Wine was an “absolutely amateur” passion for Andrew Fishwick before he took on north-west London pub the Truscott Arms with his wife and business partner Mary Jane three years ago.
Today though, it’s a very different story. Being able to offer customers a wide variety of high-quality wines has been integral to his business’s considerable success.
Fishwick’s pub has cemented its place as one of the top food pubs in the country thanks to the work of head chef Aidan McGee, who previously worked at Heston Blumenthal’s exclusive London eatery Dinner at the Mandarin Hotel. But it’s not just the food that has won the Truscott critical acclaim.
The Maida Vale pub won the coveted Wine List of the Year title at 2016’s Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs (as well as coming 47th overall) thanks to Fishwick and the team’s dedication to the drink. The Truscott Arms offers somewhere in the region of 250 different wine varieties and staff are trained not just to up-sell but to talk passionately about them.
The wine world has a reputation for density; to the uninitiated, tasting notes and food pairings are often derided as the domain of the elitist or worse, the petit bourgeoisie.
But Fishwick is adamant this is not the case. In his eyes, it is possible — and should be desirable for any type of operator — to create a wine offer that complements their business, regardless of their customers’ demographic or place on the price spectrum.
“The best place to start is to make sure that the wine offer matches the food offer,” he explains. “Traditionally, wine is always seen as some-thing you drink with food — which is more or less true, depending on where you are and what your offer is.”
If wine is genuinely not your subject, he says: “Suppliers can actually be brilliant in helping to pair wines with dishes if you want to go down that route, or just in suggesting a nice, small-ish spread of core wines.
“Ask the experts,” he laughs. “Like anything in life, I always say I know absolutely nothing but I know people who know stuff.”
For operators who really want to go the extra mile, Fishwick recommends taking Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses to bolster their knowledge.
Fishwick himself has gained a level three WSET qualification and the Truscott Arms runs WSET tutoring sessions upstairs for consumers and the on-trade, with acclaimed wine trainer Raul Diaz.
When putting together a wine list for a pub — even a high-end food pub like the Truscott Arms — there are different issues to be taken into consideration when compared with compiling a wine list for restaurants, bars or other on-trade formats.
“You don’t want to have masses of holding stock and you don’t want to be keeping thousands of bottles down in your cellar,” he explains, adding that, while enthusiastic operators may be eager to horde the finest wines available and play up their credentials on the wine list, accessibility is key to strong sales.
“I try to keep the little descriptions as short and as accessible and interesting as possible,” he says. “I’ve tried to keep away from any serious wine geekiness, although I may err slightly towards that on some of the slightly more expensive stuff.
“With a wine list the size of ours —which has around 250 wines on it and 60 to 70 being served by the glass at any one time — some will be always on and some of it is stuff I’ve only got one bottle of.”
One way of doing it, he says, is to come up with “pithy little straplines” to give people an idea of, for instance, what a Romanian Pinot Noir might taste like. Fishwick writes all the straplines himself.
“It’s a good route in for people that either do not know anything about wine or that do know a little bit but aren’t necessarily confident jumping around the list.”
Interestingly enough, Fishwick says: “We’ve been open three years now and, as time has gone by, we have sold less and less house wine.”
The average spend on wine has risen from roughly £20 to north of £40 despite Fishwick not having made the list any more expensive, he says.
“I think with wine — especially with regular guests — you have to gain people’s confidence. They have to know you’re not ripping them off and that takes time. It takes your staff being able to gain their confidence.”
In fact, many guests now visit the Truscott Arms and are happy to be suggested wine by the staff.
“They don’t feel they’re going to be sold a £500 bottle they don’t want or some weird bottle that I’ve found and want to get rid of,” Fishwick grins. “There’ll be no orange wine here.”
This is where staff training comes into play, arguably the most important element in keeping customers engaged and interested in a venue’s wine offer, according to Fishwick.
Developing staff that are genuinely excited about wine and can talk enthusiastically about their own preferences to guests is one of the initiatives he has been most proud of.
“There’s no point having the most wonderful wine list if your staff can’t sell it and don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t all need to be high-end sommeliers but they do need a working knowledge and they need to have confidence,” he says.
Staff who more regularly work in the pub’s upstairs dining room are given a higher level of wine training, but only by a marginal amount.
Fishwick says: “The guys in the bar also have a really general knowledge and what I encourage them to do is find those one or two wines on our list that they love and that they can talk passionately about because nothing sells it better than that.”
So far, Fishwick has put 12 members of staff through formal WSET courses at various levels and has paid for the training of those who have shown a particular pas-sion for it.
“We’ve had members of staff who have come from not knowing the difference between a red and a white to doing their WSET level two and growing a real passion.”
Having been in business for a substantial amount of time now, the Truscott Arms has amassed a loyal following of regulars.
“Increasingly with our regular guests, our staff know what they like, so André — our restaurant manager — will look at the bookings and knows that for instance, the last time a customer came in they drank a certain Pinot Noir,” says Fishwick.
“But André might just have found a new Pinot Noir that’s gone onto the list. He’ll open it so they can try it and by then they’ve already bought it without even knowing, because they feel special as a customer. It’s a way of engaging.”
He adds: “I’ll quite often arrange for the staff to open two or three bottles and give them around the room to regular guests to let them try them and see that they think. We encourage that a lot.”
So with as diverse a selection of wines as the Truscott Arms offers, how does Fishwick deal with price mark-ups? He recalls a recent visit by restaurant critic Andy Hayler.
“There are certain wines on our list — as Mr Hayler pointed out on Twitter — that you couldn’t buy at retail for the price the Truscott Arms sells them on the wine list.
“We were doing a Leoville-Barton by the glass and it was £90 for a bottle — he said he couldn’t find it anywhere for £90 a bottle.
“So that’s what we try and do. I’ll reduce the mark up on interesting wines that I want people to try like the Barton, or something odd like a Bulgarian Enira Reserva. But, there are also certain wines that have a 70% GP because people are going to buy them regardless of what I charge, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.”