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The changing face of Manchester's wine scene

Published:  17 October, 2016

As in any city, Manchester's independent wine merchants are particularly sensitive to the changes and fluctuations of the world around them, which can sometimes be a blessing as well as a curse.

Less so than big businesses, they are often at the mercy of councils and transport officers; but their size and vulnerability means that they are also close to the ground, and have unique relationships with their customers which allow them to keep on top of - and drive - new trends.

They can also be the beating heart of cities like Manchester, as is the case with Salut Wines, which is at the forefront of the city's thriving on-trade scene.

On Cooper Street in the city centre, the indie hybrid focuses on inclusivity, with WSET students often spotted training upstairs and customers asking to sit in their favourite spots.

Part of the way Salut gets customers to try new wines is its four Enomatic machines which proudly line one side of the venue.

The machines preserve wine for up to a month, but the wine runs out faster than that, according to MD Sara Saunby.

At Salut, the smallest Enomatic measures are 50ml - not 25ml as in many on-trade venues or hybrids offer.

This isn't a crafty way to get customers to top up their cards more often, Saunby insists - quite the opposite.

"People in the trade who are knowledge can taste a 25ml and get a sense of the wine, but customers need more than that. It's easy to forget what's it like when you first start exploring a type of wine. To customers, the first 25ml is just mouthwash."

This setup is part of Salut's people-centric approach, with an emphasis on seeing things through the customer's eyes.

Most businesses claim to do this, but Saunby - who started Salut with her BA pilot husband after they both agreed on feeling intimidated by wine lists and wine people - takes this mantra more seriously than most.

"A lot of people in the trade say they want to break down barriers but when it comes down to it, customers can still feel very intimidated."

Also moving towards the on-trade side of the hybrid business is Hanging Ditch, which recently began renovating its kitchen to be able to offer tapas style dishes.

The decision to switch-up their business strategy was down to changing consumer trends, but it was also influenced by work to pedestrianise much of the city centre.

"Pedestrianisation affected us negatively in terms of retail," Hanging Ditch MD Ben Stephenson said. "People can't drive to us to pick us a case of wine anymore."

The market in Manchester has changed drastically over the past few years, with many new faces on the bar and retail scene.

As cars become less of a presence in city centres, consumers are forced - or freed up, depending on how you look at it - to make use of public transport and their own two feet.

As a result, it is unsurprising that on-trade is taking over.

However, according to Saunby, the retail side is pushing back.

As is often the way, Salut started out thinking their on- and off-trade split would be "50/50".

But after making a name for itself predominantly as somewhere to relax and enjoy wine, the retail side is pushing back.

"It was our fault," Saunby explained. "It was down to the way we were displaying the wines, but we've sorted that now. We've also started doing more on social media and customers are more likely to come in for a drink and go home with a bottle now than they were before, which is how we wanted things to work."

As well as playing up their on-trade offering, Hanging Ditch has also wound down its wholesale business, in order to devote more time to the shop and bar.

"The retail and on-trade side were being neglected because of the wholesale needs of the business. It took away a lot of my time for little bottom line profit. It took about three months to leave the wholesale side as you've got to be professional and inform your clients," Stephenson said.

They are now in the process of renovating their kitchen area to able to expand their food offering from cheese, meat and olives to a wider range of tapas style dishes.

Tapas is a theme which runs throughout Manchester's bars and restaurants with a strong emphasis on Spanish food, drink and culture.

This theme has its origns in the strong Spanish community in Manchester.

What kind of impact Brexit will have on this and the trade in the city in general, remains to be seen.