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Gastro pubs: The challenges and joys of getting a pub wine list right

Published:  17 September, 2019

With the vast majority of pubs in the UK part of a chain where buying decisions on everything from beer and wine to crisps and peanuts are sanctioned by the chain’s owners, it can be very hard for wine merchants and importers to get an in, especially on the ground rather than in a boardroom setting.

This is why a truly independent pub represents a rare opportunity for specialist and larger importers, as well as local wine merchants who deal in wholesaling. It gives them the chance to speak directly to the owners and help shape that pub’s wine offering, but getting in the door in the first place isn’t easy.

“I’ve worked with the same wine suppliers for 18 years,” says Joe Swiers who, with business partner and chef Ollie Pudney, owns and runs The Bull & Last near Hampstead Heath in north London.

They bought the pub in 2008 and it’s known locally and beyond as one of London’s best gastro pubs, and featured in last year’s Sunday Times list of The 100 Best Places to Eat in the UK. No mean feat for a modest boozer in Highgate.

One of the secrets to their success is choosing the right suppliers, getting to know them and sticking with them, says Swiers, and that’s just as important for wine suppliers as any others.

“You have to work really closely with your suppliers because they represent the pub as much as the staff do, really,” he says. “They have to get the right feel for what you are trying to achieve so I always recommend to my wine suppliers that they come and be a customer, eat from the menu and get a feel for the pub. I think that’s very important even before I start talking about prices and anything else.”

The Bull & Last is known for its food – classic gastro pub fayre and freshly cooked bar snacks – but while customers talk up the food, Swiers believes that the offering behind the bar, the beer and wine selection, is just as important to get right and customers do notice that even if they don’t talk about it.

One of his greatest challenges is remembering his customer base, and not getting too fancy or ‘out-there’ with his wine list. “I have to keep grounded and that’s quite a challenge; we have to remember that we are a business as well with margins to hit and a GP to hit so your wish list of wines never becomes a reality. The market doesn’t expect my wish list of wines!” he says.

While not going crazy with his list, he understands the need to push it in certain areas and have enough interest there for the wine-lover or customer who wants to experiment and try something different. This is achieved by working with a number of small and larger suppliers and trusting them to come to you with suggestions, and by going to trade tastings to keep up with the market.

“Because we are an independent pub there are a few larger suppliers I work with who fill the list around the £20-25 a bottle mark, while my smaller suppliers bring in the more quirky wines at the £35-£40 level,” says Swiers, who works with six or seven suppliers and very rarely has a slot he’d like to fill on his list that one of those cannot accommodate.

“Suppliers like the challenge of trying to achieve a wine list together that’s interesting but acceptable to the pub, and it’s much harder than working with a wine bar or fine dining restaurant. We adapt together by constantly chatting, seeing what’s happening in the market and seeing what’s new and interesting,” he adds.

With an ever-changing food menu, what the pub does on the wine (and beer) side is rotate the offering to suit the seasons and menu, which is a good way of keeping smaller – lesser-used – suppliers happy and giving them an outlet for esoteric or new wines. “It gives us an opportunity to take six bottles or so, and even though the account is not huge for them it gives them the opportunity to get listings for their new wines, so it works for them too.”

After running the pub for ten years, Swiers and Pudney shut the doors last year for a full refurbishment and makeover and will reopen in early 2020 with the addition of six guest bedrooms to the top two floors of the building. There will be changes to the wine offering too, with wine on tap being introduced for the first time.

Swiers believes this recent innovation is perfect for busy gastro pubs and is thrilled by the range of wines on offer via the KeyKeg system. “There are a lot of reasons we’re going for wine on tap,” he says. “Sustainability, keeping the freshness, helping out my staff; working in a pub is very labour intensive, so if you can have three or four in the cellar ready to go instead of boxes and boxes of wine that makes a difference. KeyKegs are easy to handle and there are 70 pints in a keg, while bottled wines are much harder to handle, with flights and flights of stairs and lots of cardboard to get rid of.”

It’s refreshing to see this approach to wine and to working hard to find the right suppliers in an environment where wine is often way down the pecking order, and offers a glimmer of hope to suppliers tired of the ‘tied-pub’ phenomenon.