Waterstones 5th Floor cafe
Has anybody else in the western wine world noticed that bookshops have changed pretty radically over the last few years? Most of the big ones and plenty of the smaller independents have introduced coffee shops and cafes. The 5th floor Cocktail Bar/cafe in the Piccadilly Waterstones, for example, is a very fine place to meet up with someone if you are looking for a central London location. There are a few wine shops/bars (pioneered by Nicolas in France) but they are rarities. Wine shops are not places to relax and kick back. They’re places for nerds to browse the shelves, fondle bottles and imagine the flavours of wines the wretched bankers and Chinese have now rendered unaffordable by common folk like us. And, of course, for normal mortals to feel thoroughly intimidated.
Depressingly, this model – walls of wine with a person behind a counter – seems to be the default for far too many of the recently-opened “indies”, the independent wine retailers who, like the US cavalry, are apparently (and ludicrously) supposed to save the entire UK wine trade from abuse by supermarkets.
Even as a wine nerd myself, looking at the images of some of the shortlisted shops at the Off Licence News Awards this week made me want to weep. It wasn’t the lack of cafe/chill-out zone – though this would have been nice; it was the lighting and the layout and the presumption that customers can find their way to a bit of the wall of wine that includes the bottle they want or would like.
Hopefully for their owners, there are enough nerdier folk than me – or enough people sufficiently desperate to buy wine they can’t find in a supermarket or Majestic – for them to survive and possibly prosper, but I wouldn’t want to back many of them with my own money. And these were the ones that made the shortlist.
Among the winners, Roberson and Selfridges are shops I’d definitely hang out in, while the Sampler is a company where I’d happily spend my money and my time. I don’t recall Hedonism being listed and I suspect it’s too swanky to impress the judges of that particular competition, but I love this London shop – and the fact that its management has actually given thought to providing a zone for shoppers’ kids to have fun while mummy and daddy are spending thousands on a few choice bottles. Outside the UK, I also have great memories of Mielżyński* in a Warsaw industrial estate where wines are browsable, tastable and available to enjoy with a wide range of food. It’s what I’d love some Majestic stores to evolve into.
Has he just smelled what some of the customers
have been smoking?
The key word – and it’s a buzzword at the moment – is experiential. My first memories of experiential shopping were of record stores in the 1970s where the experience consisted of going into a tiny booth to listen to a track or two of an album you might have wanted to buy. Richard Branson put a rocket under all that with his first Virgin Records shops. Instead of booths that smelled of the last occupant’s stale cigarettes, you did your try-before-you-buy stuff through headphones, lounging on beanbags surrounded by fellow browsers who might or might not have taken mind altering substances before entering the premises. As a schoolboy I spent hours there hoping Tubular Bells or Jethro Tull would take me to the same places as their illegal roll-ups had transported my neighbours.
More recently, there have been the brilliant Apple stores where you are invited to play with the gear at your leisure and to talk to cool young staff about any problems you’ve been having with your iPhone. And the even more brilliant Nespresso cafes that feel like First Class lounges and are even better places to catch up with people than Waterstones.
I’m still waiting for a chain of wine shops in the UK – or elsewhere – in which I’d like to be as much as I like to be in a Nespresso cafe (and I speak as someone who, in various ways, actually hates the concept of Nespresso), but I’ve seen several in China that would probably work very well for me if I were Chinese. The Changyu Pioneer shops – like their competitors – start out with the premise that its customers are probably not confident when it comes to wine buying, so it seeks to put them, literally, at their ease in armchairs. The decor doesn’t happen to suit my taste, but I’m not their target customer. These are places to which I’d like to drag some western wine professionals by the ear when I hear them repeating old tropes about China only being good at copying rather than innovation.
A suburban Pioneer Wine Shop in Chengdu
*Thanks to Wojciech Bońkowski for leading me to correct my original reference to Joseph’s here.