Raise a glass to the return of the wine bar
Thanks to hipsters who know their grapes and state-of-the-art dispensers, wine bars are making a comeback, says Bethan Ryder
The wine bar is back, and for once it’s not as part of some dodgy Eighties revival. Thanks to innovations in technology, it has never been easier to try fine wines by the glass, in hipster surroundings – and without needing loadsamoney to do so.
Back when stilettos and shoulder pads were as big as Lady Di, wine bars were the acme of metropolitan style and sophistication, a sexy antidote to the beery, maledominated pubs, and somewhere power-dressing professional women could have fun, flirt and play out their Working Girl fantasies.
Then, as now, London is awash with them (about which, more later). But they’re springing up across the UK, from Divino Enoteca in Edinburgh and Salut in Manchester to Rafferty’s Café and Wine Bar in Padstow. Britain is truly in the midst of a new wine bar revolution.
The world of wine has been opened up immeasurably by sophisticated storage and pouring systems, which have changed the way we drink from by-the-bottle to by-the-glass.
“New drink sampling machines [which release a precise measure of wine, then pump inert gas into the bottle to preserve the remainder] have helped reinvigorate the wine bar by allowing dozens of wines to be offered by the glass in perfect condition at perfect temperature,” explains Simon Difford, editor of drinks industry bible Difford’s Guide. “The bars of old tried to offer such a selection, but with many pre-opened bottles that were, inevitably, oxidised.”
It’s not just about the tools of the trade, though: this renewed wine appreciation goes hand-in-hand with the restaurant industry and our fetishistic obsession with craft provenance and artisanship.
In short, wine has been hipsterfied. “Wine was never that cool,” says Ben Mccormack, editor of Square Meal, “but lots of independent wine bars in east London have changed that. They’re not about a scary sommelier with grapes on his lapel; staff are young and knowledgeable. Ordering by the glass means customers can be more adventurous. Trying a riesling or an Austrian Gruner Veltliner doesn’t mean investing in a whole bottle.”
This demystified, democratic approach was certainly what drove ex-stewardess Sara Saunby and her pilot husband to set up Salut in Manchester in 2014. “We travelled a lot and tried wines all over the world, but wanted to open somewhere without the snobbery, that ‘old boy’s club’ nature of wine. Now customers don’t even have to try to pronounce gewürztraminer – they can just serve themselves from the dispensers.”
Like other new-wave wine bars, Salut is also a wine merchant, so their list of 50 wines rises to 400 if you include the bottles for sale in the shop, which can also be drunk on the premises for a £7 corkage fee.
Saunby has discovered a real thirst for fine wines in Manchester. “There’ve been queues round the block. We had a Château Lafite Rothschild 1990, which was emptied in 20 minutes flat. It was the same with Château Latour, which we sold for £45 per 50ml measure.”
Saunby also fits the profile of these new wine bar operators: they’re independent entrepreneurs with a cause. Enthusiasts like Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, whose wine magazine Noble Rot became a wine bar and restaurant on Lamb’s Conduit Street in central London, are keen to share their passion rather than make a fast profit.
Michael Sager is a key pioneer of the wine bar renaissance. In 2013, he gave the Sager + Wilde wine pop-up (which he started with his now exwife, Charlotte) a permanent home in the premises of the British Lion pub in east London. It’s become a favourite among oenophiles and fellow drinkindustry professionals. “I realised that five of the world’s best bars were in east London, it was a hub of good drinking, but instead of cocktails and craft beers, we wanted to offer good, affordable wines by the glass.
“We choose not to make a higher margin on those wines above £65 on our list. We can do it because we don’t have investors and our rent is cheap because we are in a marginally underdeveloped area.”
Sager also credits the changing profile of wine fairs, such as Raw (rawwine.com), the Real Wine Fair (therealwinefair.com) and London Wine Week (drinkup.london/ wineweek), for introducing wine to this new audience, too.
“Seven years ago, they were very dull and stuffy,” he says, “full of people in pink shirts, bad suits and pointy shoes. But nowadays they’re attracting the organic food-buying, gluten-free foodie crowd – the hipsters who can’t afford to buy a house so they’ll spend on eating and drinking.” Sager + Wilde appeals to this demographic by Instagramming its daily wines, but it takes a more traditional, by-the-bottle approach, rather than the hi-tech route: “Because if you can’t sell a bottle of wine in a day, then you’re not doing your job,” Sager jokes.
La Clarette, London’s newest wine bar on the block, is also in an old (Tudorbethan) pub, but its interior has been given a Soho House-style interior makeover; its pedigree is haute French. Co-founder Alexandra Petit-mentzelopoulos hails from the family that produces the Premier Cru classe Château Margaux. So you can try a glass of Margaux ’99 for £100, but you can also sip a Nero d’avola for £4.50.
It also seems that the UK is a step ahead of our great wine-producing neighbours in this respect, the Brits always keen to embrace new ways of drinking. Even Frenchman and former sommelier Xavier Rousset agrees. He helped drive the wine bar renaissance by opening 28:50, a “wine workshop and kitchen” in Marylebone, which he sold. He now owns three wine-focused venues.
“You need to be gentle on your profit margin in order to be able to offer £9 glasses of fine wines, but people are really willing to take a gamble. I think France is behind on that, London is much more dynamic and progressive in that respect.”
We’ll raise a glass to that.
Nineties heroine Bridget Jones was a typical habituée of wine bars