Victoria Sharples is a long way from her original home in Melbourne, but with her new Swains Wine Bar & Store she wants to bring a little bit of that Victorian vibe to the local community next to Hampstead Heath in north London. Sharples is well placed to know what makes a good wine bar for not only did she used to run venues in Melbourne, she was, for a number of years, wine director at London institution, St JOHN, and hopes all that experience can bear fruit at her first UK venue. Richard Siddle took a trip to Hampstead Heath to enjoy the Swains experience for himself.
Swains is the “ideal place to escape and indulge in a world of proper wine and proper food”. That’s what the website says and that’s what you will experience if you go and visit, says Richard Siddle.
The first thing you notice about walking into Swains is how comfortable it makes you feel. Even when there is nobody there and it has not opened for lunch yet. You are immediately drawn to the large rectangular bar that dominates the room and brings back memories of Cheers and Norm and Fred sitting on stools nursing another beer.
It’s not exactly the image that Victoria Sharples is going for, but she says it’s something many of her regulars have picked up on. A bar where you might go in alone, but soon find yourself talking to others sitting at the bar around you.
Now that is very much the atmosphere that Sharples wants to create: “I wanted to have a central bar that could dominate the restaurant. It’s really important to have a bar where people can just come in, sit down and have a chat. Where people know your name – and it’s local.”
An environment where people just feel happy passing the time of day, enjoying a carefully curated glass of wine or two, paired with delicious, innovative dishes and snacks from the kitchen.
A serious wine bar that does not take wine too seriously. OK, it’s a mantra that has been used elsewhere but here you have Sharples’ laid back, friendly, but also professional personality to go with it.
Lots of touches
It’s clear she has been thinking about running her own wine bar for some time. Swains is full of lots of little touches, be it a wall of mini mirrors, vintage drinks posters, wine maps, old wine bottles, shelves of jugs and jars, that on their own don’t stand out, but together help create a relaxed, almost homely environment.
It’s the same with the wine list itself where every bottle is available by the glass if you want it, but most people go for the rotating selection of four whites and four reds that Sharples might have opened at any given time.
“People will come in and ask ‘what’s open’. I like that. It’s great. That’s what I want. It’s all part of trying to create an identity,” she says. “I have been inspired by the Melbourne by the glass concept that Gerald Diffey championed at his bar Gerald’s – it really took off there.”
When a bottle of wine is opened she looks to go through it quickly. “I don’t use Coravin. Once we open a bottle of wine we make it available by the glass and it soon goes that day.”
It’s why she has deliberately set out the wine list, not by country or region, but by “weight and style” as she believes that’s how most people talk about the wines they like. “They want either a lighter style, or medium, or full bodied. They don’t come in asking for a particular country.”
So the list is broken down into sections that include: ‘Medium bodied to fully bodied’; or ‘Lighter, crunchy, fresh reds’; to ‘Juicy, medium through to fuller rich reds’; or ‘Fun Bits – Bubbles, rosé and sherries’.
Wines by the glass start at £7.50 and go up to £22.50 and if you really like what you taste you can take home a bottle for the list price less £15.
To make it onto the list she is looking for wines that are true to where they come from and are great examples of that grape variety. “Purity of fruit” and “typicity” are phrases Sharples goes back to time after time. She is also looking for “compelling” and “fresh” wines that are “easy to drink” offer “good value” and go with a wide range of dishes.
“There is nothing on the list that I would not want to drink myself,” she says and adds there is not a lot of demand for natural and orange wines in her area. “Biodynamics and organics, yes.”
She also has the ‘Two Bottle’ section of the list which she looks to highlight old and new vintages of a wine from the same producer where she will only buy one bottle of each. Another way to create a bit of personality for Swains through the wines it offers, she adds.
Sharples says she works with a number of different suppliers in order to find the sort of selection she wants. Which means “cherry picking” from some of the bigger players and is happy to name check Thorman & Hunt, Alliance Wine and Graft as key suppliers.
It is, she says, a painstaking process and she “will taste through everything” in order to find what is right for her. “Ultimately it is all about quality and price.”
She certainly does not look to “fill gaps” or have certain wines on the list – there are no on-trade classics like Proseccos, Malbecs or Pinot Grigios on her list.
Creating an identity
Creating an ‘identity’ in what is a strong local community – where you are as likely to bump into Harry Styles as you are the local vicar, or head of the local Rotary Society – has been a key part of Swains first few months of opening.
It’s why she has made the bar officially “dog friendly” – with painted portraits of all types of dogs dotted around the venue. Which makes a lot of sense considering it is just across the road from the Hampstead Heath where it is almost impossible to see anyone walking without a dog lead in their hand. She wants Swains to be the pit stop you make after taking the dog for a walk. The place you arrange to meet fellow dog owners. A key part of the local community.
Bringing in a dedicated, classically-trained chef – Sophia Vieira – originally from Portugal, having spent the past six years at private clubs in Mayfair – has also been important, says Sharples, in raising its profile and it is now offering a wide range of dishes and snacks that again have a nod to her Melbourne roots.
If you go you must try the ‘Eggplant chips’ which she says are inspired by her days frequenting Melbourne’s Gypsy Bar and are by far the best way ever to enjoy aubergine – fried and dipped in chilli mayo.
The menu also includes fresh oysters, fried mackerel fillet, rib eye steak, plaice in meunière sauce, and a die for saffron risotto with slow cooked pork cheeks. Or at least it did when I visited. Sharples says she is keen to keep some regulars on the menu and then move with the seasons through the year.
“We want to offer good quality food that is not too fussy, but are all based on pure flavours and locally sourced, seasonal produce. There is no set theme,” she explains.
She says she also wants to create that atmosphere you find in bars in San Sebastián where you can go in and have either a snack or a proper meal and feel completely relaxed.
“I have missed a place you can go to like that in London. Where you, the customer, make it what you want. I am pleased we get a lot of single females coming here and single diners.”
Sharples is also honing her wine skills and expertise by hosting a growing number of wine tastings which are meant to be much more of a casual chat rather than a full blown masterclass.
If her guests want to trade up and go into all the technical and viticultural details then she can, but most of all she wants them to have a good time, enjoy great wines, hopefully learn a few things along the way, and most of all want to come back, try another session and bring some friends along at the same time.
“I love interacting with people and being able to share my passion and knowledge.”
She also runs “around the bar” sessions where she can chat to a number of guests around the bar and take them through wines in a “nice and informal” way – billed as “tasting wine with Victoria”. One session is called “Yin and Yang wines” where she will pick out two wines from the same region that are poles apart. “We want to make wine nice and accessible.”
Swains also wears two hats, for as well as the bar, Sharples has set up part of the venue as a separate wine merchants business which again is finding its feet with the locals.
The list here is completely different to what is available in the bar and she currently lists around 100 wines in the shop, but is looking to expand the range. There are plenty of wines from Australia, particularly, Victoria, that she would like to bring over in time. “There is a lot of potential.”
Here she is more willing to put retailer favourites on the list and does, for example, have a Prosecco and Malbec. Her retail list has a good selection from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as touches from Greece and Slovakia.
There is a similar approach to the bar in terms of how the wines are sold with Sharples using four word descriptors that use terms such as “light and fresh” or “supple and luscious”.
Swains is also starting up its own wine club business and you can sign up to get monthly wine cases that she says will be tailored to the individual customer rather than have one size fits all approach.
Sharples says she has been inspired a lot on the retail side by her time working with Mike and Karen Rogers at Philglas & Swiggot. “They had a big influence on me and why it is so important to be part of your local community. Your wine store should be part of their extended family.”
Going it alone
It might be her first wine bar, but it is not the first time Sharples has run her own business. Before moving into hospitality she ran two different wine distribution businesses, first in the UK with Intwine, that specialised in bringing in wines from Victoria, Australia. Then in Australia she set up The Wine Station that looked to bring interesting wines from around Europe into Australia that she ran for 10 years. She then moved back to the UK to head up wine operations at St JOHN.
“I have, though, worked as a sommelier helped out in a lot of restaurants and used to work at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Melbourne,” she says.
“I have spent a lot of time behind the scenes in restaurants, writing wine lists, so seen a lot of how it all works. But this is my first time as a restaurateur and I think I have got a concept that works. Where everyone is welcome.”
- If you would like to go and experience Swains for yourself then go to its website here.
- Victoria Sharples is looking at other projects and opportunities for Swains and is keen to talk to any potential investors.