With a son in the business, I feel as keenly as anyone what pubs and restaurants have been going through these past few months, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been turning to other avenues to pay the bills. And a “pivot” to selling booze has been one obvious option.
Of course, this isn’t entirely new. St John in London, for instance, has been doing it for years (and was the first Michelin-starred restaurant to do bag-in-box), as have the likes of Vinoteca, and Noble Rot founders Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, who market cases of their “Rotters Greatest Hits” from the best-selling wines on their list, while many pubs now sell beer by the growler and, increasingly, by the can. Then there are those whose business model has always been a mixture of on- and off-trade – wine shops that sit companionably alongside wine bars.
But with the full-scale closure of the sector earlier this year, new restrictions on opening hours and maybe even a further lockdown, there’s no doubt that the trend is accelerating as restaurants switch to retailing. In my neck of the woods in Bristol, for example, you can buy wine from Cave and Kask, and a great range of sherries from Bar 44 (also in Cardiff).
For some, the switch has proved to be a lifeline. Faced with months of being unable to open, and therefore the risk of having to lay off staff, the award-winning Red Lion & Sun in Highgate, north London, started selling wine, and did so well from it, that it managed to stay in the black. It also helped out a producer friend of the Kiwi-born landlord Heath Ball, too, Paul Pujol of the much-acclaimed Prophet’s Rock: “New Zealand’s lockdown was more comprehensive than most,” Ball explains, “so we helped him by opening up a cellar door for him in London.” (Incidentally, we’re not so far into autumn yet that it’s too late to try Pujol’s glorious Infusion 2018, a wonderfully seductive, 13%, deep-coloured rosé that, if you’re a pinot noir lover, will blow you away and is well worth the £25 price tag)
The only problem – and it’s fair to point this out – is that you may pay more for your wine from a restaurant than you might from an online supplier. Not as much as if you were eating there, true, but still. Restaurants have costs that online suppliers don’t, but you may feel it’s worth paying the extra if you want them to make it through what looks like being a very tricky winter. As Ball says, “More than ever now, I can see the importance of making the takeaway wine business a key part of our survival.
Four wines to buy from pubs and restaurants
St John Blanc
£38 for 3-litre bag-in-box stjohnrestaurant.com, 11.5%. More bag-in-box this week with this deliciously refreshing, aromatic white made from two innovative, fungus-resistant grapes, sauvignier gris and muscaris. Doesn’t sound too sexy, does it, but it does away with the need for pesticides. Perfect for a lockdown apéro.
Lagrimas de Graciano Bhilar 2018 Rioja Alavesa
£14 The Red Lion & Sun, £68 a case of six from the Fine Wine Company, 13%. Gorgeously fruity, modern rioja made from graciano with an exotic whiff of pomegranate molasses. One for a Middle Eastern feast.
Mas Lou Angaco Faugères 2019
£14.95 St Andrews Wine Company, £16.50 Vinoteca, 13%. This carignan-based, Languedoc gem is another joyfully exuberant red – what the French call a vin de soif (a thirst-quenching wine). Perfect for charcuterie.
Dalamara Naoussa 2017
£20 Keeling Andrew & Co, £25.99 The Salusbury Winestore, 13.5%. Sumptuous Greek red made from the indigenous xinomavro. One to bamboozle the geekier wine-lovers of your acquaintance (and to drink with slow-roast lamb