Given London’s hospitable environment for entrepreneurs and its flowering gastronomic scene, it’s no surprise that Tom Harrow calls the city home. Known professionally as the WineChap, he can be seen quaffing exciting vinos in bars across the city, helping personal collectors beef up their stocks, assisting restaurants with their wine lists – even leading decidedly off-kilter events like the naughty “Wines of Rapture” pairing class. We sat down with the WineChap for his insider tips on the best London wine menus, advice on how amateurs can navigate esoteric wine lists, and his favourite driving tips outside of the city.
Wine can seem like an intimidating field for amateurs. How did you first get started, and how do you recommend aspiring oenophiles follow suit?
Aged 15, I had a French teacher who insisted on us learning wine tasting. Although being encouraged to drink at school was quite sufficient a draw, I really appreciated the process and those early attempts at description. If you don’t have sufficiently unorthodox teachers at school – taste and read widely, ask questions of sommeliers and merchants, but most of all, visit as many vineyards and winemakers as you can. And never stop.
How would you characterise the evolving London wine scene? Are we a wine lover’s city?
It’s never been better, and expanding in all directions – places like 28˚ - 50˚ and Vinoteca – from this new breed of the old school ranging to edgier places like Sager + Wilde, plus natural wine leaders like Terroirs. London is the best place in the world for wine right now – only New York and possibly San Francisco come close.
You’ve done a good deal of wine consulting work with restaurants. What’s the number one thing a venue needs to think about when devising their wine programme?
Getting the balance right between your brilliant concept/vision and what customers actually want to drink.
Wine menus are often full of jargon or vague descriptions. Do you have any quick tips and tricks to help the timid choose the right wine off the bat?
Always go with something you can pronounce.
You’ve had a long, hard day. Do you have a favourite wine to unwind with when you head home?
My day revolves around wine – when I get home I am far more likely to have a glass of water.
Your Altitude Tasting was quite the event. What’s the most unusual event you’ve helped host? Any previews of future tastings or occasions for us to look forward to?
Most unusual was probably Wines of Rapture at erotic boutique Bordello. We paired a selection of wines with various erotica illustrating different stages of the sexual experience.
Coming up: English Sparkling wine and truffle hunting; Game Drives & Wine Flights – a safari in the Sabi Sabi reserve co-hosted with our favourite South African winemakers; The launch of “Beyond Burgundy” – our initiative to raise the profile of top Pinot Noir from around the world; Our next Altitude Tasting in May, bigger, better, more outrageous; and then there will be more Drink Like Bond Tastings, Big Sherry Breakfasts, Sabrage Masterclasses, Not Your Usual Curry Nights, EnoClub dates etc etc. We’ll also be doing something amazing at Wilderness next year with PIWOSA but that’s under wraps for now.
When assisting private collectors who are looking to build up their cellars, where’s your typical starting point?
The Ivy, for a three-bottle lunch, during which I ascertain a client’s wine tastes. Unlike traditional merchants we don’t keep stock so the starting point is not what we have to sell but what they want to buy.
What are your go-to wine destinations in London? Any up-and-coming bars and restaurants that are doing interesting things?
I mentioned 28˚ - 50˚ – their collector’s list is a firm favourite and I love hanging out with Ian and Will at 10 Cases in Covent Garden. If I lived further east then I’d often be propping up the bar at S&W. Soif in Battersea is a regular haunt and Enoteca Turi in Putney has London’s best Italian winelist, also recently opened Gymkhana in Mayfair has a fun list, well paired to their superb Anglo-Indian cuisine. 1707 – the wine bar at Fortnum & Mason has always been a fave - you can drink any bottle from the shop for £10 corkage. I love sherry so the explosion of tapas bars is welcome – Drake’s Tabanco is a particularly welcome new addition.
If you could take a driving day trip anywhere outside of London, where would you go?
I tend to prefer staying overnight so I can enjoy too much wine but I do like a day at the races and the back roads through the Cotswolds to Cheltenham are suitably picturesque.
What makes London a particularly exciting or hospitable place for entrepreneurs like yourself?
The city’s openness to new ideas and appreciation of individuality and the wide variety of influential people based here.
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