The row over a wine tasting dispenser at Selfridges suggests that the law on alcohol measures is out of step with public opinion, as Fiona Sims discovers
It is not the reaction Caterer usually looks for. The day after our article on the Selfridges Wonder Bar (5 July, page 34) trading standards officers from Westminster City Council marched into the department store to rap its knuckles.
The bar, which opened at the Oxford Street store in May, featured a "wine jukebox" that gave customers the chance to choose from 52 fine wines in three measures: 25ml, 75ml and 125ml.
These "sips" ranged in price from 75p to £32, allowing the customer an opportunity to experiment with a huge selection of wines that they might have not come across before, or couldn't afford to try by the bottle.
But, as Selfridges were surprised to discover, the sips contravened the 1988 Weights and Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) Order. The law was amended in 1995 when buying wine by the glass became popular, but it stipulated that wine must be served only in 125ml and 175ml measures.
Ewan Venters, food and restaurants director at Selfridges, said: "We certainly didn't set out to break the law, but it seems regulation has not kept pace with technology or with what people wish to learn about wine by tasting small sips.
"We're now jumping through some crazy hoops so we can comply with the law and still let our customers enjoy tasting wines. It's time to bring this bit of legislation into the 21st century."
With the spate of tasting menus on offer, there must be dozens of operators already breaking the law. All those little sips poured to match each course are not going to be 125ml measures, and it would be irresponsible if they were, argues Dawn Davies, sommelier at Selfridges and one of the brains behind the Wonder Bar.
The law has prompted her, reluctantly, to reset the machines to provide only standard sizes. "They stop me from serving 25ml sips, but allow 250ml measures - that's half a bottle of wine in one glass, practically. Now that's insane," she said. "The law is actually encouraging the customer to drink more. That makes no sense."
Michael Davis, head sommelier and wine buyer at Pearl restaurant in Holborn, London, is another who has publicly come out against the law. Davis was forced to scrap plans to launch 100ml wine flights, which, he said, is encouraging customers to drink more and hitting sales, as many don't want to pay up to £25 for 125ml.
David Moore, proprietor of London's two-Michelin-starred Pied à Terre restaurant, agreed, calling on the Government to change the legislation. "This is one of those situations where common sense should prevail," he said. "It is plain silly to see an innovative product, giving wider choice and smaller portions, something that our nanny state should not only approve of but positively encourage, having to change due to arcane regulations on glass sizes."
Selfridges will write to Trade Secretary John Hutton - whose department is in charge of weights and measures legislation - at the end of the summer break, urging relaxation of the law, with support from "many industry insiders and influential figures".
And it's not just restaurateurs and bar owners. Jamie Hutchinson, owner of the Sampler wine shop, also uses the "jukebox" technology, enabling customers to try his selection of wines with 25ml sips before they buy.
But he's not breaking any law - because it's not a bar, the samples are paid for differently, and he's in a different London borough.
"It is ridiculous," Hutchinson said of the Wonder Bar debacle. "Not a single person thinks it's a sensible application of the law. And the trading standards office should recognise that this needs to be cleared up. And, anyway, so what if I serve 22ml instead of 25ml? People just don't care, as long as there's enough wine in the glass to try it."
The Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (Lacors) insists the law is all about consumer protection. Lacors policy officer Robert Kidd said: "While I agree that the Enomatic machine is an innovative product, it is hard to see how you could change the law while maintaining the current high levels of consumer protection."
The customer has no way of checking that what he or she is buying is dispensed in the quantity paid for, and retailers could take advantage of this lack of awareness by using such unapproved equipment, he added.
But with an online poll conducted on behalf of Selfridges revealing that 82% of consumers were in favour of smaller quantities being served and sold in bars, it seems the pressure to change the "archaic" regulations will come to bear sooner rather than later.
• Consumer wine magazine Decanter has launched a petition to change the law. Sign the petiton here.