Wine is a topic of conversation that instills silent dread into the unqualified.
No question creates such havoc from diners at the table than: “Who would like to try the wine?” In a frantic game of not-it, the loser is the poor volunteer who declares (with faux authority) that what’s in the bottle is indeed wine and not vinegar.
This is far from the only concern. From fierce pub traditionalists audibly tutting at those who request a wine list to those who panic-choose the second least expensive bottle on the menu, the on-trade have mulled over how best to engage with a perpetually nervous audience.
However, last month The Old Coastguard in Cornwall marked the changing tides when it was awarded Imbibe’s Wine List of the Year 2015, the first pub in the competition’s history to receive the award.
Its standout element is the unique, descriptive way wines are categorised on the menu – headings from ‘More Bounce for the Ounce’ to ‘The Tip of the Tongue’ – and it isn’t alone in its pursuit of a larger fan base through well-humoured practical advice.
Noble Rot Wine Bar, from the dynamic duo behind the magazine of the same name, has opened to great fanfare despite Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew having no prior experience of running their own establishment. Standing in the middle of Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, London, it is perhaps the best example of how new approaches to wine are benefitting the industry.
“Wine can get boring and technical quite quickly, which is fine if you want to study to be a Master of Wine but we want to bring a bit more of joie de vivre and bring some stories into it. It's not just about how much residual sugar a wine has got or how long it has spent in oak, it's like whose the mad f***** whose made it and what does he think about life?” Dan explains.
These self-confessed nerds represent a new breed of aficionados transforming the wine world from the sole arena of middle-aged men with big red noses towards an unpretentious approach to a really good product. They’re ambitious and excited, keen to spread the word that good wine can be enjoyed without being an expert.
Feel inspired? Five ways to shake up your wine list in Noble Rot fashion:
- Accessible price point by the glass
Tapping into people’s natural curiosity is one of craft beer’s greatest successes, it’s time wine caught up. Selling by the glass offers casual drinkers the chance to try quality wine in smaller volume – offer ‘taster’ servings of 125ml to encourage people to explore the menu.
- Condense the list
If you’d never read a book, War & Peace would look a pretty terrifying prospect. Chuck out the hefty literature and stick to a concise, smaller wine list. It challenges operators to think carefully about their offering, while making wine selection less arduous for consumers.
- Less list-y
Menu layout is all-important in keeping the attention of the reader. Long, reeling lists of bottles might look impressive but they quickly merge into an amorphous blob. Get round this by considering easy to understand categories, layout and font.
- Quirky captions
Wine is an exciting topic full of interest and character so why should the list be anything else? A little personality goes a long way – for too long wine has carried a reputation of being humourless and stuffy. If you’ve got a good product, shout about it.
- Tasting notes
“Ah yes, I’m getting hints of freshly mown grass, a box of kittens and parma violets.” Wine buffs might be able to smell and taste anything in the glass…but for those of us a little lower down the crazy scale, helpful hints about food pairings and basic flavour profiles can be a great help. A good list should reassure and guide the reader.
“We relate to wine in the same way you'd talk about football down the pub or how you'd talk about films or albums. You wouldn't just sit there pretentious about it, just engage with it: it's about how it makes you feel.”
“Noble Rot is this ethos that can go across the magazine to the wine boxes we've just started to do retail to a wine bar/restaurant. We always come back to this line that sounds a bit cheesey but we want it to be lighthearted without being lightweight, in terms of the educational side of it still being important and interesting.”
But how do two wine writers end up opening their own bar?
“It’s to do with obsession, really,” Dan admits. “We wanted a place where everyone can come engage with us and the whole team to talk about food and wine. It's exciting because we just want more people to get involved.”
After a year of preparing a business model and an extensive property hunt, the pair said their venue was just a classic example of right place, right time.
The prominence of a less fuddy duddy approach to wine is slowly pervading throughout operators, who see the root of wine’s accessibility problems being a belief that quality comes at a price. Dan and Mark’s readership, those who they hope will fill their wine bar daily, is a younger, ‘cooler’ audience generating a desire for exciting wine that fits into the £10-15 price bracket. Burgundy wines, for example, are revered by wine lovers but are equally renowned for their high price point.
“We are quite Burgundy-centric but equally we're excited by Greek Assyrtiko wines which for the money are so refreshing and really punch above their weight. Tenerife or Corsica, like a lot of smaller islands around the world, are making great wines so it's important that we aren't close minded. There's no area that we just say, oh we don't like that, because there's always going to be two or three great producers in every region,” Dan says.
With this in mind, compiling a wine list that balances value with quality was a particular challenge for the pair.
“Putting together a wine list, we've got two broad brushstrokes: at the bottom end we've got wines that really over deliver for their price point, which is the hardest thing to do, finding a good house wine. We went through 20-30 wines to start off with so it’s a laborious process.”
“Then we had to create our by the glass list, which is also difficult because we want people who have a casual enjoyment of wine to come and drink well.”
For their soft launch, 125ml glasses ranged from as little as £2 for Antech, Cremant de Limoux, 2013 Languedoc sparkling wine to £5 for a JM Bouley, Volnay, 2010 Burgundy – such a low price point is a deliberate act to encourage freedom of choice and experimentation. It is perhaps here where wine is learning from the continued march of the Craft Beer Revolution.
“We don't want to change the world and get everyone into these small artisan domains because there's just not enough to go around…then we won't have enough to drink!
“But for the people who do want to think about food and wine that bit more, this is how we need to engage with them.”
Illustration (top) by David Biskup