2006 by Jamie Hutchinson and Dawn Mannis, the shop, on bustling Upper Street, was in the vanguard of the new wave of indies that was about to add vibrancy to a market that desperately needed an alternative to the supermarkets and what was left of the chains.

The Sampler certainly offered that. But its real point of difference was technological. For many people – public as well as trade – it was the first time they had encountered an Enomatic machine. Or, rather, machines: Hutchinson and Mannis installed 10, encouraging their clientele to load up their cards and experiment to their hearts’ content.

Local authorities took issue with Enomatics, arguing that only 12.5cl measures could legally be sold, not the 2.5cl and 7.5cl pours that customers at The Sampler (and Selfridges) were enjoying.

Eventually the Weights & Measures Act 1985 was subtly modified, meaning that sample sizes are now allowed – though only if merchants make no specific reference to the quantity (unless served in an approved glass bearing an official stamp).

That all feels like ancient history now. But the Enomatics are still central to what The Sampler is all about, even if much else has changed. The business experimented with expansion but has now happily retrenched to a single store. 

It’s a lovely place to spend a late November afternoon, and Ulster-born Mannis is clearly in her element, free to run the show in a way that feels is much more in tune with what she was imagining when it all started.



Tell us about how The Sampler got established.

I started the company with Jamie, who later moved to France. We started by using our stock that we had collected when we were students. He was in venture capital; I was in TV production. Wine was cheap back then. We used a lot of it to fund the shop.

It did really well. We were the first people to have these machines. And then we got investment, and that was all down to Jamie. He wanted to take things forward for us. It was not my idea: I wanted a quiet life. I thought we had really nice thing here. 

And so then we opened in South Kensington; we got some investment there. And that was good. That was really good fun for five years. And then they put the rent up and there was no way we could stay there. Then the investors wanted to open another place.

Who are the investors?

Keith Prothero [a director of Mullineux Family Wines] is one, along with some of our customers.

They wanted to expand more, and I was dead against it. It wasn’t my thing. But anyway we opened up in Putney, and it was OK. It was more cheese and wine, which is what a lot of people do, but I have no interest in that at all. Loads of my friends have got restaurants but I don’t understand why anyone wants to be involved in food.

Putney was doing absolutely fine but Jamie was living in France. During lockdown everything was really good for independents and I realised, you know what, we’ve got a good thing here [in Islington]. And I just thought, I don’t want to be doing anything else. So I talked to the investors, and I just sort of got my way. I’ve got the best job in the world, because it’s what I always wanted to do. 

The Sampler became iconic almost straight away. Everyone seemed to know it very quickly.

And they still do. So it’s funny because when I go to restaurants, sommeliers tell me that The Sampler was where they got into wine. We give a discount to students who are doing their WSET or sommelier exams. I like it that people come in here to learn and do their training.

There’s a lot of pressure on indies to expand and diversify. But you’re proving it can work just by being a one-shop wine specialist.

Yes. I think that a lot of people lose focus. I think you have to just focus on your customer base and forget about expanding. If you lose sight of people who are buying your wine, I think that’s a big mistake. Often, it’s better just to go back to basics. And the thing that you’re actually good at is selling.

You’ve obviously got lower expenses now and less HR hassle. Are margins better too?

Of course, it’s so much easier. I think it really depends on the fact that we have this really big database that we’ve managed to get over the years. I send out a marketing email every other week. We get loads of sales from that. About 70% of our business is from London, but then we have those other bits and pieces that come along and they’re really important to the business.

Do customers who are on that list feel they’re in an exclusive sort of club?

Maybe. I don’t know. I think we’ve never been trendy. I’d like to think that we sort of avoided all the trends. It’s all about the quality of the wine.

Well, you did start a trend with Enomatic machines.

Yes, yes. And they’re still really good for us. Now we do half-price sampling from Monday to Wednesday.  They’ve been brilliant for us. I know other people have had them and it hasn’t worked out for them. I’ve talked to so many people over the years who have asked my advice. And I’m like, I don’t know: we’ve always had them. So I can’t imagine having a shop that doesn’t have them. 

For a while, the narrative seemed to be that every independent should follow The Sampler and invest in Enomatics. But the vast majority still don’t have them.

I can imagine they’re expensive. They break down. It’s funny, because some of these machines are the original ones we’ve had for 17 years, but every piece has been changed.

You have to love them, and you have to understand them. We look at all our data and it works for us. You need to have lots of people coming in and trying, I think.

Some people worry that with Enomatics you don’t get to have so much interaction with customers.

I would say it’s the opposite because you can give them samples and we’ll talk about some of the wines. If someone comes in and says, “I’m looking for this for a party” and then when you give them a sample they’re like “no, that’s actually not what I wanted”, it’s better that way.

How much wine do you import yourselves?

We’re very boring, in that we tend to keep the same sort of proportions. So we use the Vindies for like cheap stuff. We bring in pretty much all our own Champagne. We’ve worked with Coutier since we began. One of the things that we sort of specialise in is grower Champagne. 

I love buying older vintages that we pick up on the secondary market; and people sell us their cellars. 

We’ve been doing en primeur, but we only do it on Burgundy. People are always selling us back what they bought from us, because they’ve got too much wine. 

We have a new cabinet, which is for the fancier kind of stuff. That’s a small proportion, but it’s nice to put them on machines, and get people to come in and try things.

Do you have lots of places to explore on the secondary market?

We only buy small effects. But actually over Covid we had an amazing thing happen. This big restaurant went bust and they had millions of wines and they just wanted to sell it all and we bought so much wine, like pallets and pallets, and we got it so cheap. 

Is all your storage here or is some off-site?

EHD as well. We store everything there. We have the storage downstairs, but everything’s kept in bond. The first time we did en primeur was Bordeaux in 2010. There are still people who have never paid their storage fees and who have really just never contacted us since then.

Would it be fair to say you have a thing about Burgundy?

We love Burgundy and we sell loads of it. And you can still get value. We get an allocation of wines every year from Berry’s. We buy some through Vindies and we do a little bit ourselves as well, but not too much. Our customers really enjoy it.

So what wines are really rocking your world at the moment?

We’ve been doing a lot of old Rieslings and they’re really good value. This one is £25 for a 2005 wine. Italian wines are very popular at the minute, so Piemonte is really big for us. And we’ve taken on a lot of wines from Greece.

People around here are going to have a few quid. What would you say is your average selling price?

Around £25. We’re lucky. But it’s really that sort of magic point, £10 to £18, that we’re really good at. Actually, that’s what we’re known for as well. People are always really surprised at how many of the cheap wines we sell.

Is there wine you can still sell for £10 or even lower that you’re proud of?

No, not now, but you can still find stuff around £15. You can’t ignore those customers; you have to give choices. And also for the machines, it looks really bad if everything you’ve got is like £20 to £80. You need to show wines at a range of price points and then you can really see the quality levels. I keep saying, you don’t need to spend a load of money but, you know, if you spend 20 quid you’ll get something really characterful. 

Is Islington orange wine country?

We were one of the first people to have orange wines, but we don’t make a big deal about it. Some orange wines are terrible. I was in Georgia this summer. I’d definitely recommend it. The problem is getting there: it took us 22 hours. You can’t fly direct, you have to stop in Romania or Greece. But once you’re there it’s absolutely fascinating.

Have you noticed any changes in customer behaviour recently?

To be honest, it’s quite similar every year. I would say maybe there’s less corporate stuff around – that would be the main difference that I’ve noticed. But I think maybe in London, it’s a wee bit of a bubble.

I think people understand that wine’s gone up in price over the past few years because of Brexit and whatever. So I think people are willing to spend a bit more. But I really do emphasise to customers that you don’t need to spend a fortune on a bottle of wine to get something nice. You really don’t.

Where do you think the best value comes from at the moment? South Africa is a name that tends to come up in these conversations.

There’s not that many South African fans around here. I think we sell less South African wine than most other independents. I don’t know why that is, because we’ve always had a nice range. I still think Spain’s quite good value, and Italy too – at least, I would say, with lighter styles of wines. We sell a lot of those.

Where do you think customers get their wine education from?

I ask myself that as well. It’s funny how things come in trends, which we’ve always avoided.  We’ve always sold all these kinds of wines, but we just never sort of get involved with things like that. I think I’m just a bit rubbish. 

We’re lucky to be established. I wouldn’t want to be starting out right now. So much competition everywhere. Everyone’s selling wine and the amount of variety that is available to people … the amount of wine you have to stock, compared to what we started out with – it’s so different. And yeah, I think people are much more informed about wine as well.

What kind of business are you doing online?

Very small: 5%. We always think we’re gonna do more but, to be honest, you have to spend a lot of money to get it. And the people who buy from us are either local, or someone who’s got something fancy from WineSearcher. So it’s one of those things where you can get an extra few per cent, but is it actually worth it in the end?

Then there’s the perennial problem of couriers.

We’ve got a brilliant delivery driver. He’s been a customer since we began and he’s a black cab driver. During Covid he didn’t have any work, and so he started being our full-time driver. We’ve kept him on so everyone gets their wine delivered by a black cab driver in north London.

Tell us about your “bring your own food” policy.

That works really well for us. We’re open till seven, Sunday to Wednesday, and people can hire the shop after that.

People can bring whatever they want and we just ask them to clean up after themselves. They bring in the most beautiful platters and we’ve got a lovely Italian deli around the corner. 

People really go to town. They’ll bring their knives and bread and do it all. It’s really interesting.

How big is your team?

We’ve got a very nice team; very small. Mario looks after everything for me and he does all the finance stuff and everything. Yassine and Tom work here as well. We all buy together. I’ve got another person helps us out as well. Everyone we employ has to be a wine enthusiast, that’s the main thing. Wine is very much our hobby.

I want people who want to go on trips and who want to read about wine, because that’s what our customers expect. When they come in, they want to talk to you about where they went on holiday, what wine they had, which restaurants they’ve been to.

Customers send me wine lists when they’re on holiday. And then I have to say, “go for wine number three”. My husband’s always complaining: “Just tell them, you’re not at work.” But I like doing that sort of thing. I’m still enthusiastic.

I’m very lucky because I’ve got a good team and I don’t need to be here all the time. All our staff have their own customers who come in. We do everything together. People stay for a long time and I’m still very friendly with people who’ve left.

You obviously enjoy being in the shop and being the face of your business.

Yeah, I do, I love being here. I’m not keen on social media, and all that sort of stuff. That’s one of the things I keep getting told that we need to be better at.

It’s not like we don’t make contact with customers: we make contact all the time, we do a lot of direct mail. I’m better at that. People laugh at us and say we’re the worst on social media, and I don’t mind that. We love the wines but we’ve never been slick. I can’t pretend we’re something we’re not.










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