Tired of the stuffy Scottish drinks scene, Stuart McCluskey wants to make wine fun for a new generation
There will probably be one sitting near you if you’re off to a dinner party tonight. Here’s how to identify them. First, there’s the exaggerated swirl of the wine glass. Then there’s the look-at-me slurp followed by a five minute soliloquy about vintages, tannins and terroir. The wine bore is exactly that, but for many of us, they personify the industry and are putting us off getting to grips with the grape.
It’s this situation that Stuart McCluskey is trying to change with new Edinburgh booze boutique The Bon Vivant’s Companion. Located on Thistle Street next door to its sister bar and restaurant, The Bon Vivant, he wants to shake things up in 2012.
All blond wood and hand-written labels, this New Town shop (which also houses a small deli and basement sampling cellar) is winning him recognition as the newest name on the capital’s wine scene.
When we meet one autumn afternoon, it’s easy to see why. With long hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing a checked scarf, the 35-year-old Fifer has a dress sense that says cool creative much more than it does wine snob. And, with an easy confidence combined with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject, you find yourself really wanting to talk wine and not just drink it.
“It’s simple: wine is fun and it’s there to be enjoyed,” he says. “In Scotland we either don’t care about what we eat or drink or, if we do, we don’t let our hair down as we take the subject far too seriously for the wrong reasons. You’d be amazed by how many people talk a big game yet know very little, but it’s because of this rather pompous philosophy that the industry has always seemed so stuffy.”
Stuffy it may seem, but we are clearly enjoying its produce. According to the International Wine and Spirits Research (IWSR), the UK is cementing its position as the world’s biggest wine importer with sales set to hit £9 billion by 2014. So why do so many of us seem reluctant to engage with the topic?
“When I was growing up, wine was regarded as something that was elitist, but almost everyone drinks wine now,” says British Master of Wine and wine writer, Tim Atkin (www.timatkin.com). “Today, I don’t think it’s true to say that young people aren’t interested in wine – I believe that wine has become a part of most weekly shops – but the high prices of fine wine and some of the pretentious terms that what I call ‘cork dorks’ use to describe it can be off-putting. Most people don’t know what malolactic fermentation is and care even less, so the next challenge is to persuade consumers that it’s worth paying a little more to drink better wine.”
McCluskey agrees. “New World countries don’t have the same archaic attitudes towards wine so young people are much more engaged and enthusiastic about it,” he says. “I was very much part of the pinot grigio generation but I’d like to play a part in helping people to break out of their comfort zone that is normally located around the second or third wine down the list.”
McCluskey’s introduction to the hospitality industry came via a student job in a bar in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge. From that point on he was hooked and he set to work climbing the career ladder. A stint at Browns exposed him to large-scale dealings with food and drink while a job at David Ramsden’s Rogue restaurant helped develop his appreciation of fine dining and good wine. The chance to help launch the erstwhile Circus Café enabled him to indulge his creative side.
Three years ago he realised his dream of opening up his own establishment, and while The Bon Vivant and its Companion might be named after a 19th century bartender’s guide, their attitudes are distinctly modern.
“I offer everything by the glass and I’ve deliberately avoided structuring the wine list by price to encourage customers to read through the entire thing. To make this fun, I’ve made sure all our staff combine first-class training with a relaxed attitude so everyone feels they can taste whatever they want – if they don’t like it they’re welcome to try something else. Every three months I hold tasting sessions for customers in which they can select the wines they think should go on the wine list.”
But with a recession, it has not been an easy ride. “I always knew it was going to involve 80-90 hour weeks and a water-tight business plan. My parents helped out but I used all my savings and had to go the bank as well,” McCluskey says of how he got the cash together for the ventures. “Luckily, you don’t need millions to create something cool – my dad and I did most of the decorating ourselves. The rest is all about attitude”.
It’s this attitude that makes things exciting. “I love travel, and I’m constantly picking up ideas wherever I go, although London and New York are my favourite places to see innovation. I am always reading − I like wine writers Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson and magazines like Class, Imbibe and Decanter.”
These influences are keenly felt at The Bon Vivant’s Companion as McCluskey strives to stay ahead of the curve. “There’s a developing trend in organic and biodynamic wines but now there’s a demand for natural wine in which there’s minimal chemical and technological intervention allowed in the wine making production process. These wines can vary quite considerably in their quality, but I’ve tasted some wonderful ones which will enable me to offer something to the more environmentally-conscious wine drinker.”
But, says McCluskey, it’s not just about what’s sold, but how it is sold that makes the difference. “I am a truly independent retailer, and as a result, I don’t have to care about the psychology of putting certain things on certain shelves to boost sales. I can do things my way which has been to simplify without dumbing down. I’ve chosen not to categorise wine by region but to split them up into styles − for whites there’s crisp and fresh, floral and aromatic, and rich and complex whilst the reds are split into light and elegant, medium and mellow, and big and bold – which often encourages customers to try something new. We are creatures of habit but I am trying to change that without forcing or patronising people.”
So what does he think of the wine industry as a whole? “The situation is, in general, pretty poor as the Scottish bar scene has been through a little bit of a dark period in the last three to four years,” says McCluskey. “For a long time everyone was doing the same thing and nobody seemed excited; they were all just trying to maximise profit, but there has been a shift in Edinburgh with a few out-and-out wine bars such as Le Di-Vin, Ecco Vino and Divino doing interesting things as well as us.”
And it’s not just the small independents breaking the mould. “All Bar One were, in fact, the first to try,” he says. “Last summer, they had a whole page of vermouths on their wine list which is a popular drink in Italy or France but relatively unknown to us in the UK. It wasn’t ground-breaking, but for such a big brand to do something like that was brilliant and it really encouraged George Street to fall into line with what the trend-setting bars are doing in the UK. As a result, Edinburgh is punching above its weight nationally and the big players with the fat cheque books are all looking to us to see what’s going to happen next.”
• The Bon Vivant’s Companion, 51 Thistle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1DY, tel: 0131-225 6055, www.bonvivantedinburgh.co.uk