Whining about London Wine Shops

Posted by Steve De Long on

Berry Brothers and Rudd This article accompanies the newly released Map of London Wine Shops Things aren't always what you expect. Moving to London last fall, I fully expected to be immersed in a vast wine playground.* After all, this is the home of the Masters of Wine, the world’s oldest wine shops and is the only city to sport its own Vinopolis. So why isn't this the ideal place for a wine geek? A good place to start is Vinopolis, “London’s leading wine tasting based visitor attraction and corporate event venue.” It's a fine place to visit if you're new to wine but why would such a place be built when there isn't a single large wine shop like a Lavinia (Paris, Barcelona and Madrid), Astor Place (New York), Sam's (Chicago) or K&L (San Francisco)? I don't know about you but I could spend far more time (and money!) in one of these vast shops. Why go for the sizzle when you can get the steak? So why isn't there a single large wine store? I spoke with Master of Wine James Handford at his South Kensington shop. He explained that there isn't demand for such a thing since the market is almost entirely at the very high end (collectors) and the the very low end (guzzlers). He also believes that Americans overall are much more experimental in their wine buying than the Brits; much more willing to try a lesser known wine for $20 to $30 a bottle. I swear he wasn't trying to sell me more wine! I would have to agree with him. 70% of all wine is purchased in supermarkets. Add the big chains like Oddbins and Threshers/Wine Rack to the mix and you don't have much left for the independent shops. It's a big shock coming from New York City where everything is sold in an independent shop. But what's wrong with supermarket wine retailing? As far as I'm concerned, they're sapping the soul out of wine. At least in the UK. Take a look at the practice of store brands such as Tesco Chablis or Sainsbury's Côtes du Rhône. I can't see anything less appealing than generic wine and I don't care if a Master of Wine consulted on its production. This perverts the whole idea that wine can be crafted by a winemaker and doesn't have to cost a fortune. Industrial wine has its purpose and one of my earliest favorites was Bolla Soave but at least that wine was distinguishable from other lesser industrial Soaves such as Folonari. But supermarket branded wine? Commodified generic wine? Yuck! London Wine MapIt's also difficult to find single bottles of many wines. Sure, virtually everything is available by a case here online, but I'm not willing to buy a case just to try something! Luckily there are some excellent smaller shops in town. I consider the best small shops much like a good editor, they make sure that only the best gets through. Some of these shops would even compare favorably with my all-time favorite, Chambers Street Wines (NYC). To see my faves and virtually every other independent wine shops in London, please take a look at my newly released Wine Shops of London. It was inspired by Dr. Vino's excellent maps of New York City and Chicago. *I also expected most Londoners to have brown teeth and ivory skin but the opposite is actually true. Londoners who aren’t born with brown skin obviously spend their leisure time getting a fake tan in one of the million fake tan parlors. Next to these are the teeth whitening shops that apparently all citizens frequent. I have to say that I feel much more “authentic” with my pallid completion and baked-bean teeth. Resources on the London Wine Scene: Jancis Robinson's London for Wine Lovers Jamie Goode's Touring London Wine Shops

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  • Hi Caitlin,
    Thanks for the note. I have Vinoteca already listed on the map as one of my faves! I’ll ask for you next time we’re in. I’ll add the Laithwaites Wine Tasting Table to the map and will make a point to visit there as well. Sounds like an excellent concept.

    Steve De Long on
  • Thanks for the comments, J E – One interesting thing is that the Masters of Wine started out as a merchant group as opposed to a sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers) or an educational group (Society of Wine Educators) and it does seem like the UK wine industry works in favor of itself at the expense of the consumer. At least this consumer! There are some good exceptions (see the map) but overall the level of quality and interest for a wine enthusiast is suprisingly dim.

    Steve De Long on
  • Hello there,
    I have just arrived in London from Canada, I am working in a wine shop and at a wine bar, so it has been been very interesting to see how it all works here. I agree that this buying by the case culture is very bizarre to me. The shop where I am working may be of interest to you. It is called the Laithwaites Wine Tasting Table at 149 Fenchurch Street, it has just opened a few months ago and basically it is a display room for a mail order service, but the best part is that you can taste almost anything before ordering it. So, you come into the shop and taste what you have asked us to get it to try and if you like you can order one bottle or 10 cases. It is a very different concept, but a good one. We have lots of great wine that you wouldn’t expect to be part of Laithwaites. Also, you may like the wine bar that I am working at as well, Vinoteca 7 St.John Street, amazing wine list for on or off trade and great food can’t go wrong really.

    Caitlin Ferguson on
  • In my opinion you nailed the essence of the Brits relationship to wine.

    They want - cheap. And the MWs pervert their knowledge of quality, to — fit in, using their prestige to shill a lot of crummy wine. That in fact is what VINOPOLIS is all about. The wineries that are present there have bought their presence, whatever there questionable quality.

    J E Rogers on
  • Thanks for the hat tip, Steve! Very nice map and commentary.

    Dr. Vino on

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