IIt’s late Friday afternoon in suburban Brisbane – about the hour when “day drinking” ticks over to the more respectable “knock off” drinks. We’re sitting at a communal table enjoying a glass of wine with strangers while an upbeat playlist meanders through decades and genres. We’re not in a bar, a pub or even a restaurant. Rather, we’re in a store. More specifically, a wine store.
Queensland bottle-os used to be a place you popped into briefly on your way somewhere else. And while the old-school chains may still be the place for a weekend “smash and grab”, increasing numbers of independents in Brisbane have embarked on wine store/bar hybrids more aligned with the Italian enoteca.
Sommelier and winemaker Danilo Duseli brought over Ashgrove’s Arcade Wine in a retro arcade four months ago. He comes from the north of Italy, where aperitivo hour inside locals gather at enoteche that populate even the smallest towns for a neighborhood catch-up, pre-dinner drink and, always, food of some kind.
“It’s very unusual to drink wine in Italy without a little something to eat,” he says, placing down rounds of bread topped with anchovies and house-made salsa verde.
As we sip our wine, many customers engage Duseli, eager for recommendations or to report back on previous purchases. Some stay a while, grabbing a stool at the table or settling on the couch to enjoy a glass. Beside us, a couple reminisces about their recent trip to wineries in Tuscany.
“My aim is to get to know my customers and to educate them about wine,” Duseli says, and he’s not alone.
A similar ethos exists at Wineism in Albion, Grape Therapy in the CBD, Barbossa in South Brisbane, Baedeker in Fortitude Valley and Honor Avenue Cellars in Graceville.
“Although the opportunity to have a combination wine store/wine bar has been around since the Wine Industry Act was passed in 1994, it’s probably the interest in all things artisanal that has developed over the last few years that has people looking lately at what’s possible ,” says Matthew Jones, a Queensland liquor licensing specialist.
The stores are using a “wine merchant license”, which allows a premises to both sell wine to take home and by the glass. The license was created specifically to support the Queensland wine industry, its granting dependent on the venue actively contributing, whether by selling and promoting Queensland wines or, in some cases, making it themselves. Currently, there are around two dozen Queensland businesses using the license.
“It’s certainly the cheapest, and one of the only ways someone can participate in the takeaway liquor market [in Queensland],” Jones says. “The alternative is a hotel license which of course requires you to have an actual hotel.”
Michael Nolan, owner of Wine Experience, added a bar 18 months ago, after 16 years of operating a retail wine store in Rosalie.
“I fell in love with the tiny bars in Spain and the rest of Europe – that really intimate environment – and always wanted to do something like that, but I never wanted a full-time bar,” he says.
Wine Experience’s tiny 12-seater bespoke bar is wheeled out from Wednesday to Sundays at 3pm, with a couple of additional tables for drinkers or diners set on the footpath.
“For us the bar was about building a community,” Nolan says. “People come in and we get to know them and build loyalty. It’s definitely created a following – people pop in on the way home from shopping or they stop for an afternoon drink before heading off to a restaurant or movie.”
There are regular wine masterclasses and up to 50 glasses available at any one time, always with a couple of Queensland wines and some that “are a bit esoteric or harder to get hold of”, Nolan says.
“And of course, you can take any wine from the shelf and with a service charge of $30, drink it here. That’s a huge saving compared to the margin you’d have to pay for the same bottle in a restaurant.”
At Albion’s Wineism, owner Ian Trinkle is a former sommelier and so are all his shop staff. Trinkle opened in December last year. A long tiled communal table dominates the shop, used for tastings but also the evening crowd who come to eat and drink.
It’s the one-on-one engagement he values most.
“I’m surprised by how adventurous people are now,” Trinkle says. “People really want the experience and to talk about the wines. I can talk about tannic structures forever but it’s great to be able to uncork a bottle and say, ‘Hey, let’s taste this and sit down and chat a bit’.”