Thursday 26 January 2017

Cornering the market

An abandoned corner shop is being refitted and reopened. Only instead of being a traditional corner shop, or even its later incarnation, a convenience store, it’s going to be a delicatessen. Because that’s what people open on London street corners nowadays.

"We want to do all organic food,” the new owners explained to the local press, “using only refined flour to bake our breads, croissants and patisseries. We will sell salami, cheeses, smoothies, make our own pasta and sauces, patisserie, hand made chocolates, and…” (and here’s the crux of the matter) “sell top end wine.”

Well of course they will. Because that’s what you need in an emergency, isn’t it? “Oh, just pop out to the shop on the corner and get us a loaf of bread, love, so we’ve got some for the morning. Just make sure the flour’s refined.

“And don’t forget to pick up a bottle of top end wine!”

“Top end wine”. Oh, for goodness’ sake. Are there people who pop to the end of the road for a bit of salami and a bottle of Sassicaia – or Lafite and a loaf ?

People who drink genuinely “top end wine” buy it from trusted wine merchants. They buy it by the case and, for a special occasion, buy it in advance. I really wouldn’t build a business on people who forget their anniversary and have to grab a “top end” bottle from the corner shop on the way home.

And what is this “top end” wine, anyway? “Top end” is not some kind of classification, not an adjective which you can accurately put in front of the word “wine”, like “red”.

No, this is a delicatessen description, part of selling wine as some kind of lifestyle accessory.

The old corner shops, like mine in the picture (which is not the one in question) were known in the trade as CTNs – for Confectionery, Tobacco and News. Most have now disappeared; because you couldn’t really think of a worse business model for the 21st century. Confectionery and Tobacco are being actively shunned by society, while sales of News are simply collapsing. It would be difficult to offer less popular products to the public, unless they were school discipline canes or asbestos tiles.

But along with their fags, mags and bags of sweets, the old corner shops also sold wine. Cheap wine, with an industrial bouquet supported by a hint of desperation. This was wine for when you had absolutely no other wine, emergency wine, wine for when your friend came around red-eyed. Your expectations, like the price, were low. The whole idea was convenience – not quality.

And this was where many of us bought our first, cheap bottles of wine, to take to parties or to drink after someone’s parents had gone out. Because the corner shops were more likely than a supermarket to turn a blind eye to an underage purchaser, whether it was for cigs or booze. And because the man in the Off Licence knew your Dad.

Food shops, meanwhile, stuck to selling food. Not the plates off which to eat it, the cutlery with which to handle it, nor the wine with which to consume it. Do you see wine in your greengrocer’s? What if your butcher turned from packaging up your steak, and asked whether you wanted a Bordeaux to go with it – and then offered you a bottle you had never seen before. Would you trust his recommendation? Or his pricing?

Delis are different. The wine from the shop on the corner is now “top end”, to match the aspirations of an epicurean mish-mash of Italian, French and Spanish, held together with other delicatessen adjectives like “authentic” and “craft” and “hand-made”, and presented in shades of Farrow & Ball. 

This is lifestyle wine, wine as part of an image of eating and living and shopping, wine as part of a package, You’ve bought your organic salami, and your refined flour bread… oh, and here’s a bottle of wine that goes with it.

With its own set of delicatessen adjectives, which wouldn’t be used by an actual wine merchant. Like “authentic”, because it’s not just Italian, it’s really, really Italian. “Specially selected”, because wine merchants just pick their wines at random.

And “top end”. Because whatever else it is, something tells me that the wine from the shop on the corner is no longer going to be cheap.



  1. Isn't refined flour the bad one? I'd expect a fancy shmancy place to be going for unrefined or "whole" flour.

    1. I haven't a clue, myself – I know even less about the grain than I do about the grape!


  2. At least they're not offering "top-end 'natural' wine" as I've no clue what that would be.

  3. That "top end wine" is really cool. I really enjoyed reading this post, big fan. Keep up the good work!


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