Friday, 5 February 2010

The Sampler

266 Upper Street
N1 2UQ

How to describe The Sampler? It's not your average vino merchant, that's for sure. This wine shop is also a never-ending tasting event, equipped with an array of hi-tech dispensing units that let you try before you buy. Ask one of the friendly members of staff for an electronic card (pictured right), charge it with however much cash you dare, and you're ready to begin drinking.

The wines are helpfully sorted into different categories, such as chardonnays, rieslings, merlots, red and white varietals, Italian, Spanish - that sort of thing. To help you choose, a little handwritten card with tasting notes is displayed alongside each bottle. The system is geared towards sampling rather than chugging - once you've decided on a wine you hold your glass up to the dispenser and push the button corresponding to the size of serving you're after (choice of three - 25ml, 50ml, 75ml, so even the largest isn't a proper glassful). Prices vary considerably, from about 40p a taste to more than a tenner (for little more than a gulp or three!) from a bottle in the "wine icons" section. But then, some of these wines are almost half a century old.

On our first visit to The Sampler we tried the following noteworthy wines:

Fritz Haag Riesling Spatlese 2004 - "Sweet, honey, faint carbonation, fruity, desserty - good picnic wine."
Reichstgraf von Kesselstat Estate Riesling 2007 - "Sweet, light, citrus."
Mandrarossa Fiano 2008 - "Sunshine, flowers and apples - smells like summer."
Bodegas Navajas Crianza 2007 - "Vanilla, oak, dryish, lightish."
Tour des Gendres Bergerac 2007 - "Smells better than it tastes, quite dry. Would like to try a bottle anyway."

And finally, my surprise favourite (a surprise for me because it was a white):

Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay - "Californian. Brioche, buttery, caramel."

Bear in mind that while some of the wines we tried sell for less than a tenner, many fetch more than £20 a bottle - and yet The Sampler enabled us to have a taste for just a few tens of pences. As if that wasn't enough, the 80 wines available for sampling at any one time (from more than 1,000 in stock) are rotated regularly, with different bottles put up every day and all of them changed every two to three weeks. You can even check which ones are hooked up to the sampling machines before you visit. A few chairs and a table are provided for those wanting to take a little longer over their glasses, along with free crackers to cleanse the palate between wines, all of which help make the place feel less like a shop and more like a venue. Did I mention the friendly, knowledgable staff, who are more than willing to give advice without the slightest hint of condecension? If I had one concern, it's that too much of the wine rigged up for sampling - and too much for sale in the shop - is too damned expensive.

Nevertheless, the concept behind The Sampler, a wine lover's cave of delights, is so obviously brilliant that I don't understand why these places haven't taken over already. Hopefully they will soon.


  1. Sounds like a good idea. When I worked in Oddbins we were supposed to have tastings on every saturday. However, if noone asked, then we didn't open the pre-allocated bottles, instead divvying them up amongst the staff and taking them home.

  2. I'm not hopeful this would succeed outside London; and Cornwall maybe never! Never mind, from your account, I would love to go "sampling" on our next visit to the capital from the wild west. Is there any pressure to buy the wines once you've tasted a few? It's great that you get such a variety in one sitting and tasting notes are helpful.

  3. we have one of those in new york too!! it's called clo and it's located in the time warner center near columbus circle. so much fun! clo has a very cool interactive menu where you can read about each wine. it's also quite dangerous because sampling is so much fun that you don't realize how much wine you've consumed until you get the bill and have to stumble home penniless. i'm going to have to try the au bon climat wild boy chardonnay - sounds amazing.