In 2013, Sager + Wilde was radical. The converted East-End boozer, with exposed brick and worn bar stools, wasn’t like anything else in town. They took fine wine and made it cool – serving iconic Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and more at what seemed almost absurd prices. The team was young, hip and approachable. There were no tablecloths or snooty sommeliers. Forget fine dining, the menu here offered grilled cheese, the scent of oozing fat filling the space as it melted. The bar – made from a strip of cast-iron pavement lighting – became iconic. It was, back then, a lone outpost in this part of Hackney and its hi-lo dichotomy drew crowds from all over London.
‘I got lucky with that wine bar,’ Michael Sager says to me with a smile and a shrug as he looks back on Sager + Wilde’s runaway success. It’s a decade since he and his then partner, Charlotte Wilde, opened the doors to their spot on Hackney Road, following on from a pop-up that had established the duo on London’s wine scene.
The concept for the bar had been spawned in California. Bored of managing bars and already equipped with his WSET Diploma, Sager wanted to immerse himself in a wine region and, along with Wilde, set off for California. Sager ended up working at RN74, the Burgundy-focused restaurant Rajat Parr opened with Michael Mina. His exposure to top Burgundy, paired with the laid-back vibe of Tartine (where Wilde was working), prompted an idea worth exporting.
‘We did it only for marketing,’ Sager says of the bar’s unique proposition: fancy wine at cut prices. ‘It was provocative.’ He credits The Clove Club’s Isaac McHale for inspiring their grilled cheese but the other key element to their success, in his mind, was the staffing; the opening team was, except for him, all female – a deliberate choice, Sager says, to help make it feel less ‘hostile’.
Whether a fortuitous accident or not, the duo sparked a revolution. Terroirs and 10 Cases had been servicing Central London since 2009 and 2011 respectively but Sager + Wilde seemed to be the tinder that lit the fire – proving that there was a thriving market for fine wine outside a Michelin-starred setting. Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels and The Remedy opened in 2013, followed by the Winemakers Club (2014) and the first Noble Rot (2015). New arrivals P. Franco and The Laughing Heart (2014 and 2016, respectively) were further proof that fine wine was trickling into the outer boroughs, especially in the increasingly gentrified east.
Not all of those names have survived, with Covid, Brexit and rising costs across the board making hospitality an increasingly tough environment – but Sager + Wilde has. The couple have parted ways, and Wilde is no longer involved [she was approached for this feature and didn’t respond], but the empire continues to grow.
In 2014, the duo opened their second outpost in Bethnal Green. Originally called Mission and California-themed, it was re-launched as Sager + Wilde Paradise Row after a costly lawsuit over the rights to the name. Sager opened a restaurant near Old Street in 2018 (Fare) which he has since sold. In the same year, he created an agave spirits brand, El Destilado, with Alex Wolpert (of the East London Liquor Company), before building a wine import business (Sager + Wine) under lockdown in 2020. In May of this year, he swung open the doors to his latest venture, Equal Parts, an amaro and aperitivo bar just a few doors along from the original Sager + Wilde on Hackney Road.
Sager deliberately avoids the term ‘natural wine’ (‘It alienates people,’ he says) when discussing the evolution of his bars, but it’s where his tastes now lean. ‘Flirting with faults or defects is super interesting… flying that close to the sun. Perfection is there, for me,’ he explains. A look at the Hackney Road wine list reinforces this view; it remains Eurocentric yet no longer as classical, with a heavy natural contingent. Dive in, however, and you’ll still find big names, rare gems and value buys at the top end – a bottle of 1985 Krug at £720 (available at Hedonism for a tidy £1,460), say, or Roulot’s 2014 Meursault Premier Cru Poruzot (good luck finding a bottle of that anywhere else).
Today, East London is arguably the forefront of the city’s fine dining scene. Natural wine has seized the spotlight and Coravin has democratised fine wine, much to Sager’s chagrin, who feels it undermines the value of knowledgeable staff equipped to sell such treasured liquids. The Sager + Wilde ethos, however, remains the same: ‘Still what we’re trying to do now, desperately, is be just a smidge cheaper than anyone else,’ Sager says – something that is undoubtedly harder than it was.
London’s wine scene might have changed irrevocably in the last decade but it doesn’t look like Sager will be left behind. The space at 193 Hackney Road, after all, was just the beginning – for both him and fine wine’s cool-factor.