Whining about London Wine Shops

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

13 Comments

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

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
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

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.

Caitlin Ferguson
Caitlin Ferguson

June 16, 2014

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.

J E Rogers
J E Rogers

June 16, 2014

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.

Dr. Vino
Dr. Vino

June 16, 2014

Thanks for the hat tip, Steve! Very nice map and commentary.
-Tyler

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Thanks, Robert. It’s great to get some comments from a big shot in the biz! I would imagine it being unbelievably difficult to put together a buying for the UK as it’s hard enough just using winesearcher.com to track down anything here.

Interesting to hear about Lavinia bypassing London. I’ve often though: wow, what a great opportunity there is for someone to open up such a shop here and really clean up! Now I’m not so sure that there’s a demand. It does seem to be a rather complacent market overall. I imagine that most people just assume that the UK’s an excellent place to buy wine – I probably would have if I hadn’t experienced better. That said, there still are some good shops in London and I’ll be sure to check out Bedales.

Robert Joseph
Robert Joseph

June 16, 2014

Having, for several years written a book called the Good Wine Guide which focused its efforts on recommending good wines and places to buy them in the UK, I couldn’t agree with you more. London is a rotten place for a wine lover. But you may need to ask whether the blame lies with the supermarkets or with their customers: often well-heeled Brits who resent paying over £5-7 for a bottle and care little about where it was made. The Laithwaites shop you mention is a great innovation, but it is part of a giant mail order company that supplies vast amounts of wine to customers who are, for the most part, no more interested in what they get than their counterparts in Tesco or Sainsbury. It is worth noting that the owner of Lavinia has looked long and hard at London – and decided to open his next store in Moscow!
You could make similar points about the quality – or lack thereof – of many UK wine lists. I had an eye-opening time judging the London Wine List of the Year and its Australian equivalent which included restaurants and bars across that country. In simple terms, people living in Sydney and Melbourne stand a better chance of getting an interesting wine from Burgundy or Tuscany than Londoners who hang out in some of the UK capital’s smarter restaurants. (Have you noticed how rarely wine is mentioned specifically by restaurant reviewers, by the way?)
However, there are – as your map shows – exceptions to the rule. One I’d definitely add is a young, eccentric shop called Bedales in Borough Market.

Steve De Long
Steve De Long

June 16, 2014

Thanks Eric,

We’re planning a visit to the Lake District and will have to check out the “ultrahip wine world”

Eric S. Crane
Eric S. Crane

June 16, 2014

this was taken from Winespectator’s unfiltered…

As Celtic dance phenomenon Riverdance stomps on, one of the former members is happy to be residing in the “Where are they now?” file. Ex-drummer and Emerald Isle native Kevin Sharkey has gladly replaced his sticks with stems—he is now running British all-organic wine shop Organico, which opened earlier this month in northwestern England’s Lake District. Sharkey, who fell in love with wine while on tour in France, was ready for a change from the gruelling repetition of tour schedules. “After the show, you sit around with the group, and I had this feeling, that two years down the line, we would still be talking about the same [expletive deleted],” he explains. Sharkey, whose shop has 100 or so mostly Italian offerings, says he has no regrets about his change of career from the dull music scene to the ultrahip wine world. “Eight years ago, [rock band] Snow Patrol asked me to be their drummer,” Sharkey said, “but their music was just way too boring.”

Caitlin Ferguson
Caitlin Ferguson

June 16, 2014

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.

Wine Shops
Wine Shops

June 16, 2014

[…] Whining about London Wine Shops | De Long Wine Moment […]

Plamen
Plamen

June 16, 2014

Hi Steve,

I couldn’t agree more with your observation about wine in London and in the whole of UK for that matter. We haven’t given up though. The independent wine shops are on increase. And hopefully your map will its little bit to make these 70% go down to more acceptible 40-50%.

Why don’t you come and visit the wineshop I work for, “Wine of Course”, 216 Archway Rd, N6 5AX ( www.wineofcourse.com )? I don’t know if it’s on your map because for some reason the file won’t load for me but I’ll try again tomorrow at work.

Regards
Plamen

Henry
Henry

June 16, 2014

A great map,showing som enew places I hadnt heard of. There are some interesting shops around London but you do have to search them out. One I realy recomend you try is the Wine Library near Tower Hill, you dont have to buy by the case and you can try a bottle at shop price plus corkage over a lunch of pates, French cheeses, salad and cofee. Its also open most early evenings.A complete independent selection with really knowlegble staff and a wide range of old & new world wines not just designer names but some unusual ones too.
Regards Henry

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