In 2007, a new off-licence in Islington called The Sampler introduced a help-yourself system for tasting wines before purchase. Wall-mounted bottles, held in wine preservation systems, could dispense small tasting measures using a smartcard (like an Oystercard) after you’d topped up some credit.
Selfridges then introduced a similar system to their sit-down wine bar in the West End, but their approach raised a few eyebrows at Westminster Council, and so Selfridges stopped doing this. Bars are only supposed to sell wines in standard, approved measures, you see. The legal issues surrounding wine measures continue to be subject to interpretation and local enforcement, and will be until the Weights and Measures rules are amended and updated, possibly this autumn.
Such concerns needn’t worry those of us who are only concerned with being able to try a wine before we buy it. Vagabond Wines in Fulham is the latest retailer to instal a card-payment system that allows you to try a few wines from dispensers before committing.
Vagabond’s a smart-looking place, run by keen, understated, well-informed staff. The 100 or so wines are grouped by style, such as ‘spicy’ or ‘elegant’ (reds), ‘crisp’ or ‘subtle’(whites). So load up your smartcard, then narrow down the sort of wine you’re looking for to a favourite.
Each measure is a mere sip of 25ml, but it’s enough to get the aroma and taste. And each measure only costs 50p, which is remarkable considering the price per bottle varies from around a tenner up to £30 or more. Takeaway tasting note cards accompany each wine, and the notes were spot-on for the wines we tried.
It’s hard to know how this system could be improved. Wine tasting evenings perhaps? Vagabond do them, every few days (next ones include ‘Burgundy versus The World’ on 24th November; for around £20). More off-licences like this, perhaps? As it happens, The Sampler has just opened a second branch, at 35 Thurloe Place, SW7 2HP (7225 5091). How about a change in the law about wine measures, so more places like this can open without the danger of being closed down? Someone in Whitehall is working on it.