A former BP strategist, Kathryn O'Mara is now lubricating throats instead of machinery. And at her new wine bar in Battersea, south London, it's a natural process. Fiona Sims reports
First there was Green & Blue under Kate Thal now it's Artisan & Vine from Kathryn O'Mara. Clapham locals are lucky to have some extremely good wines selected for them in new bars where they can either drink in or take away.
You have to hand it to O'Mara: she is pushing some particularly quirky wines at Artisan & Vine, billed as London's first natural wine bar and shop.
Natural wine means minimal intervention. A natural winemaker produces wine in small quantities, on low-yielding vineyards, from organic grapes. He's most often French, but there are an increasing number of Italian natural winemakers. The wine is then made without added sugars or foreign yeasts, and often without adding any sulphur dioxide, either. And you can forget filtering. It's a risky business, and flies in the face of modern-day viticulture.
Sulphur dioxide is used by most winemakers as a preservative and a disinfectant. It's often added to freshly picked grapes and during the winemaking process to kill off any bacteria or wild yeasts. The disadvantage is that it can sometimes smell of burnt matches, and it is blamed for causing many a hangover headache, and even asthma attacks - though the scientific evidence to support this is flimsy.
An extreme natural winemaker makes wine without adding any sulphur dioxide at all, and O'Mara lists 10 such wines on her 120-bin list. The rest are natural in the looser sense - the term is ill-defined, but O'Mara promises minimal sulphur in most - organic and biodynamic, and rising in price to £87.70 for a 1997 Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi Riserva Vigna dell Oche, San Lorenzo.
There are some English wines, starting at £15 in the bar for 2006 Brightwell Vineyards Bacchus. Yes, the inclusion of sulphur dioxide-loaded English wines on the list might seem rather incongruous, but O'Mara justifies this on the ground that they are made locally. "All of our English wines are made within two hours' drive of Battersea," she says.
For O'Mara, formerly a corporate strategist for BP, this is her first venture into the hospitality business, and she admits to taking pointers from Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Open since August, the business is picking up every week as O'Mara spreads her message - a rather hard sell, as you can imagine.
Some of the wines can be a challenge, although O'Mara has focused on the more approachable examples: those that aren't overly stinky nor fizzing wildly, a result of carbonic maceration or the wild yeast trying to referment in the bottle.
She says: "I only discovered natural wines fairly recently, though I've always been passionate about wine, and I had already been thinking about opening a wine bar."
It was after attending a biodynamic wine-tasting a year ago at nearby Green & Blue, owned by fellow wine bar-cum-shop operator Thal, that the penny dropped for O'Mara. "Those wines were so amazing. I just kept on tasting them - and kept not getting any hangovers," she says.
She uses three suppliers, Les Caves de Pyrène, Dynamic Vines and Videvin.
O'Mara discovered only recently that Paris is already awash with natural wine bars - there are more enthusiasts in Paris than anywhere else in the world, and more places to drink their favourite wines. The Japanese, apparently, are also obsessed with natural wine.
We probably have a few natural wines on UK wine lists, too, though the sommelier may not know it. The term is never used as a marketing tool, and is never mentioned on the label except to say that it contains no sulphites. And there's no official movement, just a loose association of growers who show their wines at regular gatherings.
No, these wines have to be sold - and sold hard. At least O'Mara is offering modest mark-ups - about 60% in the bar and 27% in the shop. It surely doesn't help that some of her customers are large groups of male twentysomethings in search of bottled beer, not noticing that the venue has changed from its former incarnation as a Mexican cantina. "But," O'Mara says, "I'm managing to get them hooked. They love our wine flights."
In addition to the flights - a range of tasting glasses bought as a package, and generally on a theme - there are regular in-house tastings from visiting winemakers and cheesemakers, priced at £20 per person, and O'Mara also runs vineyard visits. There's only a basic menu at Artisan & Vine, offering mostly meat and cheese platters.
What's on the list
- Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Jacques Lassaigne, France, £55
- 2006 Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California, USA, £27.80
- 2002 Sauvignon Blanc, Dario Princic, Friuli, Italy, £47.60
- 2006 Arcese, Vittorio Bera, Canelli, Piedmont, Italy, £21.90
- 2006 Fleur de Lotus, Domaine Josmeyer, Alsace, France, £32
- 2006 Ortega, Biddenden Vineyards, Kent, England, £17.10
- 2005 Kharakter Chenin Blanc, Domaine Le Briseau, Marcon, France, £30.60
- 2007 C'est le Printemps, Crozes Hermitage, Dard & Ribo, France, £31.90
- 2005 Nero di Lupo, Cos, Sicily, Italy, £31.40
- 2007 Carino, Mas des Agrunelles, Argelliers, France, £19.80
- 2006 Bloodstone Shiraz, Gemtree Vineyards, McLaren Vale, Australia, £22.10
126 St John's Hill, London SW11 1SL. Tel: 020 7228 4997. www.artisanandvine.com