Wine articles

In praise of chain shops

This is something I wrote for the Oldie earlier in the year:

Last month I was back in my home town of Amersham and I noticed that the main shopping street, Sycamore Road, was doing something that it hadn’t done for years, bustled. Since the 1990s it had been dying a slow death from hairdressers, estate agents and charity shops, but now the streets were thronged with people. And where was the centre of the activity? A designer boutique? A pop-up seafood stall? A celebrity book signing? No, it was Marks & Spencer. The appearance of such boring high street stalwarts as M&S, Waitrose and Robert Dyas have reinvigorated the town.

Every so often there is a scare story in the papers about how all Britain’s high streets are beginning to look the same. In historic cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester more than 90% of the high streets are chains.  It is always so depressing to arrive somewhere new and find the usual Next, Greggs and WHSmith. My dream high street would consist of useful shops such as bakers, butchers, and greengrocers, mingled with places to browse such as a gentlemen’s outfitter, a bookshop and a wine merchant plus some cosy old-fashioned pubs. All of these would be independent family-run businesses staffed by people in it for the sheer love of cheese, for example, rather than desire to make money.

The problem is that towns without chains rarely look like this. They’re either too poor to attract chains so consist of kebab houses, tattoo parlours and ‘fancy goods’ shops that sell plastic colanders, or they look like Chipping Campden, a mixture of delicatessens and gift shops. The latter is great for tourists but not so good for local residents. The urban equivalent of the Cotswold tourist town is a gentrified district made up of clothes shops, bars and artisan coffee shops. When I lived in Shoreditch in East London, I remember the excitement amongst residents when a sign went up saying ‘A Butcher of Distinction.’ Finally a useful shop, we thought, but instead it was another trendy clothes shop with the twist that the clothes were hung on meat hooks.

A common complaint about chain shops is that they make all towns look the same but most independent shops slavishly follow a look too. If you go to gentrified seaside resorts in Norfolk or Suffolk, everything is painted in pale blue. In cities, independent coffee shops are always decked out in white tiles with a chalkboard on the wall. They do identical-looking sandwiches that sit on black slates on the counter. It’s a similar story in bars with their exposed light bulbs, brickwork and mismatched wooden furniture. They often stock the same craft beers and get their wines from the same distributor. The hipster bar/ restaurant look is now international. One can go to places in Budapest, Sydney or Buenos Aires that look identical to somewhere in Hackney or Brooklyn. I have a theory that there is a company based just outside Antwerp that supplies the complete hipster restaurant package right down to the ‘natural’ wines, pressed tin ceilings and jam jar glasses.  The staff all look the same too with their beards, tattoos and check shirts. They might as well being wearing a uniform.

I’m not denying that some chains are dismal. WHSmith looks like it’s in the middle of a closing down sale. I get a headache the moment I walk into H&M. Chain pubs can be particularly sad though I must admit that I am sometimes partial to a pint of discount real ale at Wetherspoons. Some chains, though, are excellent. My wife who is American often points out how good British chain restaurants can be. Places like Polpo, Royal China and Byron Burger offer consistently good food. It’s not just restaurants, any town that has a Gail’s, a Paperchase or an Oddbins should count itself lucky. Don’t forget that one person’s dismal chain could be another’s shopper’s paradise. When I was a teenager I would have killed for H&M in Amersham.

It’s anachronistic to complain about chains versus independents now because the real competition is online. It doesn’t matter whether your local bookshop is a Waterstone’s or an independent, they are both threatened by Amazon. The high street of the future is going to look very different to the one we are familiar with. As more retail moves online, it’ll be the shops that provide good service that will survive whether they are chains or independent.

Both can help each other. I can see a symbiotic relationship between shops when I visit Amersham. People might go into town for a new toaster at Robert Dyas, buy uniforms at Wheatleys, the long-established schools outfitter, and then have a coffee at one of the independent cafes. Without the big chains, the high street was dying. Now for the first time since the closure of the notorious Iron Horse, the pub my parents always warned me about going to, there is somewhere to get a pint in the town centre, a bar called the Metro Lounge (part of a small chain naturally.)

The revitalised Amersham isn’t exciting, it isn’t glamorous, it’s not going to pull the tourists in, but it is a useful place to shop and provides employment. For local residents, a good chain-led high street is better than the alternatives: tattoo parlours and kebabs shops or estate agents and hairdressers.



Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

This appeared in Harper’s Wine and Spirits magazine earlier this year.

It seems like not a day goes by without the launch of a new gin. I thought we’d reached peak gin two years ago but it shows no signs of slowing down. People are not only buying these new products but also talking about them when out drinking and on social media.

It’s the kind of genuine engagement that vodka would kill for. Matt Bruhn Global Brand Director for Smirnoff has been quoted as saying that the Britain is a ‘tough market’ for them. Stuart Westwood Product Marketing Manager at Matthew Clark wholesalers said “standard vodka sales are in decline by around 11%”. Absolut in particular have been hit hard. Pernod-Ricard, the parent company, had to write down 652 million euros on global sales.

They haven’t been helped by badly-conceived products such as Absolut Amber, an oak-aged vodka. This used oak chips just like a cheap wine rather than barrels. It picked up some terrible reviews and was quickly withdrawn. Absolut have been particularly affected by the decline of the flavoured spirit market. Stolichnaya have drastically streamlined their flavoured offerings in response. “I think flavoured is on its way out, the big brands have over saturated flavoured vodkas” Nik Koster from Garnish PR, a specialist drinks agency, told me.  

We shouldn’t get too carried away though: “vodka is still the clear number one, with over 32% share of the spirits category compared to gin’s (ever increasing) 9%” says Stuart Westwood. Nik Koster agrees: “Smirnoff is still the biggest selling spirit worldwide and I don’t see that changing soon”. Worldwide Smirnoff sold 9.7 million cases (down 1% on previous year) cases and Absolut 4.6 million cases (down 1.5%).

At the top end of the market. CÎROC a grape-based vodka who have Puff Daddy (or is it P Diddy?) as their brand ambassador is rapidly growing. Guy Dodwell, Sales Director for the Off Trade, Diageo: “our ultra-premium vodka brand, CÎROC, is up by 205%” . According to a 2015 IWSR report the luxury end of the market is still experiencing good growth levels. Beluga, a high end brand with hand finished bottles, is seeing double digit growth according to Katie Warren their Group Marketing Manager.

But there might be uncertain times ahead for the super premium market. The rise of gin, and return of amari, vermouth, bourbon and rye, show that people once again want strong flavours. The cocktails that are popular now, the negroni, the martini, the old-fashioned, reflect this. The fruit-based cocktails that made vodka are out. “We don’t sell a massive amount (of vodka) in our bars, “ said Max Venning operations manager at London bars, Drink Factory, 69 Colebrooke Row & Bar Termini. When I asked Ian Goodman, formerly head barman at the Oxo tower and now with new bar Darkhorse in East London, which cocktails he liked to make with vodka, he replied ‘none really. . .. Vesper at a push.’ This lack of interest is reflected on the high street: a PR representing All Bar One told me that they were concentrating on gin when I asked them for their take on the vodka market.  Vodka is seen as a reliable workhorse rather than something to get excited about.

You can see why barmen might be bored: even the most expensive brands trade to some extent on lack of flavour. All the stuff about filtering and triple, quadruple or in the case of Ciroc, quintuple distillation, are designed to make them as smooth ie. bland as possible. The owner of Bob Bob Ricard, who stock Russian Standard vodka, Leonid Shutov, is quoted as saying: “flavour in vodka indicates you can’t afford a more expensive drink.” The top Russian Standard that they stock is filtered through quartz, for some reason.

They’re a tiny percentage of the market but there are some vodkas out there offering something a different. Some are a side product of the gin explosion: “By default many gin producers also create excellent vodkas” said Liam Cotter Senior Project Manager with events company Heads, Hearts and Tales. Adnams, the Suffolk brewer, produce some vodkas though their gins outsell them by ten to one. Head distiller John McCarthy is doubtful about the UK artisan vodka market ‘you can’t make a fortune selling high end vodka in UK. From our experience majority of British public aren’t willing to pay premium for vodka.’

William Borell, founder of Vestal  who make Polish potato vodka, disagrees. He started in 2009 with 2,000 bottles and now produces around 40, 000 bottles a year. Vestal is now stocked in some of the world’s top bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. He has noticed a weariness in the on trade with gin which will at some point percolate down to the consumer. Barmen are looking for something new and weightier, flavourful vodkas might be it. Nik Koster has set up a festival called Vodka Rocks to try to reengage the trade and the public with vodka.

Other brands proving popular with the on-trade are Aylesbury Duck from 86 Company in America and Konik’s Tail from Poland. The key is letting that quality of the raw material shine so there’s no heavy filtering or triple distillation. These are vodkas that you should sip neat and not too cold. They’re more like new make single malt whisky than traditional Russian-style vodka. The line between vodka and whisky is blurring with some distilleries such as Highland Park releasing unaged whisky (though they can’t call it whisky) and Vestal producing a barrel-aged vodka (superb, a far cry from Amber Absolut). They also produce vintage vodka (from a single harvest) and even do varietal vodka (from a single potato variety). Other innovations in the sector include Babicka, a wormwood-infused vodka from the Czech Republic and a botanical-infused London Dry Vodka, produced by gin distiller Sacred.  

The big four, Pernod-Ricard, William Grants, Diageo and Bacardi, are fighting back: “The birth of so many artisanal or craft brands certainly creates a hell of a lot of excitement, but the onus is on the big brands to re-invent their image and demand attention back” said Liam Cotter from Hearts, Heads and Tail. Absolut have just launched Elyx made with wheat from a single estate. The spirit is distilled in a 1920s copper rectifier just as with craft gin. Just to be sure though they’d roped in Chloe Sevigny  and put it in a super glitzy bottle.  “Provenance, ‘craft’ and something with a point of difference will continue to drive any green shoots in the category” Stuart Westwood told me.

Vodka’s success in the 80s and 90s was built on a lack of flavour and history. It was a blank canvas onto which marketers could project their ideas. Brands such as Absolut epitomised this with their brilliant advertising. Now the market has moved on and some brands are looking dated. Vodka today is in a similar position to beer with huge but declining brands dominating sales and a small (in vodka’s case miniscule) though rapidly expanding craft sector. In the next few years, we’ll start to see more and more premium and luxury vodkas taking their marketing and perhaps even production cues from the new challengers. Just as with beer, some of the stronger craft brands will be snapped up by the big boys. Despite sluggish growth overall, it’s an interesting time for vodka. Though there will always be a huge market for something tasteless and alcoholic, competition is likely to push up quality at the top end. Potentially, people could start taking vodka as seriously as they do gin or even whisky.


Film and TV Wine articles

These wines are Absolutely Fabulous

Many writers will be using the release of the Absolutely Fabulous movie to reminisce about the crazy 1990s: cocaine, clubbing and Kate Moss. Drink writers will be going on about Bolly and Stolly which Eddy and Patsy put away in heroic quantities. There is one episode though, where they try something a bit different. It’s the one where they have a Withnail and I esque holiday by mistake in the South of France. There’s no light, food or power but there is plenty of local wine which they proceed to tear into with abandon.

If you look carefully at the labels you’ll see that they aren’t just drinking any old plonk. No, they are drinking Chateau La Canorgue, an extremely good wine from Provence. stocked by more than reputable West Country wine merchants Yapp Bros. It comes in all three colours, all of which are usually excellent: the red is a blend of Syrah and Grenache and tastes like a particularly fragrant Cotes-Du-Rhone, lots of fruit and wild herbs; the rose is classic Provencal but with a bit more body than some, it’s a wine that can hold its own against some quite serious food; the white is a blend of Grenache blanc, Clairette, Roussanne and Marsanne and manages to be fresh and floral but with a good nutty weight to it. All three are serious wine but also manage to be very drinkable (as you can see from the photo above.)

Rather appropriately I first tried these wines whilst visiting the house of a top television producer who had more than a hint of Patsy about her. She had designated room for yoga complete with healing crystals and an enormous statue of the Buddha. After a hard day’s schmoozing, she’d come home, do some eastern chanting and then crack into the Provencal rosé