It sounds a great idea on paper: 100 distinctive wines from all around the world available not just by the glass but by the 50mL tasting sample to be sipped on comfy sofas, accompanied by a judicious selection of charcuterie and cheese. In practice, however, I found my first visit to Vagabond in Fitzrovia far from a relaxing and informative vinous experience.
Vagabond set out to shake up the wine retail industry in 2010 by offering wines on tap. And not the sort of pink Californian wine you’ll find coming out of a nozzle in a Wetherspoons pub or a fizzy alcoholized grape juice in a dire ‘prosecco bar’. The sorts of interesting, niche and often expensive wines that are generally unavailable to those of us outside the wine trade. At a time when most wine bars exuded an off-putting exclusivity and with supermarkets locked in a race to the bottom of the quality (and value for money) stakes, Vagabond set out to offer consumers a taste of some of the most rewarding – and affordable – wine experiences.
This is achieved through banks of tasting machines wherein bottles of wine are opened and stored under inert nitrogen gas. This slows down the oxidation process that causes wine to go off and allows the bottle to be left open for much longer than usual. You, the customer, load up a plastic card with credit, insert it into the machine and select which wine you’d like to taste and which volume. You can choose a range of sizes including a 50mL tasting sample. You hold your glass under a nozzle and (rather unromantically) out squirts your wine. Kind of a choose-your-own-adventure through the world of wine tasting that doesn’t involve acquiring and opening dozens of bottles yourself. This was pretty uncommon in a wine bar in 2010.
Today, however, this is no longer a new idea: there are plenty of bars – and retail stores – around London and beyond that offer this sort of experience. I like the concept. Wine geeks like me can get a kick out of tasting exotic, niche wines for a pound or so, and if you’re starting to get into your wine tasting or just want to sample a different sort of Sauvignon Blanc to the one you always buy then you can do so without committing to buying a bottle or six. Recently I went to the Sampler in Islington – a wine retail store with banks of these machines – with £20 and a fellow wine anorak and had a whale of a time. I tasted Anderson Valley Riesling from the USA, a range of whites from the south of France and a pair of single village Grand Cru Burgundies from 1998.
However, my visit to this branch of Vagabond (there are currently five) on Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, showed me the perils of incorporating the concept in a wine bar.
The idea with Vagabond is that you can enjoy a plethora of different wines on tap while simultaneously reclining in comfy sofas, catching up with your girlfriend, taking a special someone out on a date or just chewing the fat with your work colleagues. The problem is that for me, these sorts of experiences require a certain atmosphere and level of customer service that you just don’t get at Vagabond. Firstly, you arrive and look around for the wine list so you can decide what you might like to try. But there are none to hand. Of course – these hundred wines on tap must be rotated fairly frequently so there’s no point printing out a bunch of wine lists that will be out of date by next week. Understandable, but it means the only way to survey the wines and to figure out what you want to taste is to circumambulate the room peering at all the descriptions stuck above each bottle in their glass cages. This is fine in a wine retail store where all you need to do is squeeze past shelves of wine bottles or the odd empty table provided to rest your glass on. But Vagabond is a wine bar with comfy sofas and this is London, meaning it is a wine bar with comfy sofas situated in a corridor. And it is packed, because it is Tuesday and because it is London. Thus to check out the wines on display in the ‘spicy red’ section in the corner of this corridor, you need to navigate past small tables piled precariously with coats, handbags and wine glasses and slide your butt cheeks past the head of some poor customer who’s sitting on one of the sofas engrossed in the weekend gossip her girlfriend is recounting. Then you decide that the wines on offer in the ‘spicy red’ cabinet might not be quite as good value as the ones in the ‘smooth and velvety’ cabinet, so you shuffle back the way you came; sucking your tummy in to the wall as close as possible to avoid clobbering the same woman with your rear end. Good luck trying to do this as a pair, or a group of enthusiastic tasters wanting to compare notes, or if you’re not a wafer-thin supermodel. (To avoid some of the room-shuffling, a printed ‘wine map’ of the bar wouldn’t go far astray. Or just more noticeable signage.)
The experience is plenty stressful enough already, but then you have half the rest of the clientele trying to do the same thing at the same time as you, and a background music soundtrack like something out of a teenage dance party. When you finally find a seat and settle in for the five minutes it takes to taste your wine and exchange 4.5 sentences of conversation with your tasting partner in crime before having to repeat the shuffling experience to recharge your glasses, you run the risk of having the back of your own head knocked about by fellow punters squeezing past you on their way to the ‘light and racy’ whites section.
OK, perhaps there is a way to mitigate the drama and salvage the evening into something remotely relaxing. There may be no wine lists and no table service, but why not go to the counter to ask the staff manning the till if they can recommend a bottle to share? This means you can then settle in for the evening and avoid the constant shuffle around the room. The two staff at the counter during my visit were friendly enough but they weren’t exactly overflowing with helpful suggestions on how to navigate the array of 100 wines to source a bottle (you get the feeling most people go for the shuffling-and-tasting-by-glass sort of evening). They had run out of our first-choice wine and the recommended ‘similar’ alternative was similar only in the sense that it was also red and came in a bottle. It also desperately needed a decanter (it even suggested this on the label); however, none was forthcoming. (My top tip in this scenario: commandeer one of the water jugs, empty it into a pot plant and use this.)
Vagabond has its critics in saying the wines are overpriced. I am not one of them. Yes, there are some pricey bottles in the glass cabinets, but that is exactly the point of these tasting machines – to open up some of these expensive fine wines available in most restaurants by the bottle only. I can’t think of anywhere else where you could enjoy have a sample of 1983 Taylor’s vintage port for £4.50, for instance. Most samples are between £1 and £3, and the cheapest bottle was about £25. The price of a glass of wine is done strictly as a proportion of the bottle price. Not too far off a pub’s prices then and with a far more interesting (and boutique, more carefully-made) selection of wines, thus representing better value for your pound. Also in its favour, the Charlotte Street Vagabond also had a very impressive selection of sake. My criticisms are ones of atmosphere and of function. As well as being a place to taste interesting wine, a wine bar should also provide a relaxing experience. The staff should assist you in selecting a bottle that is actually available, and provide a decanter when the wine calls for it.
The verdict: a great idea – on paper. Vagabond gets points for an innovative, wide range of wines available at a fairly reasonable price. In my book, this makes it a great place for geeking out with a fellow wine nerd over some tasting samples of obscure wines. Not recommended for a first date or enjoying good conversation with an old friend. The atmosphere would be improved if there were actually fewer wines to choose from: less shuffling, more space; less choice, fewer rear-end-meets-back-of-head collisions; less time deciding, more time savouring. With the way things are at the moment though, you might find that the experience becomes a little too stressful and you end up choosing this bottle of Care Finca Bancales Reserva 2013 from Cariñena in Spain. Which would be unlucky as, despite a promising nose of barberry, licorice and hay, the palate was short, sour and disappointing.
Vagabond: 25 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 1RW. 0203 441 9210.