Sommeliers, wine bars and wine stores are among those celebrating the news that the Government is set to legalise smaller measures from April 2010 and allow them more freedom with the size of their samplers and flights. Fiona Sims reports.
Dawn Davies has been punching the air a lot recently. The head sommelier and wine buyer of the Wonder Bar in London's Selfridges is jubilant at the news that the Government has finally come to its senses over wine measures. Yup, all those small measures being poured surreptitiously as samplers, flights and pairing tasting menus across the country will soon become legal.
The new legislation implementing the changes to the law governing specified quantities is expected to come into force in April 2010. Currently, wine may be served only in 125ml, 175ml, or multiples thereof, and anything below that is illegal - which means serving sips of wine, as Davies set out to do in her new bar, which promised to offer customers something new and exciting, was technically breaking the law.
And Trading Standards did indeed come knocking - warning of heavy fines unless Davies stopped her 25ml "sips". So the Sip campaign was born - driven by Davies and other like-minded businesses who wanted to see an end to the draconian ruling, which served to hold back customers' education into all things vinous and deny the industry a great selling tool.
"It means we can go back to giving customers what they want. We want people to taste and explore wine - that's what it's all about," grins Davies, who can't wait to introduce some new high-end lines through the smaller measures, opening up a whole new world for people who can't afford to buy a whole bottle. "We will do the big boys again - Lafite, Mouton, et al - I want to keep it exciting for people," she promises.
At the heart of her business is her wine "jukebox", holding 52 wines, made by the same Italian company which devised the Enomatic Wine System. A layer of nitrogen is squirted over each wine after use to prevent it from oxidising, protecting its aroma, flavour, body and colour - even rare, delicate wines can be opened and stored for up to three weeks without compromising on its quality, claims its inventor. Insert your Wonder Bar card, press a button and there it is - a glass of 1996 Château Pétrus at £32 for a 25ml glass, from next spring.
Thor Gudmundsson has similar ideas. The co-founder of the Kensington Wine Rooms - a restaurant, wine bar and shop in London's Notting Hill, is equally excited about the proposed changes to the law. Opened in April this year, the wine bar promises to take wine lovers "on a tasting adventure", thanks to five Enomatic fridges, storing more than 50 wines plucked from the 120-bin list compiled by sommelier Nobuko Okamura.
The machine is currently calibrated to pour 125ml and 175ml glasses - but will soon legally offer "little tasters" at 25ml, using the same technology as the Wonder Bar, with customers making each purchase using a winecard.
The wines range from £3.70 for a 125ml glass of 2008 Cedar Grove Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch, to £12.20 for a 125ml glass of 2007 Meursault Clos du Cromin, Patrick Javillier - and will include a "little taster" of first- growth Bordeaux, 1999 Château Margaux, at £12.73 come spring. New wines are introduced every fortnight and range from established classics to obscure grape varieties.
"You need to mix things up a bit - strike a balance between favourite labels that are in customers' comfort zones and wines that are a bit more daring," Gudmundsson says. "I have a Malbec Merlot blend from Bodegas Noemia in Patagonia at £8.55 for a 125ml glass that I was initially nervous about, but it has sold really well. In fact, the biggest surprise for us is that customers are avoiding our entry-level wines by the glass, so our range has shifted slightly to include more premium wines."
His average spend is now £7.50 a glass and 80% of his wine sales are from his machines, with dishes on the menu always paired with a wine to match. "It's a great way to introduce people to a diverse range of wines that they wouldn't normally order by the bottle. With this system you can show off your whole range - though don't be tempted to offer a huge list. Too much choice can be overwhelming," he warns.
"The key here is people helping themselves - they are much more adventurous than they would be faced with a big list. They're not worried about pronouncing something wrongly. I think people still find the whole notion of sommeliers threatening, even if the sommeliers themselves have changed their approach. People always feel they don't know much about wine and the machines are good in that sense," he continues.
The wine list itself has a basic description of each wine - just a sentence each - and Okamura is on hand to explain further if needed plus, more than half the staff are Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) educated, but most customers choose to push the button and let their palate do the exploring.
"But you don't have to have a fully trained sommelier to offer wine this way - just staff who have a basic knowledge of wine," assures Gudmundsson, who plans to open more. "We think it's a flexible concept - and the Enomatic system is an important part of the business. But you can adapt the range of wine according to the area you are located," he offers. That's assuming you have a spare £8,000 to buy one, of course.
Selfridges' Wonder Bar
It's clear that a wine preservation system will certainly make your life easier if you decide to go down this route. But if you don't want to fork out for fancy kit, then you can always date-stamp your bottles, making sure to keep them turning.
And there are other wine preservation systems around - from the hand-held Presorvac (at £260 ex-VAT) and the Wine Saver pro (at £550 ex-VAT), which uses argon, to an increasing line-up of high-spec machines from Cruvinet to Oz Bars - check them out at www.vintellect.co.uk. But by far the most popular is Le Verre de Vin - www.bermar.co.uk.
Le Verre de Vin's co-creator, David Marr, has been shouting about the merits of wines by the glass - and now flights - since he launched it in the mid-1990s. And the posturing has paid off - there are now 10,000 users in the UK, and a further 25,000 around the world, with 16 the average number of wines offered by a Le Verre de Vin user.
It works by sealing the bottle after creating a controlled vacuum, and prices start at £1,500. "We're dead excited about the changes to the legislation. I think it will unleash a new era of wine service - at the very least it's a great way for our existing customers to relaunch their wines by the glass service. The OnTrade, especially now, needs to offer something different to stand out and this is one way of doing it," says marketing manager Adam Button, who shows off their latest product, a new wines-by-the glass cabinet called the Quod Pod that holds 32 opened bottles in four different temperature settings.
There's nothing to stop you offering wine flights legally right now, of course. Pearl, in London's Holborn, has been offering wine flights ever since it opened. But instead of the more usual 50ml measures that you see in the USA, where wine flights are hugely popular and wine measures are not so restrictive, Pearl offers three 125ml glasses.
There are five different flights in all and each have a theme - from Sauvignon Blanc from around the world to different Champagnes, brought to the table in a silver carrier made to their own design in Greece.
Introduced by American sommelier Michael Davies, it has been continued by the present incumbent Frederic Tanoh, who believes customers respond well to the offering, particularly when they catch sight of the carriers being brought to the table. "It adds interest for customers and encourages wine sales in general. Though I do think the smaller measures could be interesting for us - I will be looking at it," promises Tanoh.
The wine bar at Fortnum's & Mason, 1707, has had even more success with its similarly sized wine flights. They account for five of their top 10 lines every week, reports trading director Simon Burdess. "A conservative estimate would be that we have poured more than 10,000 bottles of wine as flights since we opened," he says. 1707 currently has a whopping 800 wines on its list and 50 wines by the glass, sealed by a vacuum system, with an average spend of £20 on wine.
He puts their success down to the fact that each flight is paired with certain foods, put together by development chef Shaun Hill and wine buyer Tim French. "Plus, it allows us to educate our guests in some of the most widely debated wine topics of the day," Burdess says.
Each flight tells a story. "It can be about exploring an underrated wine region, or showing the impact of terroir on a particular grape variety," he explains. Examples include an Austrian red wine flight featuring Pinot Noir from different producers in Burgenland, or different Rieslings from Bruno Sorg.
Burdess, however, doesn't have plans to change the flight offering from three 125ml servings when the new legislation is introduced. "I just don't think you can really appreciate a wine with just a sip. I agree, it does allow customers to try very expensive wines that they might not normally be able to afford by the bottle, but many of our customers prefer to experiment the traditional way and take advantage of our £10 corkage policy and order by the bottle anyway," he says.
And wine flights are a step too far for some. "They are far too poncy for us," says Will Smith, co-owner of London's Arbutus and Wild Honey. He won't be taking full advantage of the change in the law next year - no, he's quite happy with his 250ml carafe system, which works well on his 60-bin list. "Though I will offer sweet wines as a 50ml taster as 125ml is often too much," concedes Smith. In fact, their carafes far outsell bottle and even by-the-glass sales, and customers can still experiment just as well with them, he reckons.
- For more information on the new guidelines, visit theNational Measurement Officeor contact your local Trading Standards office.