The Sampler: a new concept in UK wine retailing

How do you make your wine-buying decisions? Do you read magazine and online reviews of producers and their wines? Do you take a blind punt based on appellation, grape variety, or even the design on the label?

Most Brits admit themselves baffled by the extensive selection of wines on offer and tend to resort to the path of least resistance by simply grabbing some heavily promoted brand from the supermarket shelves. But given that you’ve logged on to a specialist wine site, the chances are that your decision making is informed, adventurous, or maybe even both.

xThe Sampler, a new venture in London’s Islington (it opened in late 2006), is taking a crack at rewriting the wine-selling rules. Its big selling point is that, as well as an eclectic range of wines sold by the bottle, there are 10 sampling machines lined up along the walls of the shop.It has long seemed obvious to me – and to many in the wine trade – that what was needed was an opportunity to give people a chance to try before buying, especially for those splashing out more than a few quid on a bottle. But until fairly recently, tasting opportunities were thin on the ground.

Customers at The Sampler buy a smart card for £10, £20 or £50, and this allows them to taste wines at a price that varies from 30p for a Fino sherry to £32.50 for a couple of mouthfuls of Château Pétrus 1999. As well as choosing among the different wines, you can also choose your sample size – these range from 25ml to 75ml, giving you the chance to have a sneaky small glass of something you really like even if you can’t afford to buy a whole bottle.

xThe wines are forced out of the bottles and into the tasting glass due to an inrush of inert gas, which prevents the remaining wine in the bottle from becoming oxidised. In theory, a bottle could remain in the sampling machine for several weeks at a time without spoilage. In practice this rarely happens: most wines are sampled away within a matter of days (if not hours) by eager customers, and bottles are renewed on a regular basis.

“We’d had a few dodgy experiences of buying wines based on reviews we’d read, and had discovered that buying this way can be a really expensive mistake,” explains Jamie Hutchinson, co-owner of The Sampler. “When we saw these machines in Tuscany we thought they were a great idea.”

“You can also use them to introduce wines to people who might not otherwise try them,” Dawn Mannis, Hutchinson’s partner, chimes in. “A lot of people don’t know much about wine, but when they get a chance to taste, they do know what they like.”

And allowing people to taste wines that are outside of their usual range of experience seems to pay dividends in terms of sales. “Getting people to try wines like this is absolutely key,” says Hutchinson. “We sell four times the usual volume of any wine when it’s on tasting.”

The shop stocks some 630 different wines – and 80 wines are on sample at any one time. Those samples change on a regular basis, but you’ll always find one machine stocked with ‘icon’ wines, such as top-flight Bordeaux, Ports and Barolos; another with Chardonnays that run the gamut from New World quaffers to 1er Cru Burgundies and a third with Syrah/Shiraz-based wines from the Barossa, Northern Rhône and the Languedoc.

Mannis and Hutchinson have a personal passion for discovering new wines that has led them to want to share their enthusiasm with others. Their delight in helping people to make new discoveries is obvious, and the stock is a reflection of their own vinous interests. The difference in their palates becomes clear when I ask them to point me in the direction of their current favourite. Mannis makes straight for a machine full of Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc (see below for a tasting note on Domaine Schlumberger’s Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris), whilst Hutchinson makes a beeline for the ‘icon’ machine and Roberto Voerzio’s £110 per bottle Barolo Cerequio 1999.

xSo successful has The Sampler been that Hutchinson and Mannis are already considering opening a small chain around London.Could this be the future of wine retailing? As someone who despairs of the high street retailers’ generic pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap strategy, and who passionately wants to preserve the wide diversity of the wine world, I wish Hutchinson and Mannis every success. I’ll be rooting for them – and I’m pretty sure that wine buffs around the UK will be too.

What I sampled

Le Comte des Floris, Lune Blanche, Vin de Pays de Cassan 2004
An unusual wine based on Carignan Blanc. There’s apples, blossom, almonds and honey on the rich, ripe palate. Zesty acidity and a long, almondy length. £16.99 per bottle.

Domaine Schlumberger, Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris, Alsace 2005
Pears, spice and honey meld together with a touch of residual sugar and a slightly oily, full-bodied palate. Great value for money. £12.49 per bottle.

Wild Earth Pinot Noir, Central Otago 2004
One of The Sampler’s best sellers, this Pinot has lots of ripe New World fruit, but it’s tinged with earthy complexity. The fresh, zippy acidity carries through on the long fruit-driven finish. £17.99 per bottle.

Astrales, Ribera del Duero 2004
Dense black fruit tinged with liquorice and bitter chocolate is balanced by big, ripe tannins and a deep-pile velvety texture. Although delicious now, this is a very young wine that would benefit from another couple of years of bottle age. £24.99 per bottle.

Roberto Voerzio, Barolo Cerequio 1999
This is an absolutely classic Barolo, with a heady nose of tar and roses. There’s the obligatory big, chewy tannins, but these are balanced by perfumed fruit and a superbly silky texture. A long, spicy, floral finish. £110.00 per bottle.

The Sampler
266 Upper Street
London N1 2UQ.
Tel 020 7226 9500