Freed from buying by the dozen


27 April For this week’s Throwback Thursday we are republishing, free for all, Simon Reilly’s gleeful confessions of a wine shopper. 

26 April Simon Reilly, whose blog is, has been writing for for well over a year now. Here he enthuses over the recent wine revolution in the UK. 

The way I buy wine has changed. 

I started buying wine in earnest when I moved to Australia in 2004. An early visit to the Hunter Valley with friends struck a chord. It gave me my first taste of aged Hunter Semillon from the Mount Pleasant cellar door. I was hooked. My obsession with wine had begun. 

But it wasn’t until I got back home to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and discovered the delights of spending an afternoon browsing in Kemeny’s on Bondi Road, Vintage Cellars in Rushcutter’s Bay or the ultimate Aussie wine Mecca, Dan Murphy’s in Double Bay. I would happily while away hours of a weekend, armed with the latest issue of James Halliday’s Wine Companion (see this special offer for Purple Pagers which expires on Sunday) and a pen and paper (what a loser), collecting myself a mixed-dozen of Aussie wines. I was like a kid in a sweet shop.

With these Aussie wine gold-mines close by, with minimal storage space (and, importantly, no air-conditioning) in our Tamarama flat, the thought of buying a whole case of the same wine never crossed my mind.

All this changed when I returned to London in 2008.

The market appeared to be dominated by big merchants – Berry Bros & Rudd, Justerini & Brooks, Lay & Wheeler and a few others. I started to buy wine online, but I found many wines that I read about in the wine press were available only by the case. This made experimentation more difficult, not to mention expensive.

To this day I have full cases of wines in my cellar I have not yet tasted. Will I like them? Who knows? I hope so. I bought them only because someone in Decanter liked them. Based on some of the wines I have bought and drunk in this way, I’ll probably like most of them, but few of them, if any, will be wines I now love enough to justify buying a whole case.

Luckily, however, things have changed. There are more wine merchants. Lots more.

And they all seem much more flexible, allowing you to pick and choose a mixed dozen or half-dozen or even one bottle if that’s all you want. Those Saturday afternoons I spent trawling Dan Murphys and Kemeny’s can now be re-enacted on my sofa.

The wines are different too. The world of wine is so much bigger than it was 10 years ago. The range of wines available in the UK is mind-boggling. Gone is the reliance on the classical wine-producing areas of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and Tuscany. Consumer tastes have changed, broadened. Partly driven by economics (have you seen the price of bordeaux and burgundy?) but primarily a result of inquisitive minds, a hunger for diversity. We want wines from Alto Piemonte, Jura, Galicia and everywhere in between.

So how has this demand for variety been met?

I don’t see any new large wine merchants with broad ranges opening. They already exist. We don’t need more of those. Today’s new merchants dive deep into a specific geographical area or wine type. Their ranges are smaller and more specialised. A niche is created. Many of them import wines directly so they are the only place to go, taking price out of the equation at the same time.

If I want small-batch Italian wines I might go to Tutto. If I want a German Spätburgunder I’ll probably go to Howard Ripley. Loire Valley? I’ll give Under the Bonnet a call. Want a wine from the Alps? There’s even a specialist in that too – the imaginatively named Alpine Wines.

And it’s not just geographical diversity; if I want to buy aged wines, I go to Blast Vintners. If I want natural wines, Les Caves de Pyrène is a good bet…

To support these start-up ventures, a lot of the new generation of wine merchants have set up their businesses around restaurants and wine bars (Winemaker’s Club, 161 Food + Drink and Ten Cases to name but a few) where I can try before I buy. All of this makes me much better-informed about the wine I buy. I buy what I know I will like. And if I don’t like it, I’ve only got the odd bottle. With so much available, why would I buy loads of the same thing?

This variety is not just available in the off trade. I can now drink more interesting wine out and about. Restaurant wine lists have never been more fun.

It wasn’t always like that. Twenty years ago, a handful of importers supplied most of the London restaurant trade, many of the wines still being shipped in tankers and bottled under the railway arches in Tooley Street by London Bridge. The wine on most of London’s restaurant lists was all a bit unexciting and same-y.

One of the first people to do something about this was Trevor Gulliver, co-owner of St John restaurant, which opened in 1994. While his business partner Fergus Henderson transformed the London food scene with his nose-to-tail eating in St John’s kitchen, Trevor headed off to rural France to create a wine list to drink with it. Fed up with the choices available from London merchants, he went direct to the producers.

How did he do it? ‘Knocking on doors', says Trevor, sticking resolutely to his simple rule ‘I never buy without visiting'. Just like I don’t want wine in my cellar I haven’t tasted, Trevor doesn’t want wine on his list he wouldn’t drink himself.

As people started to enjoy the wines they had at St John that they couldn’t buy elsewhere, they asked where they could buy them, and so St John became a wine merchant too. The entire list is now available to buy at retail prices, delivered to your door.

It is not just the customers who enjoy the results. St John has created a real community among the winemakers on their list. Once a year they all descend on the restaurant in Smithfield for an afternoon of eating, drinking and being merry for the St John Vignerons’ lunch (the one last January is pictured above). Sophie Lafourcade, winemaker at Domaine Les Luquettes in Provence, makes a very fine Bandol which St John list along with two of her other wines. St John have been listing her wines since 2004 and she really believes in the approach. ‘The way St John work directly with the wineries with no one in between makes it a fantastic relationship.'

Not only have restaurants like St John improved the variety and quality of wine I can drink when I eat out, nowadays I can drink better wine by the glass. If I’m out for dinner I don’t want to drink one style of wine all night. You might have picked this up by now, but I like variety.

Everywhere I go now, the wine is on tap, with great choice by the glass. Merchants such as O W Loeb, Robersons and Vinoteca have all started importing wine in keg to sell straight from the taps in restaurants and bars across London and beyond.

Rupert Taylor of O W Loeb is a passionate spokesman for the wine on tap revolution. With taps in more than 55 establishments across London, he works closely with his customers to offer a range of typically three or four different names which complement the restaurant and its menu. He then holds regular tastings, inviting all his customers so they can taste and choose which wines they want to add to their roster.

Rupert has created a ‘tap map’ which maps out all the venues. This is a closely guarded secret to which only his customers have access, so they can pop in and taste what’s on tap elsewhere. If they like a particular wine, they can bring it into their restaurant next. ‘We are part of a movement, part of something that is changing the way things are done', enthuses Rupert. And it doesn’t just stop at restaurants, Rupert wants to get wine on tap into pubs as well. ‘If you go to a good pub, the wine will be rubbish. When I go to a pub I drink beer, but I want to drink wine!.’

So, I’ve come full circle. The variety I have now feels just like the variety I had when I was discovering wine like that kid in the sweet shop in Dan Murphy’s. The difference is that the sweet shop is a whole lot bigger. And that makes this kid even happier.

See contact details of all these wine merchants in the UK section of our Where to buy section – JR.