Five years after the UK arrival of Enomatic, a new sampling device – Coravin – is again getting restaurateurs excited.
In an industry that can often appear resolutely low-tech, the area of wine preservation has proved startlingly dynamic in recent years.
The launch of the Enomatic system opened up an entirely new business model, allowing merchants and wine bars to offer their customers a stylishly displayed range of high-end or unusual wines to taste without the prospect of imminent, expensive wastage.
Enomatic’s UK arrival in 2008 heralded a flurry of new ventures, from The Sampler to The Kensington Wine Rooms and Bottle Apostle, as well as adding an exciting new dimension to a number of existing specialist retailers.
The interactive nature of this device blurred the line between on- and off-trade, while tapping into a growing demand for highquality wines served by the glass.
Five years later and news of another device with even more exciting ramifications for the wine trade began to ripple across from the US. Nuclear engineer and, crucially, wine lover Greg Lambrecht turned his mind to exploring whether it might be possible to sample the contents of a cellar without having to pull the cork.
Fourteen years and 23 prototypes later, Coravin was born. The portable apparatus allows a needle to be inserted through the foil capsule and cork; it then extracts the wine, fills in the gap with inert argon and withdraws, leaving the flexible cork to reseal itself.
Having initially launched in the US, Coravin is now available to be shipped to 22 countries and made its first UK appearance last October, priced at £300.
Although vice-president for marketing Howard Leyda says “the primary target market for Coravin is wine enthusiasts first for personal use”, it is the UK restaurant scene that has been generating the biggest buzz around what many believe is a real game changer.
“It’s going to be immense; it’s the most revolutionary thing I’ve seen,” enthuses Daniel Primack, general manager of accessories specialist Around Wine, who has been demonstrating Coravin to trade and consumers.
Although for the moment the product can only be shipped from the US, partly due to legislative hurdles concerning its argon canisters, Leyda confirms plans for a direct European service and UK website in “late 2014”.
It can’t come quickly enough for Primack, who reports: “I could have sold it one hundred times over. Everyone I’ve seen, private customer and trade, has been biting my arm off.” In time, he hopes to be able to offer a two-hour guarantee on refill deliveries for all London customers.
Until Coravin becomes more easily available, a number of restaurants that have managed to get their hands on one can be seen drumming up excitement among their clientele by promoting this gadget’s most obvious application: the chance to taste some serious old wines.
At one early adopter, D&D London restaurant Avenue, the French- and American-focused wine list now reaches its apogee in the form of vertical flights of Mouton Rothschild and the first growth’s Californian sister venture Opus One.
Other options include Cheval Blanc 1999 at £91 for a 125ml glass or, for those looking to treat themselves on a tighter budget, a 75ml sample of Clerc Milon 2004 for £13.
“It’s really interesting for us to be able to offer these wine flights,” enthuses Avenue restaurant manager Robert Kihlstrom.
“The wine list is almost entirely from France and the US, so those two wines nod to that concept in a really exciting way.”
For Kihlstrom, the attraction of Coravin lies not only in the quality of wines a restaurant can now offer without fear of expensive wastage, but also the sense of occasion its presence creates.
“We demonstrate Coravin tableside to explain it to customers so it’s quite theatrical,” he explains. “It’s very sleek, pleasing on the eye and adds a layer of excitement to the dining experience.”
Another early Coravin convert is Robert Wilson, who splashed out on six of the contraptions back in October when he opened The Sign of the Don restaurant in the City of London.
For him, this gadget allows the restaurant to tailor its wine offer to the changing needs of today’s City clientele. “It’s at lunchtime where the Coravin comes into its own,” he reports.
“We’ve almost given up on persuading people to have a bottle at lunch.”
Despite the slide in volume consumption among business people, it’s still possible to persuade many of them to make that abstemious single glass of wine count by trading up to something special.
Commenting more generally on the quietly resurgent mood within the City, Wilson remarks: “We’re now seeing people trading up more regularly to wines at £70-80, whereas before it was £30-40.
There’s an indication that people are prepared to come out and play a bit.” And what better way to encourage this playfulness than to take customers down to your restaurant’s medieval cellar and let them loose with a Coravin? “We have wines up to £1,500 a bottle in the cellar so, when people want to go above £100 a bottle, Coravin is a good way to get them to be adventurous,” observes Wilson.
What’s more, he notes, although customers may go into the cellar with the virtuous plan of treating themselves to just a small taste of something special, that restraint can quickly fall by the wayside after a couple of sips.
“60-70% of the time, people will have a taste of something like Hill of Grace and say, ‘bugger it, let’s finish the bottle’,” comments Wilson. Indeed, for the vast majority of people who rarely, if ever, taste these wines, that taste can bring a famous but previously inaccessible label vividly to life.
“It’s a useful trigger for helping people remember why they like a specific producer or appellation,” says Wilson. “It gives the client confidence.”
As well as the obvious commercial benefits of enticing your customers to treat themselves to a bottle of something special – so long as it’s closed with cork rather than screw cap, of course – Wilson stresses the importance of one, intrinsic element of enjoying a fine wine that even this wonder gadget cannot address.
“The Coravin gives a great opportunity to experience something you wouldn’t normally drink, but when you order a bottle, that evolution in the glass over 45 minutes is what’s really interesting,” he remarks.
In this respect, Coravin acts more like a helpful bridge than a final destination in itself.
Just as restaurateurs that list older wines need to recognise that serving them can require rather more delicate attention than simply pulling the cork, so too a certain degree of expertise is required to harness Coravin’s technology.
While those already employing the device offer nothing but praise for its user-friendly design – although Wilson does admit “one of our sommeliers has now broken three needles” – Primack stresses the need for showing people how to use this system correctly. “The key point of Coravin is the education that goes with its sale,” he insists.
Indicating the three different needle options available, Primack highlights the importance of matching this choice to the condition of the cork, a highly variable factor when it comes to mature wines.
“The system is only as good as the cork,” he warns. For Leyda, the main area of resistance he has to tackle when showing Coravin to prospective customers is convincing them that it’s possible to access the wine without compromising its future evolution.
“At first, it’s hard to believe the wine will continue to evolve as if it hasn’t been touched, because there has never been a technology like this before,” he acknowledges.
However, Leyda draws a distinction between Coravin’s ability to “access” the wine and the requirement of all other preservation systems to “open” it, while building up a solid base of empirical evidence to convert those who remain sceptical of the company’s impressive claims.
“We are overcoming this hurdle by engaging wine professionals to try, test and report their findings when using Coravin over an extended period of time,” he explains.
However, with the likes of three- Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, wine trade favourite 28-50 in Mayfair and new Hackney hipster hangout Sager + Wilde all adapting Coravin to their own particular customer base, the marketing team can also rely on a broad church of willing evangelists.
Indeed, the prevailing attitude among restaurateurs appears to lean towards eager curiosity rather than wary cynicism. “I think it’s great – we would certainly trial one to see how it goes,” confirms Thor Gudmundsson, co-owner of The Kensington Wine Rooms, which was one of the early proponents of Enomatic.
Over at Jason Atherton’s burgeoning group of restaurants, executive head sommelier Laure Patry reports that she has just taken delivery of a Coravin and is now exploring her options.
“We are looking to offer high-end wines by the glass, one white and one red to start with,” she says of the initial plan for Atherton’s flagship Pollen Street Social.
However, Patry also acknowledges that, far from being restricted to fine-dining circles, Coravin gives restaurants across the board a chance to introduce a cost-effective upgrade to their wine list.
“Casual dining [restaurants] might want to experience serving a better selection by the glass as they can keep the wine longer in the bottle,” she suggests.
As their confidence in Coravin grows, a number of restaurateurs are thinking more creatively about how this device can benefit their business.
Not content with offering his 28-50 customers more affordable access to wines such as William Fèvre Les Clos 2002 Grand Cru Chablis or Domaine de la Romanée Conti’s Echezeaux Grand Cru 1999, co-owner Xavier Rousset MS has further plans up his sleeve.
“We’d like to make it possible for customers to store their own bottles of wine at the restaurant using the Coravin to preserve it so they can enjoy a glass of their favourite wine when they come in for dinner,” he remarks.
Meanwhile, Wilson intends to incorporate Coravin into the offer for his new fine-wine shop opposite The Sign of the Don, which is due to open “in the next few months”.
Outlining the plan, he explains: “We will have Enomatic machines, but if someone is really looking to buy something high-end then we can take them down to our medieval cellars and they can taste before they buy.
It’s at its best when people are thinking of buying for their office or home cellars, where they’re making a big price decision.” So heartened is Kihlstrom by the early success of Coravin at Avenue that he reveals:
“We’ve talked about offering every wine on our list by the glass. Although conceding “in terms of stock management, the logistical issue of offering that with a 200-bin list is something to be considered”, he notes:
“With so many guests coming in at lunchtime not wanting to drink a whole bottle, it’s a really interesting way to sell wines by the glass.” Once Coravin is better set up to serve a broader European customer base, all the signs indicate that we are set to see a lot more of Lambrecht’s intriguing invention.
No one should realistically expect to witness Screaming Eagle on sale at their local Pizza Express, but if the early response is anything to go by, wine lovers have never had it so good.
Coravin and the Competition
Far from rendering existing wine preservation systems obsolete, most restaurateurs who have adopted Coravin to date view it as a complementary option rather than outright replacement.
According to Laure Patry of Jason Atherton’s restaurant group, “The idea for us at Pollen Street Social is to be able to serve top-end wines by the glass – that’s the reason we bought Coravin – but we will still be using our Vacuvin for the rest of the selection of wines by glass as they don’t stay open more than two days anyway.”
However, the main source of comparison lies between Coravin and the last system to shake up the wine preservation sector: Enomatic. “Having spent a fortune on all the Enomatic machines, we thought the Coravin was going to be a more logical way to serve wine by the glass,” begins Robert Wilson from The Sign of the Don.
“But the good thing about having Enomatics lined up behind the bar is that people can go window shopping; Coravin is more of a one-to-one thing.” What’s more, he notes: “The Enomatic wines are kept at perfect drinking temperature, whereas the cellar wines where Coravin comes in are at cellar temperature. That’s probably fine for reds, but may not be quite right for the whites.”
Despite his enthusiastic curiosity about Coravin, Thor Gudmundsson of The Kensington Wine Rooms and its sister venue in Fulham is not about to ditch the expensive Enomatics, which work out at around £1,000 per bottle itting.
Describing Coravin as “complementary to the Enomatic systems as a way to emphasise the fact that you have a speciality wine offer”, he queries: “I wonder if it’s the right tool if you’re doing a reasonable amount of wines by the glass, say 40-50.” Nevertheless, he agrees: “Certainly if you want to showcase a couple of mature wines then it’s potentially a very valuable tool.”
While not disputing Coravin’s claim to allow a wine’s evolution to develop as if nothing had happened, Gudmundsson suggests that the lifespan of a bottle in an Enomatic is sufficient for most venues. “You’re got to be certain you’ll get through it, but you definitely get a couple of weeks,” he observes.
For anyone trying to weigh up the relative merits of these two systems, it is Wilson who offers perhaps the neatest distinction: “Enomatic gives people a sense of exploration; Coravin gives them a sense of excitement.”