The Sampler: vintage wines via a vending machine?



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Time Out's Susan Low reports on a unique new wine shop distributing vintages via vending machine and smart card

  • Although the world of wine offers great bottles to suit any pocket, there are still plenty of prohibitively priced wines that are more written about than actually tasted. When the cost of a bottle goes into the hundreds of pounds, it’s very difficult for most wine-lovers to see what all the fuss is about. Furthermore, many enthusiastic novices can be put off tasting and buying more adventurous wines by the intimidating nature of some specialist shops. At least that was the case until the owners of Islington wine merchant The Sampler decided to adapt an idea they had come across during a buying trip to Italy: the wine dispenser.

    As gimmicks go, this might seem like an abomination, the grape equivalent of those instant coffee and ‘creamer’ machines you find at all-night petrol stations. Yet The Sampler has come up with something altogether classier. Eight glass-fronted dispensing machines, looking a bit like giant cappuccino makers, each containing ten or so bottles of impeccably chosen wine, all connected to a metal spout. Think of it as rows of self-service optics.


    Corking idea: half wine cellar, half high-tech espresso machine

    Here’s how it works. You buy a plastic ‘smart card’ – a bit like an Oyster card – from the till and put on credit (anything from £10 upward). The wines are grouped roughly by grape variety or region: sauvignon blanc or pinot noir, for example, or Italian, French and Spanish. Insert your card into a slot and you’ll see the price of each 25ml tasting sample (that’s a couple of good-sized sips).

    When you’ve chosen, press the button and the wine is dispensed into your glass. Sniff, swirl and taste as many wines as you like – or until your credit runs out. You can buy any wines that appeal, by the bottle or case, although you’re under no obligation. Any unused credit on your smart card can be used on your next visit, or refunded at the till.

    A particular draw for oenophiles is the range of ‘icon wines’. These are the sorts of wines that get buffs hot under the collar. On our visit, a bottle of Penfolds Grange 1998 (£9.75 for 25ml) was causing a frisson of excitement. First made in 1951, Grange is considered by many to be the ultimate Australian shiraz – rich, fruity, deeply concentrated and almost as powerful as Rupert Murdoch. Assuming you can find one, a bottle of this rare wine can set you back £200 or more from a specialist wine retailer, so very few wine-lovers ever get a chance to try it.

    The selection is ever-changing, but other ‘icons’ to watch out for include Château Mouton-Rothschild 1998, Guigal’s La Mouline 2001, or Château Gruaud-Larose 2000. Prices vary from £3 to £25 a taste – worth it if you want to try the world’s very best wines.

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