To continue our week of multiple nominations we have Private Cellar, of Newmarket in Suffolk, which garnered no fewer than 10 entries for our indie writing competition. Some were just too short to qualify but we published the first review a few weeks ago and have selected a handful of the rest to share with you here.
Marc Rowland tells a story of clandestine pick-ups and the unlikely role of the Guardian in selecting a wine merchant.
This is the story of how an assignation to pick up a parcel in a London pub confirmed my journey to drinking decent wine.
I am inherently suspicious of recommendations in newspapers. In October 2010, I was drinking my way through all the promotional deals, had exposed my palate to Naked Wines, was working through various Virgin offers and trying any tempting supermarket deals. I was skilfully avoiding the traps of the hidden wine clubs and pre-payment schemes - my son had once built walls in his flat with crates of plonk until he checked his credit card bill and realised they weren't sending him the stuff because they were sorry for him! I was drinking wine and spending money but felt short-changed and my palate unstimulated.
The article caught my eye - 'A group of wine experts have set up their own company called Private Cellar because, after working for various companies in the City they think they can do it better'. Hmm!! Bit arrogant? I was sceptical but it was the Guardian and they never lie…. I gave it a try and phoned. I received sensible, helpful advice and a case of Bourgogne Blanc J J Vincent 2008 from Château Fuissé appeared efficiently and at a reasonable cost. It was good, so I tried again. This time I asked for a 'nice, quaffable, fizzy' – perhaps I read too much. I got a laugh from Andrew, the guy I spoke to and, no condescension for such a pretentious request just, 'that's the nicest request I've had for long time'. I received a dozen Crémant de Bourgogne that were also very good and so the relationship grew.
Then, in 2012, I threw in a request for 'one bottle of affordable Yquem for a friend's 60th'. Laura, who had become my main contact, was very interested but said it was unlikely to be found easily as, generally only whole cases had good enough provenance to justify the price. Sounded good advice. She said she would keep an eye open for me. She did.
More excellent purchases took place and I gained a reputation with friends for always having decent wines. I worry what they must have said before. I forgot the Yquem request and then an email arrived. Private Cellar was buying up the stocks of a closing gastro-pub in Devon and there were four bottles of Yquem 2003 with storage provenance. Yes! I went for two bottles; I'm not rich but it was Yquem. I'd only tasted it once before – delicious. I had a young case of Chateau Climens 2009 in my cellar but I needed an Yquem of my own.
The deal was done but how to get the bottles? Sauternes are sensitive beings and could warm and self-destruct in the delivery time. An appointment was made with Laura, who was coming to London and would bring them with her. We arranged to meet at The George in Southwark. It seemed right. An historic wine at an historic coaching pub. How would I know her? An exchange of photos to identify each other.
I walked into the courtyard with a Guardian under my arm – it had to be - and there she was, with a large parcel in a plastic carrier bag. I inspected the goods. Two bottles cased in polystyrene foam. It was like a drug deal but with no tasting of powder on a knife to check the quality. I had to believe the company and the labels, which were magically simple: Chateau Yquem 2003. I could have more dramatically given her a wad of notes in a brown envelope but luckily Private Cellar accepted my credit card the next day, which was a lot simpler
I bought her a G&T and had a beer myself – wine seemed wrong in the company of those bottles. Good conversation, mainly Yquem and other wine related and she left.
Success! I had the bottles and headed home fast as I could. They disappeared, hidden into the cool cellar under the stairs.
They remain there, still a little too young for me to drink, awaiting the birthday celebration that hasn't happened yet or the next decade or two or three. Yquem keeps a wonderfully long time!
Since then, my relationship with the team at Private Cellar has grown from strength to strength. The breadth of their understanding of all things wine has even influenced my travels abroad. Whilst planning a holiday to South Africa, a discussion with Laura at a Private Cellar wine tasting about how different a Chenin Blanc wine from South Africa tasted led to me renting an amazing room at Springfontein, the South African Vineyard the wine came from, as she knew the winemaker there, Tariro Masayiti. When there, we spoke with him and tasted some of his early wines in barrels there.
My knowledge and understanding of the processes behind making a great wine has grown. I have now met the Private Cellar team on a number of occasions at tastings and when the email is addressed 'to Marc from Laura' I know she's a real person not the clever, generic sales department of a large company.
I am still inherently suspicious of recommendations in newspapers but they can lead to interesting places!
Rupert Johnson gets advice on raffle donations, vertical construction and a chance to rub shoulders with a Moueix.
I met Laura Taylor at one of Private Cellar's very first wine tastings on the recommendation of a friend who told me that Private Cellar were the importers of Joseph Phelps' Insignia, a wine I had tried, and liked, at the Phelps Winery in Sonoma when on holiday there. Since then, and some seven or so years on, and with the purchase of two cases per annum of that wonderful wine to create a substantial vertical one day (one case to keep, one to drink!), Laura has been instrumental in building my wine collection and a valuable source of wisdom and unbiased advice.
The majority of my wine is stored in Private Cellar's reserves facility at Vinothèque and I am fortunate to have a cellar at home for every day drinking; relying on Laura to set me straight on what I should be drinking up (too much!), what will keep, what is of value and what might be best donated as a raffle prize!
I like the good, honest advice that I receive from Private Cellar, and it's reassuring that they never just go for the quick sale; they're just as good at guiding me away from wines that would not be to my taste as they are at sourcing hidden gems like Château La Connivence.
Absolute highlights of my diary are their dinners and tastings. You can easily find yourself chatting to Edouard Moueix, of La Fleur Petrus fame (one of my favourites, and it was with huge thanks to Laura that I met Edouard who kindly assisted with the 'missing link' (year) to complete a ten year vertical of that wine), or a well-known collector. And whatever the occasion, you will meet a great bunch of like-minded wine enthusiasts, who are genuinely caught up in Private Cellar's infectious enthusiasm for their wines and the properties they represent.
Am I a serious investor of wine? No, and despite owning some wonderful wines and vintages, all thanks to Laura, I do it for fun and a little bit of education , and the enjoyment is immense. Am I somewhat envious of the amount of fun they seem to have as a team, all in the name of work? You bet!
R D Gooder describes a 20-year relationship of trust, understanding and honesty. Some marriages aren't this good!
There was a time when advice to the serious amateur of wine was: 'trust your merchant'. When most wine was bought from independent merchants, who cultivated contacts with independent growers and négociants abroad, often bottled their purchases themselves, and knew their customers, it was good advice.
But independent wine merchants are fast being replaced by chains, multiples, and supermarkets, where the relation between seller and buyer is merely commercial. There is now scarcely any 'bad' wine, and the variety on offer befuddles even the experienced buyer. Advertising campaigns, prices, labels with eye-catching designs and foolish descriptions, all are there to manipulate rather than inform, to make money for the supplier rather than give pleasure to the drinker. The wine is good, but generic and undistinctive. Nor do these supermarket 'merchants' know anything about their clients – what they like, what they can afford, what they have bought in the past. Because they can't produce enough wine, small growers won't satisfy the needs of supermarkets, but they are the source of much of the wine on independent merchants' lists.
A few independent wine merchants remain, and Amanda Skinner, now a partner at Private Cellar, has worked for several of them. I bought wine from Amanda first some twenty or more years ago, when I was wine steward of a Cambridge college. One thing that she instinctively understood was that I was not in the wine trade, but an academic with many commitments, and she never intruded on my professional life. Nor did she ever try to sell me anything, which is probably why I bought more wine from her than from anyone else. I could have a long conversation with Amanda – and conversations about wine, especially with her, are always interesting – without having to feel guilty when I put the phone down having bought not a drop.
But she knew her suppliers, as she knew her clients, and was wonderfully tactful in bringing the two together. She can quietly disassemble the hyperbole that disfigures the big en primeur campaigns, and treats wine as a pleasure rather than as an investment. Not only does she know her clients' preferences, she remembers what they've bought. Just today I had a message from her guiding me to an article about a wine I'd bought from her a couple of years ago.
I am grateful to her for leading me to three or four wines undiscoverable beyond her list, but perhaps the most memorable moment was when I phoned her to buy a particular Sauvignon Blanc she held on her list. 'A good wine,' she said, 'but not as good as a Sauvignon Blanc to be found on a particular supermarket's shelves. I'd buy that, if I were you.' How many merchants would do that? So I bought it, and every time I enjoy it I remember Amanda – a wine merchant I know that I can trust.