Following on from New York's Chambers Street collection is London's Uncorked collection, with a total of five contributions for the competition. One review has already been published, and here we give you the remaining four plus one cheeky review of Sura that Jen Causton managed to sneak in.
Jen Causton contrasts the very new and modern Sura with the rather more traditional, but unstuffy, Uncorked.
The first thing that strikes you about Sura is the spaciousness of this modern wine shop, filled with light rather than pretentiousness. Occupying a prominent position on East Sheen's high street – a leafy suburb on the south circular (a bit of an oxymoron) – Sura is in its second year and owner, Rohit Sobti, is beginning to reap the rewards from his first flush of plans.
These include the recently opened wine bar, unobtrusively occupying part of the shop floor. The cosy seating area, coupled with platters of artisan breads, cheeses and charcuterie, makes nipping out for a bottle of decent wine as easy and spontaneous as a trip to the pub – no need to worry about booking a table or paying restaurant prices. Corkage is a very reasonable £5 – and expect various promotional plays on this.
And the wine itself? Well, appreciably for a young company, finding its feet in uncharted – yet ripe for wine domination – territory (nestled between Barnes and Richmond, this is prime dinner party land), Rohit is busy furthering his range on many different fronts. That said, Sura already boasts a thoughtful collection of old and new world wines. Italy is particularly well represented, with plenty of choice from Campania to Alto Adige, as well as some competitively priced gems from the usual suspects – Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto. There is a pretty comprehensive selection from both Chile and Argentina – sparkling torrontes anyone? – and Languedoc-Roussillon is also a highlight.
The modern wine shop should be more than just somewhere that merely pushes whatever bottles are currently striking a chord with the proprietor. The informal tastings at Sura subtly encourage clients to engage and share their enthusiasms. Rohit genuinely takes customer feedback seriously, using it to finesse his selections. An ultra-specialist range in an independent wine shop, that doesn't hint at its niche until it's too late and you have been coaxed by a supercilious individual to part with £50 to buy a bottle of wine (from a sub-region and indigenous grape you've never heard of) may be a tad overwhelming. Equally a massive selection may leave us dizzy for choice and leaving empty handed or panic buying the first bottle that we can vaguely identify with. Many of us mere mortals, on occasion, might just want to grab a bottle of wine on the way home from work to self-indulge – rather than to purely self-medicate – after the kids have gone to bed (or possibly before).
Contrast young, energetic Sura with the equally innovative, but well-established Uncorked in the heart of the City of London. Yet there are parallels between the two experiences, namely marrying enthusiasm with a laid-back approach: in other words, acknowledging that wine tasting is personal yet hugely fun when done in a collaborative environment. With an emphasis on highly-regarded and up-and-coming Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone, Uncorked is a 'serious' wine shop. However, its approach is a good example of how traditional does not have to equal stuffy. And this is where Colin Wills, Uncorked's Wine Educator, comes in: his self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek manner hides a razor sharp memory and an encyclopaedic knowledge of many wine regions. It's easy to stick to what we know, or what we think we should be drinking, but Uncorked's plethora of informal and formal tastings are a great way to start learning about wine or focus in on areas of interest.
The holistic approach of independent wine shops, like Sura and Uncorked, are gradually encouraging us to explore our wonderful palates, giving us the confidence to look beyond whatever wines are on offer at supermarkets. Sante!
Charles Jenkins believes there's only one place to buy en primeur.
A couple of years ago I decided that I would like to start buying en primeur. I was at a bit of a loss as to which merchant to approach as I had already used a couple and found the experience ungratifying and a constant process of feeling guilty as I had to reject overtures for wine which was way out of my price bracket. As a result, I spoke to one of my colleagues and he told me that "there is only one place to buy your wine from: Uncorked". I wasn't entirely convinced but given the enthusiasm with which he spoke about Uncorked, I took up his offer of accompanying him to one of the free tastings they have every Friday so I could meet Jim, one of the members of the Uncorked team. I haven't looked back.
It is difficult to know where to start with Uncorked as their service and attention to detail in terms of your preferences is unassailable. They have a superb range of wine in stock at all times, with some old classics constantly available and other lines constantly changing so you are always introduced to new chateau of a similar level.
Their Friday tastings not only offer a theme each week (which is perfect if you are trying to conceptually understand a grape variety or area), but also arrange for the odd MW to be present or even the maker themselves. This is an exceptional offering and allows you a unique insight into the wines you are tasting, all free of charge.
The usual scramble during the Bordeaux en primeur period is also run exceptionally well. I know that, having mentioned my financial restrictions and general preferences, I will always be guided towards the best possible choices in terms of affordability and quality. Furthermore, I know that, as happened this year, if I decide to go out on a limb and look like I'm about to make a mistake, the team will ensure that I know what I'm buying and why, thus allowing me to make an informed decision. I have been collecting en primeur for about three years now and also have been lucky to take advantage of their "Unearthed" offerings, where customers look to sell some of their stock to finance future purchases.
Being a relative novice, I am always able to call up, speak to Zoe and ask her what she would buy. She hasn't let me down yet and has helped me to back-fill my cellar a little.
That brings me to the team in general. They are a fantastic bunch of people, always helpful, enjoyable to talk to, genuinely friendly and experts in their field. If I am ever asked by a youngster if I know of a good wine merchant, I will happy reply: "there is only one place to buy your wine from: Uncorked"
John Padrnos tells us, in no uncertain terms, whom we should be recommending.
I stumbled upon the competition you are sponsoring to identify the best independent wine shops in the U.K. and felt I had to write to you about Uncorked, whom I feel are easily the best independent shop in London.
I have some 400 cases of fine wine purchased from and stored through Uncorked. I can honestly say that in the 20 years I have patronised the store, Uncorked (mostly Jim Griffen, but also Andrew Rae, Zoe Ayling and Colin Wills) have never sold me a bad bottle and the only mediocre bottle I bought was at the behest of a friend who wanted a particular Australian Shiraz. The longevity of that team is a tremendous resource.
I am American and was transferred to London in July 1994 to be co-head of Legal in London. Coming from New York, I initially found the London wine trade to be rather closed and Francophilic until a colleague introduced me to Uncorked, then only recently opened, to find a bottle for Thanksgiving. Turned out to be Ridge Zinfandel, which was perfect with turkey. What caught my attention though was that Uncorked truly believed in selling only good wine, regardless of where it was produced, and didn't believe in selling overpriced but middling quality French wine. To begin with, I was a fairly small customer, but always felt well-treated and looked after. Probably didn't hurt that I had introduced the Chief Credit Officer, who was a big purchaser and also became a big supporter.
When Uncorked first started offering wine en primeur, I started buying. As I had further success with the business I started after leaving Bankers Trust in 1999, I bought more. By then Jim knew my tastes and together (I say together but it was really Jim) we set a strategy of (1) buying Bordeaux and Rhone, both red and white, focusing on those Chateau that were investing heavily in improving their offerings (Pontet Canet early) and likely to climb in the ratings, buy heavily in good years and enough in off years to stay on the ladders, (2) selectively other European wines, Italian (Mascarello Monprivato, other Barolo, Brunello), Spanish (Alion) and others, (3) Burgundy selectively, and top American (Harlan, Araujo, Freeman, Ridge, Shafer). This was expertise, applied graciously over time that I appreciate immensely. And I now have bottles up and down the price scale appropriate for any occasions that I can share with friends or use in business, It doesn't hurt that I get credit for Uncorked's thoughtful selections.
But more than that, the Uncorked team are patient and helpful with all their customers. The shop is always warming, whether it's a tasting (barrel samples, tutored or Friday informal), helping with an impulse purchase or paying studious attention to en primeur strategy.
I have recommended Uncorked often and wholeheartedly to friends, colleagues and strangers - and will continue to do so.
I am tempted to add 'You should too', but know that would be obnoxious.
TCS gets out of his comfort zone to speak up for the people who have made a difference.
To echo a couple of already voiced sentiments - firstly I wouldn't ordinarily be drawn into entering competitions (unlike my 7 year old son!) but I felt compelled to speak up for one particular merchant. Secondly, I also see that the merchant in question has already one published supporter so I am not as original as I thought. In any event, I would highlight Uncorked in the City of London who have supported and informed my wine buying since the very early days and I can only thank Jim, Andrew, Colin, Zoe and the team for all I have learnt from them over the past 15 years or so.
Over those years they have guided and informed me all along my wine journey which started by trying to learn to appreciate more easily accessible and comprehensible wines and has now taken me to the traditional production hubs and beyond. They always offered support and suggestions to sure up the foundations of my (still limited) knowledge and to expand my horizons and always in a genuine, down to earth and unstuffy way and an understanding of budgetary constraints. Along the way, we have had many laughs (and shared disappointments at the performances of Liverpool and the England cricket team) and many tastings where I have met and learnt from both experienced winemakers and from Colin's knowledge and enthusiasm.
While I love the range they supply and the care and love that goes into selecting the range of wines (while still looking to be as competitive as ever on price) and the fact that you can always go in and talk to them and pick up something interesting for that night, the weekend or to cellar - what really makes them unique in my experience is their customer service. They took the time to learn about me and my likes and dislikes and then make great recommendations to expand my horizons and encourage me to try new things (and then they always listened to the responses which is not a given). Also one thing I have always appreciated is that the level of service and attention has always been consistent from the time I was a complete wine novice purchasing bottle by bottle at the entry level to the point at which I now buy case by case.
I guess if I were to sum it up in one concept it would be that old-fashioned phrase: 'their integrity'.