During my working wine life, I have been lucky enough to be involved in restaurants that put wine at the core of what they do. They tend to attract a minority among wine drinkers; ones with cellars (in the sense that they buy wine to lay down, rather than a grand underground vault) and often an extraordinary depth of knowledge considering it is not their full-time job.
They are a broad group, some wealthy enough to have eye-popping collections of Burgundy. Others have less means, but no less interesting collections of idiosyncratic bottles from around the world. They are for the most part fun, interesting people who are generous with their collections and far removed from the stereotypical image of a wine bore.
While they are diverse, they have long been united in their belief that restaurant margins for good wine, particularly London’s, were too high. I use the word ‘good’ rather than ‘fine’, as this group of people are not label hunters with bottomless pockets, drinking first growths or DRC every day at home. They drink the kind of wine many sommeliers do. If they pay £30 on a bottle for home consumption, they are not generally prepared to drink at the same quality in a restaurant, when seventy-something gross profit margin has been applied to it.
It’s easy for those on the outside to knock restaurants over wine margins, but the reality is more nuanced. The notion restaurants are ripping people off is not borne out by the evidence: it is tough to turn a decent profit even when working with industry-standard margins.
They’d conspiratorially share stories of restaurants – the unpromising bistro in rural France that’s sitting on a treasure trove of old Burgundy at below-market prices, or the wine bar in some obscure part of London serving old, impossible-to-source Australian gems.
Recently there has been a subtle change. I hear the ‘rip-off story’ less and less. There is an increasing range of mainstream restaurants in which this group are happy to drink their usual.
A customer came in the other day asking if I had been to Hide, Ollie Dabbous’ new establishment. The food was, of course, mentioned, but the fact you could order anything from Hedonism shop’s wine list and pay a £30 corkage fee had him particularly excited.
It is easy to get swept up in the extraordinary collection of the world’s finest and rarest at 67 Pall Mall, but the heart of the list is great value. The recently opened Oswald’s is another club with wine at its centre and further evidence that there is a niche in the market that was not previously being served.
Add establishments as diverse as Bonham’s and Noble Rot, and there’s no reason why you cannot drink well at a price that works for both wine lovers and restaurants.