After speaking with Michael Sager from Sager & Wilde earlier on this month, our next ‘Elite meets’ feature saw us heading over to Humble Grape, another wine bar that we’d been hearing a great deal about lately.
Tucked away in the corner down a narrow lane just off Fleet Street, the setting of Humble Grape embodies everything that it stands for as a brand, it’s understated, unassuming and effortlessly charming upon entry.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Humble Grape wine manager Desiree Russo to pick her brains about their fascinating wine philosophy, the concept of vinotyping and the secrets behind a great wine menu.
EFW: Great to meet you Desiree! Thanks so much for agreeing to have a chat with us.
DR: No problem at all it’s my pleasure!
EFW: I guess the best place to start is to ask you a bit about your background and how you ended up working in the wine industry?
DR: Right, well, I was born in the states but my parents are European so I was always involved with drinking wine at the dinner table, even if it was a splash of red topped up with water.
Then I guess my wine education first started whilst working at a restaurant in New York. They had a great wine programme and trained up all of the staff with a holistic view of where the wine came from. And it was there that my boss pushed me to do my WSET level 2 because I was loving work so much and I was one of the best at selling wine.
I think what has always been important to me is that I didn’t want to sell someone something just to sell it, I always want to believe that I’m giving you value for your money and you’re going to get an experience.
When I first moved to London I worked for Vinoteca in Kings Cross before seeing that Humble Grape were looking for an assistant retail manager. So I’ve been at Humble Grape Since June 2015 and haven’t looked back since!
“I was always involved with drinking wine at the dinner table, even if it was a splash of red topped up with water.”
EFW: Well it certainly seems like an exciting company to be working for at the moment. We’ve read a lot of news coverage about you guys as a result of your crowdfunding campaigns. Why do you think they’ve been so successful?
DR: Well I think the main reason they worked so well was because anyone could invest, even for as little as £50, we weren’t just looking to be owned by big city boys.
EFW: Ah I see, so similar to the Brewdog guys who also ran a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign that was open to all?
DR: Yeah exactly, those guys are smashing it!
EFW: So, one of the things we’re most interested to hear about is your wine philosophy at Humble Grape, because it seems like you guys are doing things really differently to so many other wine bars we know.
DR: Well our main philosophy is that wine is on the customer’s terms, that’s super important to us. So we’ll never ever give tasting notes to customers because in my opinion, wine is a bottle of ideas and you should go around the table and figure out what you’re tasting as a group.
We like to tell the story of a wine rather than the tasting notes and we can tailor that story depending on the person’s knowledge and experience of wine.
It’s really about humanising wine as much as possible. It’s the vineyard, it’s us and it’s you, we want our customers to know that there’s no middle man.
“Wine is a bottle of ideas and you should go around the table and figure out what you’re tasting as a group.”
So while we don’t use tasting notes, we do vinotype all of our wines which you will be able to see on the menus at Humble Grape. And this is about tailoring the wine to your palette rather than to your food. After all, who says you can’t drink a South African white wine with your steak?
EFW: Do you mind explaining vinotypes a little for our readers?
DR: Sure, so there are 4 different vinotypes. You have sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant.
Sweet vinotypes tend to only drink off dry riesling and sweet wines because the taste of alcohol burns their palette and they have roughly 11,000 tastebuds. Then you have hypersensitive vinotypes who like dry and sweet wines also . They’re also often very creative and live in very vivid sensory worlds. Sensitive vinotypes are all about smoothness and can enjoy a variety of wines, whereas tolerant vino types only have 500 taste buds and need big oaky red wines. They love whiskey and basically need to get smacked around a little bit.
EFW: So you don’t do any food pairings what so ever? It’s more about matching wine to a customer’s palette?
DR: We do no food pairings at all, what we eat and drink is entirely subjective. We want to make sure that our customers can come in and have what they want with whatever food they want. We’re all about the story. After all, we could share the same bottle of wine and have two different outcomes.
EFW: One question that we’ve been looking forward to asking you, as the wine manager, is what do you think makes for a good wine list?
DR: I think that unless a bar has a specific focus then a variety of countries is always good. I’d personally look for something weird, wonderful and ridiculous as well as a variety of different price points.
Ultimately how I view our wines by the glass list is if someone wants a bottle of wine we don’t point towards the wine list. We don’t have a wine by the bottle wine list. Big wine book lists are intimidating, especially if you’re new to drinking wine. So we prefer to allow our customers to go up to our shelves with a waiter and to pick up the bottles, read the labels and take as much time as they want. It’s so much more engaging that way.
“Who says you can’t drink a South African white wine with your steak?”
EFW: And how often does your wine list change?
DR: The wine list will change each month with a different team member selecting a flight of wine each month. So for example it may be an Italian flight chosen by Kevin, the cool thing is that everyone gets included in the process.
It’s the same when we’re tasting wines at staff training too. We will all go around and taste a bottle and say one word each for what we can taste. That way we can create team tasting notes.
And this is important because we don’t call ourselves ‘sommeliers’ at Humble Grape. We don’t want to come across as snobby and we don’t want to lecture our guests, we want it to be as inclusive as possible for everyone.
EFW: Are there any emerging regions that you’re particularly excited about?
DR: One region that I will say, not just because I’m half Sicilian, is Etna. It’s been called the burgundy of the mediterranean and the only way to describe the taste is if you took a hot stone that you would use for a massage and put it in your mouth. It’s iron, it’s rust, it’s magnesium, it’s volcanic!
It’s its own micro climate. Ever since an eruption in 1981 the vines are completely buried, then as they eventually come up they’re going to grab that terroir. It’s insane, the vines literally cling to the side of a volcano that spews out hot live nutrients.
Another great region is Germany, with again is terroir driven, unfortunately they’re still getting over the stigma of making only riesling. Their reds are amazing.
EFW: Thank you again for speaking to us, it’s been so so interesting! We look forward to spreading the word of Humble Grape far and wide.
If you want to find out a little more about Humble Grape and their wine philosophy you can head over to their website here. Or better yet, head over to one of their 3 locations and sample their wonderfully interesting wine selection.