Monkey business

22 February, 2008

Marc Wise and Matt Harris have expanded their offer to reach the on-trade, writes Laura Clark

Planet of the Grapes in Holborn isn't an impersonal wine merchant with bright clinical lighting and bottles uniformly stacked on identical stainless -steel shelves. Instead, an old wooden tasting table takes centre stage in the shop, all the wine descriptions are written by hand and a battered antique bath containing the latest bottles on promotion sits in the window. The idea that customers should be encouraged to sit down and take their time to explore the world of wine is replicated in the business's latest venture - a wine bar.

Here giving punters the opportunity to try older vintages and smaller parcels of wine takes priority over charging extortionate prices for the privilege of uncorking a bottle there and then. It's certainly rare in London to find a wine bar serving Premier Cru Burgundy for £28, let alone a 1983 Mouton Rothschild for the modest sum of £235.

OLN met owners Marc Wise and Matt Harris, and member of staff Stelios Eliades, to find out how the six-strong team are coping with juggling the demands of running a busy retail shop while its on-trade venture becomes a success.

How did you get into the wine business?

MW: I started at Oddbins in 1997

and after several years there

ended up working for La Reserve wine merchants.

Matt and I fancied having a crack ourselves, and buying and choosing our own wines. Planet of the Grapes started online, but we ran out of space in our houses and our wives were getting increasingly annoyed with

all the boxes.

Why did you choose to open the shop on New Oxford Street and the bar two miles away near Leadenhall


MW: We initially got the shop on a very short lease because they were going to level the building, so it was

very cheap . They

since changed their minds and we now have it until 2013. It used to be a male massage business - we use the treatment room

as a cellar for tastings and dinners , and every couple of months we run wine courses down there. The bar and the shop are close enough to benefit from the same customers.

Who are your customers?

MW: We kept lots of the customers from the internet and built up new ones. They're fairly affluent and come in to spend money but they do expect a high level of service. Most customers are quite young and tend to be professionals . The bar attracts an eclectic bunch, there

are a lot of media types and people who

are prepared to try new things.

SE: In the bar it's the city boys

at lunchtime

and more of a cross-section

in the evenings.

People feel comfortable here .

How do you decide what to stock?

MH: We buy wines if we like them and that's it. It's always going to be what we have enjoyed. Sometimes we have an odd range, like

10 Chardonnays from Australia and no Chablis, or one shelf I can see right now has a Ch âteauneuf -du -Pape

next to a Greek wine

and Massaya Gold from Leba non.

MW: We have a range of 530

and change around 50 wines a month. We sometimes buy cases from private cellars. Our cheapest bottle is £6 for a

fino, the average

is £14

and our most expensive is £45.

What's selling well and less well?

MH: Our best selling red is Chilean Bordeaux blend Vi ña Von Siebenthal (£12) and Propriedad Rioja Alvaro

(£18) is fantastic.

MW: Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner from Wachau, Austria, has a wonderful richness of fruit, but crisp acidity, and 2007 Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina, from just outside of San Sebastian in the Basque Country of northern Spain, is like licking limes off pebbles and goes brilliantly with seafood. A popular seller at Christmas is our own whisky. We

bought a 45-litre oak cask which

is currently filled with cask -strength 24 year old Glenglassaugh. Customers can personali se a label and bottle it themselves for £60.

Is the website still important to growing sales now you have a shop?

MW: Definitely,

because we've only been going for three years, so the first point of reference for people is to look online. The website is essential and a lot of people order from there. But because of the nature of the wines being eclectic, people often phone to talk it through.

How did the name Planet of the Grapes come about?

MH: A friend of ours had done a DJ mix album called Planet of the Breaks and we changed the last word. As soon as the name came out we fell about laughing. There were reservations, my father -in -law felt

we wouldn't be able to sell top -end wines with a name like that . But we 're selling top -quality stuff and it also shows we're not pretentious.

Why is the wine bar different to all the others in London?

SE: All the wines are priced at retail and we charge a £10 corkage fee, or £5 for half bottles, irrespective of price. Someone who comes in for a box of matches or a bottle of Dom P érignon will get the same level of service. There's no elitism and no gimmicks.

We only seat 24, so people can sit down and relax.

We sometimes have to turn people away, but it's more important that we look after the customers that are here. We have to make sure we give people the same value of service every time. There

are no

airs and graces, its

relaxed and pleasant.

We help people

understand , broaden

their horizons and giv e

them the opportunity to try stuff they haven't tried before.

It's very informal, we serve platters of meats and cheeses, and handmade pies from Pieminister in Bristol.

Do you think margins are too high in the on-trade?

SE: I am finding more and more restaurants being realistic about wine prices and I am heartened to see that. The more reasonably priced it is the more you're going to sell of it. It's about long -term objectives and enabling people to drink top -quality wine . We're trying to get customers to spend on more expensive bottles by keeping the corkage low.

What other sides are there to the business?

MW: We've been speaking to a friend of ours who runs a music festival on the Isle of W i ght - about having a tent where bands play acoustic sets and we can sell wines. It's about getting away from the stuffy side of wine.

MH: Every year we have a cricket match with Berkmann


Cellars to raise money for charity and we run an annual tasting - last year we had over 60 wines on show and managed an impressive turnout of around 320 people. We hire out the bar for weddings, engagement parties and birthdays with a £1,500 minimum spend.

How do you see the balance between the shop and the wine bar panning out?

MW: The shop will be the main focus because it's great for getting new wines in. The bar is an additional way to get people trying wines. We want people to try things like German Rieslings and Austrian Gr üner Veltliners. We're concentrating at the moment

on getting the bar up and running, and in the future we would like to open more bars rather than shops.

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