Put me in a wine shop, give me £30 and see what I end up buying. I would probably walk away with something nice but not very exciting – the cost-benefit analysis would soon kick in and outweigh the temptation to gamble.
Cut to The Sampler, a new kind of wine shop where you credit a top-up card and stroll around high-tech dispensing machines, tasting a squirt of whatever you fancy, and the picture is quite different. OK, so my £30 didn’t last very long and it isn’t the cheapest way to buy wine, but then I got to try at least five wines I would never have had the money or the balls to fork out for by the bottle.
So it’s a wine shop where you pay for samples. There are three sample sizes for each wine, priced accordingly, with the smallest measure just big enough to get a proper taste. And the range of wines is refreshingly obscure and winningly niche, with 80 of the shop’s wines on tasting at any time, including an ‘Icons’ section, which allows the starry-eyed a shot at the big time. The most expensive squirt ever? An alarming £79 Chateau Lafite 1982, don’t you know.
From a literally explosive Italian red (strange fermentation stuff going on) to an ancient wine/sherry hybrid, the range in the shop left me feeling, paradoxically, that I knew nothing about wine, yet also that I had learned more than I would in a lifetime of visiting normal merchants. The oldest thing available to taste was squeezed from grapes growing when I was minus 21 years old; the oldest bottle in the whole shop a nonagenarian.
These sampling machines are causing quite a buzz, and look set to get more popular. The whole pay-per-taste element does definitely add an extra dimension – a way to explore wacky, expensive and obscure wines without committing too much financially. But in fact the shop would be nothing without an interesting selection on offer and the big reason you should visit is actually pretty straightforward: the manager, ex-venture capitalist Jamie Hutchinson, is a man who really knows his stuff.
Formal recognition for The Sampler team has already come in the form of an impressive trophy belt of the world’s top wine awards and a planned expansion into South Kensington later in the year has success written all over it. There may well be room for a few tasting bars as well, though this vision seems to be working very well. Just don’t be fooled that all the technology is the key to The Sampler’s success – a machine would never choose wines like these.
266 Upper Street
Tel: 0207 226 9500