It’s an ill wind alright. The demise of the high-street chains in the ‘noughties saw a profoundly encouraging spate of start-ups of small, independent wine merchants devoting themselves to purveying carefully-selected, high-quality wines across (almost) the whole price range. More encouraging still is that a number of them are cautiously expanding. Most deliver nationwide but if you’re fortunate to have one nearby it adds something special if you can walk in and have a nice chat and, often, a nice glass of wine as well – some of them seem to be in permanent tasting mode, with a few bottles open all the time. No names, no pack drill – it’s a hard life for some of these chaps (eh, Marc?).
Some have the Enomatic storage and dispensing systems which allow them to offer customers (and casuals) the chance try before they buy and, better yet, to taste high-end wines in small doses without the wine deteriorating (or breaking the bank). Basically, you put some credit on a card they give which you use to pay for a small (but not necessarily tiny – they come in different measures) glass of a few (or all) of the dozen or so wines they have “on taste” as they say in the States. Others have a corkscrew and some glasses. And maybe a fridge.
(Selfridges pioneered Enomatic in the UK, only to find that silly Westminster Council refused – and persisted in refusing until quite recently – to countenance the sale of wine in “non-standard” measures like 5cl. It shows just the sort of flexibilty and forward-thinking that we’ve come to expect from our dynamic local government people, doesn’t it?)
When I was writing my book, I would have been lucky to find more than a handful of the 3500-odd recommended wine producers in it in my patch of north London. But three excellent places have opened up in Stokie in the past 18 months and I recently did a piece for the (equally excellent) local mag – N16 Magazine – to see how many I could find now. I stopped counting at 100. None of the new places are solely dedicated to booze, which may be one of the ways forward – Le Parc and MeatN16 also sell food and Homa is a restaurant with a side-line in off-sales.
Elsewhere in London, among my favourite local heroes are (in no particular order) Planet of the Grapes, Vinoteca, Highbury Vintners, The Bottle Apostle and The Sampler. Longer-established Jeroboams, Roberson and Philglass & Swiggot also deserve the same plaudits. Out in the sticks, The Secret Cellar (Tunbridge Wells, Wadhurst and Oxted), The Butler’s Wine Cellar, Quaff, Ten Green Bottles (all in Brighton), Cooden Cellars (have a guess), South Downs Cellars (Hurstpierpoint and Lindhurst), Fareham Cellars (is “eponymous” correct in this context), Noel Young (Cambridge), Symposium, (Lewes), Wine Therapy (Cowes) and Corks Out (Warrington) deserve particular praise – and there are many more. Let me know if you have one that I should know about. There’s no point in recommending individual wines because all these fine folk only sell good wine, which is rather refreshing. The Association of Direct Wine Merchants brings together some up-and-coming and decidedly individualistic folk too so, with just a minimum of effort you really never need open a dull bottle again.