North London’s Red Lion & Sun owner tells Miranda Fitzgerald why publicans needn’t be scared of wine
When New Zealander Heath Ball took over the Red Lion & Sun in Highgate, it was, in his own words, a ‘shit old man’s pub’, full of faux period features and poor-quality wine. However, he’s transformed the once-ailing boozer over the last decade, upping wet sales from wine from 25% to 60% – an impressive percentage even by restaurant standards.
Being based in one of London’s most affluent suburbs, in a locale reviewers unfailingly describe as a ‘leafy village’, obviously helps, but Ball also has strong ideas about what he’s doing with his wine list.
‘It’s not leather bound or page-after-page long, but a two-sided A4 that’s constantly changing and evolving,’ he says. ‘There are the obvious crowd pleasers, but interesting stuff too.’
He believes drinkers are growing more confident about trying different wines, but is disparaging of other pub’s efforts to keep up.
‘Publicans are scared of wine,’ he says. ‘You walk into a pub and their wine lists are horrible. It’s bulk wines – four white, four red, and there’ll be a Pinot Grigio, maybe a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc if you’re lucky, then a Merlot from somewhere, probably a Pinot Noir from Chile.
‘It’s just not stuff you want to drink, and that’s why people who like wine gravitate to places like this.’
The wines that are interesting Ball at the moment tend to be from small family- or estate-owned vineyards. He says biodynamic is popular with his customers. Despite finding it ‘a bit airy fairy’, he believes there’s often a greater focus on quality with low-yield, low-intervention production.
‘Our grower champagne is always popular,’ he tells Imbibe, ‘but I’m fucking bored of prosecco and I want to start doing more cava. In fact, we have a beautiful, organic rosé cava from Llopart that’s doing really well. My wine list is very much on that side of things – it’s not bulk wine, just small producers, who’re not doing millions of bottles a year.’
In the name of quality, Ball has invested in an Enomatic wine fridge, which allows him to offer more expensive wines by the glass. ‘It means I can give them stuff they wouldn’t normally try, especially in a pub setting,’ he explains.
He’s careful not to make things feel too exclusive though, and tries to inject a bit of fun into proceedings to encourage drinkers to broaden their drinking repertoire. The pub ran a ‘Game of Rhônes’ promotion, which pitted wines from the north and south of the region against each other, and is currently doing ‘Hooked on Classics, volume one’, offering ‘some great Bordeaux’ with just a small cash mark-up.
‘Wine can be so stuffy, everyone loves telling you what they know about it, but sometimes the general public just wants a nice glass of wine, so I try and make it fun,’ says Ball. ‘I’ll put a £25 cash mark up on a bottle that maybe costs me £80 and I’ll just sell it. I won’t make a lot off it, but customers feel like they’re getting a real bargain and there’ll be more interaction.’
It’s no surprise that the Red Lion and Sun has become the insider’s go-to pub for fine wines, given that he often sells them for a snip of the price they go for in top restaurants.
Does it work? Hell yes. According to Ball, last December, the Red Lion and Sun sold more Craggy Range Le Sol than all the Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK.
‘I’ve seen wines like these in fine-dining restaurants and they go for three times the price,’ says Ball. ‘But since it’s my business, I don’t have to work on the same margins. I don’t rip people off, so they come in and have confidence in the list.’