Grapes are extremely thin-skinned and temperamental. Part of the beauty of making wine is turning that delicate, easily agitated fruit into something longer-lasting and less ephemeral - a product that will stand the test of time. Part of the problem with the wine world is that the people who drink it are often thin-skinned, temperamental, and prone to using words like "ephemeral" to describe their drink.
The snobbery surrounding merlot, the flagrant use of descriptors like "cat's pee" or a "freshly opened can of tennis balls": it's enough to put most people off trying to learn more about wine. But in east London, a rush of hot new wine-world talent is cutting out the verbal flagellations of the traditional wine experience by rethinking the old-school wine club.
Take Planque, a wine-drinkers' clubhouse in the east of London setting out to change the perception of the oenophile from someone that's stuffy and stuck-up to laid-back and fun. It's a slick space in Haggerston - brought to life by London's Lipton Plant Architects and Danish interior designers Studio X - where you won't find people over-romanticising wine like they're training to become a master sommelier. Instead, Planque is populated by people dressed in Japanese denim who have a deep appreciation of wine without any of the wankery. It's just one of the many wine clubs currently taking over London like a blush.
Oranj opened in Shoreditch this month. | Photo credit: Harriet Langford
"I wanted to create a wine-centric venue that was equally formal and casual, with a great list and wine service, as well as delicious food," says Planque's founder Jonathan Alphandery. "The club aspect was intrinsic to this, as we wanted to create a community of like-minded drinkers."
Planque was borne from Alphandery's passion for wine - he's built himself an impressive personal collection of minimal intervention wines through relationships with various sommeliers, importers, and restaurateurs - and the space's success has come thick and fast. Despite having only been open for a year, Planque has already got about 70 members in its wine club and was awarded the Best Short List in the UK Wine List of the Year 2022 for its carefully curated list of bottles.
How does the "club" aspect of Planque actually work? Well, each member gets their own designated storage allocation of 72 bottles, or six cases of wine, which can be kept safe and sound in the impressive double-archway cellar. Members are welcome to use as little or as much of their storage allocation as they want while they build and develop their collections. But it's not just about having a place to store and drink good wine. It's about having the right people to drink it with.
"The community aspect is the most important - it's not about social status or anything," says Alphandery. "Wine is a shared passion by so many people, who seem to have a hard time connecting. We bridge the gap."
Bottle-based nights run by Dalston Wine Club.
Planque members receive a corkage allowance of two bottles each month to drink within the restaurant and lounge, free of charge. That's a bargain considering the eye-watering rates most London restaurants charge you to drink your own plonk, but it provides members with a chance to share the bottles and producers they're passionate about with people who give a shit.
Alphandery also hosts monthly wine dinners at Planque, where he'll pull out some bottles from his personal cellar to accompany a multi-course meal. Speaking of, the food offering at the clubhouse is a major draw. With chef Sebastian Myers on the hobs, the culinary output is always changing and consistently delicious. Think plates of seared bream with kale and almond, or braised piattone beans with pork jowl ragout, walnuts, and pickled elderberries. It's undoubtedly Parisien-influenced, yet totally London in its execution.
The reason that most people join a wine club is simple: to enjoy drinking and appreciating wine with others on the same wavelength. The girls that get it, get it. That much is obvious. But like any club, a wine club is also something that people join because they want to be a part of something exclusive and, more importantly, something "cool". 67 Pall Mall is a private members' club in St James's designed for wine lovers and wine-industry folk who have got money to burn. It might not be everyone's idea of "cool", but it's undoubtedly exclusive. An annual membership at 67 Pall Mall costs £2,500. And that's only after you've been vouched for by a current member as someone worthy of membership. Candidates applying for membership require what's known as a "proposer" and "seconder" from within the club's existing membership.
Memberships for wine professionals are slightly more affordable, at £1,250 a year, and it's worth noting that, spread across three dashing floors, 67 Pall Mall positions itself as a professional space for masterclasses, wine tastings, dinners and business meetings. It's a wine club designed for two specific kinds of people: those who are incredibly serious about wine, and those who are incredibly serious about networking with people who are incredibly serious about wine.
I wanted to create a place where everyone could feel comfortable and could learn about wineHannah Crosbie, Dalston Wine Club
Needless to say, accessibility has always been an issue in the wine world. Wine lists without any bottles under £32 are just the tip of the iceberg; the demand for more affordable ways to enjoy wine has skyrocketed. That desire for unpretentious avenues in which to explore the world of wine - without the fear of someone judging you for not knowing what brettanomyces are - is why one of the hottest properties in the east London wine circuit right now is a ticket to the Dalston Wine Club.
Run by wine and food writer Hannah Crosbie, this inclusive event series brings young people into the bottle fold. Crosbie's events - which have included everything from "An Evening of Burgundy" to celebrate International Women's Day and female wine producers in Tottenham, to a rosé showcase in Chelsea - are centered around demystifying the esoteric world of wine and welcoming all sorts of wine lovers with open arms.
Each Dalston Wine Club sticks to a specific theme, with Crosbie working closely with various importers to make sure every bottle hits the mark. Tickets are limited and spaces tend to be capped at 35 people, to keep things intimate and personal.
"In its most basic sense, Dalston Wine Club is what I wish had existed when I was trying to get into wine," Crosbie tells SUITCASE. "Developing a knowledge and palate for wine is impossibly expensive, and when you don't have a lot of money or your daddy doesn't have a wine cellar, it can be an incredibly isolating experience. The wine events I was going to were either super-stuffy lectures with minuscule pours, or they were very middle-class, exclusionary and mega-expensive. At the time, there was nothing like it, but I knew that I wanted to create a place where everyone could feel comfortable and could learn about wine. In that regard, I find the 'club' part of the name 'Dalston Wine Club' to be ironic - it's for everybody."
Lounge and dining spaces at Planque, Haggerston. | Photo credit: Jeff Boudreau
The affordability of Crosbie's events combined with a no-silly-questions approach to talking about wine makes them a real breath of fresh air that runs against the grain of more standardised wine education. Doing WSET training is an excellent way to learn the ins and outs of the wine world, but not everyone out there is enthralled by the idea of doing homework and exams in their spare time. "Wine clubs are the perfect place to learn more," explains Crosbie.
Natural wine, in particular, seems to be surfing at the top of a rising wave in London. Oranj, an independent online shop launched by Jasper Delamothe during lockdown to teach people about small producers making interesting wine, opened its first bricks-and-mortar wine bar and kitchen in Shoreditch this November. Housed in a 185sq m warehouse, the achingly cool natural wine bar is aimed at drinkers who like their wines to be sourced from producers who are open and honest about their farming practices. Oranj has also launched a membership, Club Oranj. Invite-only (unless a space opens up), it offers monthly bottle deliveries (complete with mix-tapes, tasting notes and A3 artwork by a local design studio), plus early-bird access to the company's tasting and music events. South London bottle shop Hop Burns & Black has also hopped (sorry) on the trend with its Super Natural Wine Club - a regular get-together where punters can buy tickets for £25 and sample six glasses of natural wine.
Natural wines are - perhaps inevitably given the recent explosion of wine bars selling the stuff - becoming the hottest bin in the wine-club offering. "Natural wine doesn't look like their parents' châteaux-clad bottles," says Hannah Crosbie. "There's something about it that makes it feel rebellious, like it belongs to their generation." In short: it's cool. But there's more to it than fancy graphic labels and zero-sulphite bragging rights.
"The other side to natural wine is that it creates this dichotomy that I talk about a lot: between 'good' natural wine, and 'bad' regular wine," adds Crosbie. "We hear that everything that doesn't have visible sediment has been bollocked with pesticides and is 90 per cent sulphur, which simply isn't true. It's also the case that now a lot of people perceive wines as 'funky' when they are actually downright faulty."
When it boils down to it, there's good wine and there's bad wine. It's knowing which is which that can cause some issues. We live in a digital age where there's so much noise and choice that it's often hard to decipher between the two and hard to tell what lives up to the hype and what's simply a damp squib. It is, therefore, the role of curators and clubs like Dalston Wine Club and Planque to help consumers avoid the bad and drink the good.
"The wine club culture there is in the UK definitely paved the way for us to be where we are now," Alphandery tells SUITCASE. And where Planque is right about now is at the top of its game. Things are looking up for Dalston Wine Club, too. Following a number of many sell-out events at various locations, it will soon be moving into a new home in Rondo La Cave - a wine bar and restaurant located underneath The Hoxton in Holborn. "As for the future, the possibilities are endless," says Crosbie. "I can't wait to see where we go next." Join the club.