Until recently, being a wine enthusiast has been up there with collecting Benny Hill memorabilia or indulging in Dungeons & Dragons cosplay: a slightly suspect but essentially harmless eccentricity that your mates will put up with as long as you don't tell their work colleagues. A bit like being a member of the Campaign for Real Ale five years ago. But just as attitudes to beer have changed, the same is now happening to wine.
It doesn't help that there aren't many events that are just as fun for casual drinkers as wine fanatics. As a fully committed wine lover, I've tried to get mates along to wine tastings but there's so much focus on what's in the glass that there's little time to chat. It's baffling, really, as sharing a bottle of wine is an intrinsically social activity. Fortunately there's a new generation of wine lovers throwing events in informal venues that pull together great bottles, food and music to create altogether more social occasions. And there are few more informal spaces than a car park.
Ex-model Ruth Spivey set up Wine Car Boot in September 2013, and it's popped up regularly in car parks around London since then. The concept is simple; each car belongs to an independent wine merchant who brings half a dozen wines that you can taste, drink or buy to take home. "We get such a breadth of people," she says, "from early 20s to mid-50s, coming on their own, in groups, as couples, with their parents. It's a 50/50 male/female split from complete amateurs all the way to wine geeks." Each event gets hundreds of visitors, and she's hoping to find sponsorship to turn it into a regular occurrence, like a farmers' market for wine. Everyone comes for the wine, but it's the music, friendly vibe and street food that complete the experience.
Food is playing an ever greater role in wine events, and we all know the important part it plays when drinking alcohol. Trying to soak it up afterwards with food is as effective as throwing a slice of bread into a lake. Independent wine shipper Tutto Wines throws several parties a year around Hackney for followers of their wines, and the food is always a high point – it helps that their friend Ed Wilson (owner of Brawn restaurant in Shoreditch) mans the barbecue.
For their parties they hire spaces commonly used for club nights. "The shackles have come off with wine drinking and wine service," says co-owner Alex Whyte, "people aren't as scared of it as they were. It used to be like an old boys' club with certain rules… but you don't have to put wine on a pedestal or enjoy it in a certain way – that's not how the winemakers drink it." DJs playing disco, great natural wine and delicious food ensure their parties go on late into the night.
Another new night that combines great music and thrilling bottles is 'wine and RnB party' Genuwine. It's a collaboration between Aimee Hartley of online journal Above Sea Level and Canadian sommelier Courtney Stebbings.
"We want people drinking wine in scenarios they wouldn't necessarily think of drinking wine… we want to take that veil of pretentiousness down and bring the fun back into wine," says Stebbings. The opening night was packed, with people knocking back riesling and grinding to Sean Paul.
Events like this bridge the longstanding gap between the wine trade professionals and the public. The crowd is a mix of people that work in wine and those that just love to drink it. For local resident Nadia who had never been to a tasting before, that the night wasn't solely focussed on wine was a draw. "It's wine and RnB, two things I love," she smiled.
Throwing some music like disco or RnB into the mix is a great idea, but when I heard about an event called Wine Beats featuring live Austrian electro-brass I suspected it might be a bit, er, quiet. I was wrong: they sold 550 tickets.
"We wanted to show the new Austria in all sorts of ways," says Peter Honegger, co-founder of Austrian wine importer Newcomer Wines who promoted the party. As well as Austrian music, their night also featured Austrian food, and the winemakers he represents flew over to talk to drinkers and serve them wine in top-of-the-range Austrian Zalto glasses. Their new shop opens in Dalston this summer.
For every large scale event there are countless smaller ones bubbling up at a grassroots level. The Oddities tastings, organised by wine lovers David Crossley and Dave Stenton, are one such example. They are informal lunches held every two months where the aim is to drink the weirdest wines known to humanity. The last time I went along Namibian shiraz and Balinese sparkling wine were just two of a dozen bizarre – and unexpectedly enjoyable – discoveries.
But for Stenton, "It's about drinking stuff in the context you'd drink them normally… it's as much about chatting and hanging out as it is tasting." This, like many such events, is an offline meet-up of a community that initially developed online. Occasional wine writer Stenton points to London wine shops Theatre of Wine and Winemakers Club as other places to find down-to-earth tasting groups.
At Oddities Tastings, the aim is to drink the weirdest wines over an informal lunch
In the past few years these new kinds of wine events have given the once-staid London wine scene a shot in the arm. "Each year younger and younger people seem to be getting into wine," explains Whyte from Tutto Wines. Instead of replicating the formal tastings long prevalent in the UK, they're producing the kind of events that they would want to go to. Where once the emphasis was on education, it's shifting towards enjoyment; everyone gets to drink brilliant wines, but you can delve into the detail as much or as little as you like and no prior knowledge is required. Venues are more diverse, food is supplied without ceremony, there is music, dancing and socialising: wine is finally getting its party on.
As Stebbings from Genuwine puts it: "We've done beer, we've done cocktails, now it's wine's time to shine."