We’ve all been there: you’re on the way to a party, trying to choose which wine to take. Which country of origin should you look out for? Which vintage will make you look discerning? How cheap is too cheap?
Cambridge Wine Merchants, which has four branches in Cambridge, plus several out of town, are all about making the wine-buying experience easier and more enjoyable. I popped in to their recently revamped Bridge Street branch, now much roomier with tables to sit at and peoplewatch, for a chat with owner Hal Wilson – and a tour of his latest acquisitions.
“There’s a story behind every bottle,” he explains, showing me their current display of wines from Spain, then moving on through France, the New World and beyond. “We’ve got great wines at every price point, and wines you won’t see widely elsewhere. It keeps things exciting. Vintages will change, there’ll be new wines that excite us: at the moment we’ve got lots from Spain and the south of France. We’re trying to bring a bit of that sunshine to Cambridge.”
Hal set up Cambridge Wine Merchants in 1993 with business partner Brett Turner. The two met at uni, where Hal called on local lad Brett’s expertise to help organise the catering at the Peterhouse May Ball. Hal was studying classics, but says he always had a mind to start up his own business:
“My parents are self-employed, so maybe it’s in my blood,” he ponders. “And I always knew there was something magical about wine: opening one of my father’s 20-year-old bottles would be a real family occasion. He had a real reverence for wine.”
In a nice closing of the circle, as well as running their shops Hal and Brett also supply local pubs, restaurants and the Cambridge colleges – including many a May Ball.
So, what would he recommend for me; a semi-reluctant wine drinker with a sweet tooth?
“I’d go straight for this one,” he says, picking up a slim green bottle – a Torres Esmeralda, priced around £8. “It uses a grape called the Moscatel, making it one of the few wines that actually smells and tastes like grapes. It’s sweet and fresh, and made by one of the masters of winemaking.” I’m sold.
Spain seems the vintage to watch for 2013, and Cambridge Wine Merchants recently picked up a significant award for their Spanish wines: voted the UK ’s No.1 Independent Wine Merchants by the Best of Spain Awards. They’re also Large Independent Merchant of the Year in the UK 2013, and International Wine Challenge’s Merchant of the Year 2012.
So what makes Hal’s business model a winner?
“Hard work, enthusiasm and really caring about the customers,” he replies. “We have a team of buyers, and we buy independently, so we can buy what we like, and what we think our customers will like. We read and read, taste and taste – and taste some more – and find what we think will work.
“We’ve been very fortunate in Cambridge in the last five years. You don’t have to go far to see towns where every other shop is closed down. Whereas we’ve had real investment in the city centre, and people have really been getting behind the independent scene lately.”
Finally, I ask, am I the only one who can’t smell gooseberries or oak or cheese at wine tastings? Are people sometimes just making it up?
“That’s a really interesting question!” he laughs. “Actually, I’ve done quite a lot of work on this. As a sense, smell has been historically downgraded – it had its day a long time ago when we relied on smell for survival. So because we don’t have much training in using smell, describing smells is really difficult. I don’t like describing wine as a grocery list – it’s the emotional reaction that counts, and that’s different for each of us.
"Our sense of smell is hardwired into our deep memories. It bypasses conscious thought. We are smelling the same thing, but we’re having a different reaction. It’s more like listening to music. So I like to tell people the story behind a wine, and let them taste it and make their own judgement.”
Branches in Mill Road, Bridge Street, King’s Parade and Cherry Hinton Road.