The automated wine-tasting trend that’s making connoisseurs of London drinkers.
Walk into Vagabond wine bar in Victoria on a busy Friday night and you won’t see a queue at the bar, despite the popularity of this drinking den just meters from Victoria station.
The reason for the relative calm is not thanks to table service, but the availability of 140 wines by the glass from self-service vending machines throughout the bar.
Freddie Cobb, one of the two wine buyers for the urban winery said there was “an incredible variety of wines to try” in either a 25ml tasting quantity or in 125ml or 175ml glasses.
“You pay a deposit for a top-up card and put, say, £30 on it and then you are free to browse the range, tasting at your leisure,” he said.
Vagabond in Victoria is the flagship bar of the company, which started out in Fulham, championing the enomatic dispensers that let guests buy wine by the glass. The company also makes its own wine at Battersea Power station with grapes bought from vineyards around the UK.
The by-the-glass concept has been so successful that Vagabond now has six wine bars with enomatic machines scattered around the city, most recently opening a new one in Paddington, on the banks of the Grand Union Canal.
Alongside their own wines, the company has a regularly changing supply of small-production wines to try, Cobb said.
“We favor offering wines from smaller vineyards that you won’t find stocked in the supermarkets, so our customers can discover something truly unique,” explained Cobb.
“If you like a wine, you can even buy a bottle to take home.”
The wine is helpfully displayed according to taste, rather than grape variety or region, so you can choose between crisp, aromatic, or rich whites and vibrant, elegant, spicy or bold reds, with 10 bottles to choose between in each section.
In the premium wine section are bottles priced in excess of £60 so the 25ml tasting option is an inexpensive way to sample some truly great wines.
Vagabond is not alone in championing the enomatic wine dispenser, which works by replacing the wine removed with inert gas to keep the wine as fresh as an unopened bottle.
Just a few blocks away from Vagabond in Victoria is wine store M Victoria, which also has a few enomatic machines to enable customers to taste wines before taking a bottle away with them.
M Victoria has gone a step further and created a blind tasting machine, in which the bottles are sheathed in black cloth with just the numbers one to eight embroidered on.
According to Lenart Cernelic, one of the sommeliers on hand to guide you through your tasting, the blind tastings were very popular with trainee sommeliers and people who want to improve their tasting skills.
“We give you a printed pamphlet of tasting notes and you can buy 75ml glasses of all eight wines for the half-price cost of £20. If you get all eight right, you win a £50 gift card,” Cernelic said.
He said it’s a bit of fun and certainly gets people talking when they join the communal tasting table of an evening.
“We want the experience to be sociable,” he said.
“Sometimes people come here alone and make friends while tasting some great wine.”
Try before you buy
In the neighboring borough of Mayfair, the iconic wine store Hedonism boasts six enomatic machines in their downstairs tasting room, with a selection that changes each week and often includes some heavy-weight wines that cost more than £200 a bottle.
Hedonism events manager Matthias Simonet said the store was not classified as a bar and so does not have a license to sell wine by the glass, but that doesn’t stop them from being able to offer 25ml tasting amounts on a wide selection of wines.
“Each machine takes eight bottles and they are organized into old-world and new-world reds and whites, with one for roses and sweet wines and one housing our exclusive selection,” Simonet said.
As with Vagabond, you just pick yourself up a card, load some money onto it and then explore the machines at your leisure.
“Someone is always on hand for advice…but often people just like to investigate the wines themselves,” Simonet said.
Simonet said the machines were a really useful sales tool for the shop, after all, not many people want to part with several hundred pounds for a wine without knowing what they’re getting.
“All our tasting samples are priced at one 20th of the bottle price,” he said.
“We are not really known for these machines, but all our regular customers appreciate them.”
Where to find natural and biodynamic wines
In shopping street Kensington Church Street and Brackenbury Village in Hammersmith another wine bar, named Wine Rooms, has a core wine list of more than 150 wines at any one time, with 40 wines by the glass that can be sampled using a pre-paid card.
Thor Gudmundsson, who co-founded the Parisian style wine bar in 2009 with his friend Richard Okroj, said enomatics were important to enriching the experience for their customers.
“They make wine sampling fun and interactive, they empower the consumer and they are a great way to display the wines,” Gudmundsson said.
“Currently we believe them to be the best product for ensuring the quality and freshness of wines served by the glass.”
The machines Gudmundsson uses originate from Italy and are a considerable investment for a bar, costing in excess of £1,000 per bottle position. But, Gudmundsson said they were worth it.
“Being able to offer such a wide range of wines by the glass brings people through the door and validates our careful wine list selection in the eyes of enthusiasts,” he said.
“We aim to present a snapshot of what’s exciting in the wine world, and concentrate heavily on artisanal and clean natural wines, frequently organic and biodynamic, as well as some real classics.
“We cater for a wide range of budgets, starting at £5 for a 125ml glass for a fine Languedoc Sauvignon, but extending to beautiful old-school claret such as a 2000 Margaux from Château Raussan-Gassies for example, at £5.70 for a 25ml taster.”
If you have a love of wine and are passing through London soon, enjoy the freedom of wine sampling the pre-paid card way.