Pre-pandemic, online wine buying might have been prevalent – but many people sought out new finds and revisited old favourites by shopping at bricks-and-mortar retailers. But with lockdowns enforced worldwide, plugging in to get one-off wine deliveries or signing up to monthly subscription models was all part and parcel of our strange existence. In the UK, for example, online wine purchasing leapt up by 32% in 2020, compared to the year previous.
With an explosion of entirely new services and a raft of shops and restaurants entering the ecommerce space, the tyranny of choice hit hard. For those who previously found scouring a small shop wall tricky, there’s no doubt that scrolling endlessly would drain the last drop of fun from the purchasing process.
To plug this gap and to replicate the personalisation of an IRL buying journey, a new generation of virtual wine-matchmaking services is flourishing. In an age of algorithmic recommendations, services like Pickers and Modal Wines provide bespoke guidance from (human!) experts with deep knowledge of the wines on offer. “Wine shopping online can be so intimidating, so we aim to take the guesswork out of making a selection,” explains Nic Rizzi, of Modal Wines.
Large-scale retailers clearly don’t envisage online sales trickling away as lockdown eases, either – Virgin Wine’s free advisors are on the end of the phone and even Tesco is doing a wine pairing service by text, with part of the proceeds going to Hospitality Action. Online services which predated the pandemic, from the likes of Vivino and Honest Grapes, are also improving the way customers search and discover wine – which bodes well for your quest for the dream bottle, minus the headache.
Five of the UK’s best virtual wine-matching services
Sam Orbaum, restaurant manager at Harts Group (behind beloved London haunts Quo Vadis and Barrafina), started Pickers to keep busy during lockdown. Curating selections for friends and family, he realised a service prioritising personal connection and with a hospitality approach might have legs. After you’ve made an enquiry via the site, Orbaum moves things to email to get to know your likes and dislikes. He then creates a bespoke mixed case, gathering from Les Caves de Pyrene’s natural wine selection, Keeling Andrew & Co’s inventory of fine wines and Uncharted’s sustainable roster. The dialogue doesn’t stop at drop-off – Orbaum’s up for discussion via email before, during or after sipping.
From £150 for six bottles. UK-wide delivery. www.pickers.wine
The Wine Flight
A wine-matching platform for app lovers, The Wine Flight begins by posing a series of questions – the same ones you’d be asked by flamboyant staff if you dropped by the Shoreditch shop behind this service, Passione Vino – to whittle down from a 1,450-strong inventory of independent, artisanal Italian wines. But this is no run-of-the-mill quiz: it’s suffused with gifs, selfies and short videos from co-founder Luca Dusi. User-friendly on mobile, this is an excellent picker for those on the go.
Free wine-matching service with bottles from £21. UK-wide delivery. www.flight.passionevino.co.uk
Trade wine supplier Jascots Wine Merchants sits at the heart of hospitality and would typically be working with restaurants like La Trompette, Native and Core by Clare Smyth. But in lockdown, it started a home-delivery service, which will pivot to become a private member’s club, Jascots at Home, from 17 May when the restaurant trade fires up again. Member perks include access to hard-to-find wines and the chance to pre-order rare vintages from producers around the world, plus its all-important matching service. It perhaps best suits a much-awaited dinner party: you can upload an entire menu for pairings. Otherwise, the team is on hand from 7am to 6pm for recommendations over the phone.
Membership costs £20; free home delivery on orders over £100. UK-wide delivery. www.jascots.co.uk
Nic Rizzi set up Modal Wines in the spring of 2017 to combine his passions for wine and for sustainable, organic farming practices. The focus is on smaller producers who take a low-intervention approach to winemaking. Modal sells single bottles and bundles spanning from “everyday” options to wines “at the top end of the fine wine spectrum,” selecting from eight different European countries including Slovakia and Slovenia. But Rizzi also runs a matching service over email. Send him a list of general likes and dislikes, colour preferences and the names of any wines you’ve particularly enjoyed, as well as your budget, and he’ll devise a memorable selection.
Free wine-matching service; minimum order, £58; free delivery on orders over £175. UK-wide delivery. www.shop.modalwines.com
London-based wine e-tailer Vintner (formerly known as Vintners) is staffed by a team of wine buffs. They encourage a chat on the phone, but wine queries can also be sent via email to help land on a special-occasion sip – although it stocks plenty of everyday wines, its strength lies in fine wines and special buys, from a Barolo Riserva to a Gevrey-Chambertin vieilles vignes. Each delivery comes with a guide to getting the most out of your selections, from tips on food pairing to pacing and chilling.
Free wine-matching service; minimum order of six bottles; £6.50 delivery charge. UK-wide delivery. www.vintner.london