Resetting the bar: how Vinoteca changed the wine bar game

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

How Vinoteca changed the wine bar game

Related tags Vinoteca Wine London Charlie Young Brett Woonton

Having played a key role in reviving the wine bar in London, Charlie Young and Brett Woonton are now bringing Vinoteca to Birmingham.

The wine list at Vinoteca resembles a glossy magazine and is a treasure trove for wine aficionados, combining established regions and styles with wines that are off the beaten track. Running to over 30 pages, it’s evolved a lot since the now six-strong wine bar and restaurant chain launched in Farringdon in 2005, but the one thing it does have in common with the original list is detailed tasting notes for every wine.

Though descriptions of wine are commonplace on casual restaurant menus now, they were far less so when Vinoteca first opened its doors and most venues that target wine enthusiasts still don’t print any info on what the wines they sell are likely to taste like.

 “We don’t hire sommeliers. Or perhaps I should say we don’t have that position in our wine bars, because we do have a number of somms working for us,” says Charlie Young, who founded the business with wine industry pals Brett Woonton and Elena Ares. Young and Woonton are the faces of Vinoteca, with Ares now less involved with the day-to-day running of the business.

“Accessibility has always been key for us,” Young continues. “We don’t want to force people into having conversations about wine they are not comfortable with. Vinoteca is designed to appeal to people who know their wine but also those who are total novices and just enjoy drinking it.”

The trio launched Vinoteca at a time when wine bars were at a low ebb (Yates’s would remove the words ‘Wine Lodge’ from its name around year later).

“Wine bars had found success as an alternative to the pub, which at the time were much more male-dominated environments,” says Woonton. “But they were dying a death. They often weren’t very well run and rarely put much effort into sourcing. At the other end of the scale there were a handful of wine bars that were aimed at those who were knowledgeable about wine but they tended to be quite snotty in their approach.”

Vinoteca was one of the first of several energetic new players - peers include Vagabond and 28º–50º, which were both founded in 2010 - to look to revive the format and make great wine accessible to a new generation of drinkers.


One foot in the off trade and one food in the on trade

As the name suggests, Vinoteca is based on the vinotecas and enotecas of Spain and Italy. While there is quite a lot of variation in Europe, such places are typically focused on wine but offer some food and allow customers to buy bottles to take away as well as to drink in.

Young and Woonton - who met at on trade-focused wine supplier Liberty Wines - had observed the format on trips to see wine suppliers and thought it could be a good fit for the UK.

“We thought people being able to take their wine home with them would be a nice USP,” says Woonton. “We did some light research and were pleased to find that the licensing requirements weren’t problematic and that the name Vinoteca was up for grabs.”

Because it has one foot in the retail space, Vinoteca is able to source all of its wines at what are termed agency prices (without doing this it would be nearly impossible to make a traditional retail margin of around 30% on off-premises sales).

“Most restaurants buy wine at DPD (Duty Paid Delivery) prices, which are based on low volume and account for the fact that restaurants will sell that wine at a high margin,” says Young. “Typically, agency prices can only be accessed if you’re getting through large volumes, but we were able to leverage our contacts. Our suppliers continue to help us out by being flexible on volume but we’re careful not to take the piss. It’s quite a collaborative process in that respect.”

Physical shop sales vary from site to site but range between 10% and 20% of overall wine sales by value. An e-commerce offshoot was launched in the early days of the business but didn’t receive much of the trio’s attention until the pandemic saw orders jump by 400%. “We were also able to spend more time on the site and improve the customer journey,” says Woonton. “Orders are no longer at the levels we saw during lockdown but we’re doing roughly double what we were doing prior to the pandemic. It’s a nice supplemental business to have but it’s less than 10% of what we do overall.”


Curating the list

The main wine list is the same access the group and is re-written twice a year with at least 60 wines replaced each time. Alongside the main list is a double-sided sheet of A4 that lists Vinoteca’s by-the-glass selection, which is created by the staff and changes much more regularly. Prices are in general democratic, with bottles from as little as £22 to drink in and lots of bins to be had south of £40.

So, what exactly is Vinoteca looking for when it sources its wine? Or, to put it another way, what makes a Vinoteca wine? “There’s absolutely no shortage of great wine out there, although there is a lot of rubbish to filter through too,” says Woonton. “It takes an awful lot of work to pick out treasures from a sea of wine.”

“We taste every wine that goes on the list, and we only choose ones we think are brilliant. We like the top names but the wines that tend to get us the most excited are affordable. Our sweet spot is bottles that cost between £12 and £25 retail and £30 to £45 to drink in.”

Even before the ‘natural’ wine movement, a lot of the wines Vinoteca sold were that way inclined. “We’ve always done a lot of small production, sustainable, organic and biodynamic because they tend to be made by people that care about what they are making and that always comes through in the glass,” says Young. “But as long as we like it, we embrace everything. The key question is ‘would we take it home?’ It’s as simple as that.” 

While the number of wines that some might view as ‘natural’ has not increased, the number of people looking to try - or in some cases avoid – such wines has prompted the pair to create an organic and biodynamic selection towards the end of the list. With a little over 50 wines on offer, it accounts for around 20% of the wines the group offers.

“While we do have a lot of wines that are technically ‘natural’ you would not necessarily put them into that category based on their style. For example, Sylvain Langoureau’s Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘La Garenne’ 2017 is far from funky,” adds Woonton.


A different wine world

Talking of Burgundy, another big change in the wine world since Vinoteca launched is that the classic appellations have become far less affordable and, in many cases, don’t offer nearly as much bang for buck as less obvious and up-and-coming regions. “We love Burgundy, but we now offer far fewer of its wines than we used to. It’s harder for us to justify. Wines have to stack up,” says Young.

Vinoteca has been able to partly circumnavigate swingeing price rises in Burgundy and many other classic wine regions by sourcing creatively. Young and Woonton seek out producers that don’t have distribution in the UK and also work with those that make great wines in less prestigious appellations (for example Burgundy’s Coteaux Bourguignons).

They also work with a number of suppliers direct and get some wines bottled under their own label. Named after the pair’s alter egos Rodney & The Horse, the range includes a wild-fermented Clare Valley riesling. 


Switching things up in the kitchen

For most of its existence Vinoteca’s approach to food was notably different to its branded peers with each site offering a different menu overseen by an experienced chef. The brief was quite relaxed with each head chef reporting directly to the founders rather than an executive chef.

But as the chain has grown it seems the cons have started to outweigh the pros. “A change has been on the cards for the past five years or so. We needed to be hitting margins and we also needed to provide consistency for the customer. It was also becoming difficult to manage,” says Woonton.

The pair switched things up a few years ago, promoting their best performing head chef Pawel Jankowiak to executive chef. All the head chefs now work together with Jankowiak to create four seasonal menus each year that are served across all the sites.

“It’s an unusually collaborative way of doing things. All the chefs input and the development and testing is done as a group. Going from ‘you do what you want’ to ‘you do what we say’ would have been too much of a jump. The chefs prefer it,” says Young.

Presented on the reverse of the by-the-glass list, the menu is broadly Mediterranean in feel and is split into bar snacks and small plates; sharing plates; mains; and sides. Dishes include grilled Brixham squid with pea, broad bean and mint salad; Shetland hake fillet, roasted chicory, Grelot onions, Datterini tomatoes and salsa verde; and Suffolk Texel Cross lamb leg with Cornish Mids, baby gem, pancetta and anchovy.

Unsurprisingly given Vinoteca’s focus on higher quality ingredients and suppliers, prices are at the higher end of mid-market with small plates averaging out at £9 and meat and fish mains around the £20 mark. In keeping with the vinous theme, the majority of dishes have a suggested by the glass wine match alongside them.


Having it large

Another big shift in Vinoteca’s strategy in recent years is the type of sites it takes. In the early days the trio took small neighbourhood sites - Farringdon, Chiswick and Marylebone - but following the success of a larger, more prominent site in Soho Vinoteca has pivoted to sites in busier, more mainstream locations.

Soho eventually closed due to issues with the licence but it worked “incredibly well” according to Young. “We’ve found these larger sites - in particular King’s Cross - to be much easier to operate profitably all throughout the day. Neighbourhood places can be more tricky because you have to work with the rhythm of the neighbourhood.”

The concept has remained the same despite the transition to more glamorous real estate. Earlier this month it was announced that Vinoteca would close its Marylebone site with the team offered positions at Vinoteca’s other London sites, including its recently opened site in the new Borough Yards development.


Paradise nearly lost

In the works for the past five years or so, Vinoteca Birmingham certainly fits into this new model of site, occupying a cavernous site in the city’s uncharacteristically handsome Chamberlain Square close to Dishoom, Rosa’s Thai and Albert Schloss. Woonton and Young aren’t doing things by halves: the 4,500sq ft venue will be Birmingham’s largest wine bar with 150 covers set across a ground and mezzanine floor, and 40 seats on the outdoor terrace.

Part of the city’s high-profile Paradise development, the site was originally slated to open in March 2020 but - as Young eloquently puts it - the “big shit hit the big fan”.

Related Argent (formerly just Argent) approached the group for its latest project following the success of the Vinoteca within its prominent Pancras Square development in King’s Cross. “That was obviously nice, but we really do like Birmingham having now been regularly going up there for the last five years or so,” says Young. “The city has a great vibe and a good appetite for new things. We’re confident about it.”

The pair have also found safe hands to run it, including the former head chef of King’s Cross, who is moving up to Birmingham with his family.

The opening is billed as a ‘dipping of the toe’ into the regions. “If we can make it work in Birmingham - and we think we can - we will start looking at places like Manchester,” says Woonton.

“The key thing for us is understanding how to work a remote site. We’ve been talking to Dishoom and Hawksmoor (sector veteran Paul Campbell is chairman of Vinoteca and is also on the board at Hawksmoor) about how they do it. That info is seriously useful to us.”

With Vagabond also choosing Birmingham as the location for its first venue outside of London (launched late last year) the timing seems right for a more UK-wide approach for Vinoteca. 

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