At Elite Fine Wines we love trying out wine bars all around the city and one of our favourites since its opening has always been Vagabond.
With their ingenious 'top up a card pour your own wine' system, it's no wonder that the company has expanded so quickly and now boasts 6 different locations across London.
We caught up with Colin Thorne, the Vagabond wine buyer, to find out more.
EFW: Thanks so much for agreeing to have a chat with us! You say that Vagabond sprung from a frustration with the London wine scene. Has your frustration lessened at all since then at all?
V: No problem at all! London's got a pretty healthy wine scene now. We're lucky to have so many new importer start ups to choose from who give first class service. Basket Press, Nekter, Avalon, Edgmond and Modal spring to mind. But the major change is the move away from the old 'wall of wine and a till' sort of shop to a more experience-rich retail environment. Tasting events and on site drinks service is fundamental to keeping and drawing in customers now.
EFW: We’re huge fans of your top up card system. What sort of effect do you think it has on the way that your customers drink and enjoy wine?
V: We certainly see sales of wines that would be difficult to shift in a traditional browsing retail environment. There’s always going to be a lot of people who go straight for the known safety zone wines - Chablis, Rioja, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec - and it's important to make sure that we have really good examples. But by grouping them with other wines that are stylistically similar but from lesser known grapes and regions we definitely see people going out of their comfort zone. It’s such a great feeling watching a customer discover a completely new type of wine that they love.
“Tasting events and on site drinks service is fundamental to keeping and drawing in customers now.”
EFW: And what’s more popular with your customers, sampling small measures of lots of wines or larger measures of a few wines?
V: We tend to be able to spot WSET students and wine trade people quite quickly as they are the ones selecting five or six samples to take back to their table. I’d say most customers try a few different samples before settling into a 125ml glass of their preferred choice.
EFW: People are always praising the varied selection of wines you offer in their online reviews. How do you go about selecting the wines that you offer at Vagabond?
V: Non stop research. From the moment I get up I'm geeking out. I love reading as much as possible and lurk around instagram a lot. I end up with loads of tabs open on my browser plus supplier and restaurant wine lists on preview. I've got Peter Liem's Champagne book on the go at the moment too. Then it's all about tasting, compiling notes, checking on what we have to see where and how new wines will fit in. There's so many good things out there it constantly amazes me.
EFW: Are there any wine drinking trends you’re anticipating this 2018?
V: Supply prices are moving up everywhere so the 'everyday wine' scene and associated margins are going to be under mad pressure.
“Supply prices are moving up everywhere so the 'everyday wine' scene and associated margins are going to be under mad pressure.”
EFW: Things like Dry January and ‘detoxing’ seem to be growing in popularity as Londoners become increasingly health-conscious. Have you noticed this at all in terms of people’s drinking habits? Is there more demand for low-alcohol wines or even non alcoholic wines?
V: You look at the buzz and growth in spirits (basically everything but vodka) and you’ve got to question if there’s really a widespread trend away from alcohol underway or it’s just a case of 'the squeakiest wheel getting the oil'. On the wine side there’s definitely been a trend amongst producers for finesse over power, but this predates the consumer-driven clamour for lower ABV wines. I think it’s ultimately about balance - getting the right level of alcohol for the wine.
EFW: Are there any emerging wine producing regions that you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
V: I seem to gravitate toward Italian white wines a lot, I love the pristine character of them be it from Etna or Friuli. Some really fine things happening down under on the less-is-more winemaking front. And there seems to be a glimmer of revitalisation among Bordeaux petit chateaux too.
EFW: When you’re not at Vagabond, what other London wine bars can you be found drinking in?
V: I really enjoy spending time at the 10 Cases. No surprises that I can spend all night just reading the lists at The Remedy and Sager + Wilde too. The Sunday pizza forkage at Streatham Wine House is something I really ought to do more of too.
EFW: If aliens, the peaceful type, arrived at Vagabond and asked what wine is, what bottle would you serve them?
V: Presumably if they've mastered faster-than-light travel they can also time-travel so we'd ideally do some tastings of 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle at various points in time.