"It's not a test," says Charlie Young (left), co-owner of the newest launch into Brum's Paradise development; a construction project that, with the addition of the first Vinoteca outside of London, is nudging ever closer to living up to its ambitious name. "We want people to enjoy wine. Have fun with it. If you fall in love with it, all the better. Wine should never be a lecture."
Charlie and Brett Woonton (right) have, in the course of 17 years, launched six Vinotecas, but if the process is wearing on them, you can't see it. We're in the sparkling Birmingham bar and shop which opens to the general public on July 18, and they're both buzzing. They're showing me around the immaculate venue with the sort of viv I'd expect they showed the first guest at the first Vinoteca, in Farringdon, back in 2005. It's hard not to get swept up in their excitement, particularly when you look at the view that the 11-metre tall glass facade allows out onto Chamberlain Square, its fountain, Town Hall and our Museum. It's awesome. But equally outstanding is the interior, as you’ll see in our exclusive first-look pictures.
So infectious is their passion that I find myself asking about the moment wine first gripped them. I want what they have. You know? Was there a wine eureka moment that kick started it all? A lightning bolt.
“I've been in hospitality most of my professional life. When I was about 21 I got a sales job selling beer, in the Sheffield area. I was selling Tetley's to working men's clubs and pubs. But part of the job was learning some wine basics. And I'll never forget the guy that started teaching me: Jack. I always saw wine as this slightly untouchable, impenetrable product, like they were all dusty Bordeauxs, you know?
“It became crystal clear that wine was about the people that made it and where it comes from. Jack made it accessible, interesting, enjoyable. Hopefully that’s something Vinoteca manages to do, too. We put a lot of stock in that. So I started to get the bug, and started to get interested. I decided I could probably study the stuff, in fact, despite the fact that studying, well, anything at all really, up to this point hadn't gone well. I even moved to France to work around wines — make it a career.
“So the foundation of interest was there, but then along came a wine that totally blew my head off. While in Paris I went to Willi's Wine Bar, which was one of the places back then to go to learn about wine. They had all these old vintages — this was back in 1994 — and there was this Côte-Rôtie. Côte-Rôtie is like a superstar wine, and even back then they were premium, but much, much more affordable than they are now.
“This particular Rôtie was by a famous Rhone producer called Guigal. It was a 1984, so ten years old. My boss gave me a taster and it was just... I had no idea a wine could taste like that. Even now, knowing what I do about wine, I struggle to put this one into words. There are some wines that almost try too hard, you know? They can be very complex and you can try and pull them apart a bit and recognise the various elements to them, but this wine, oh my word, it just seamlessly flowed.
“Sometimes the wines you drink that are the absolute best, you don't even need to talk about them. This was exactly like that. I couldn't believe what I was tasting. Some people are blown away by powerful wines, or oaky wines. Wines that make you think 'shit, what just happened there?' but this one, this had all of those elements. All of them. It was powerful and yet delicate and elegant. Wines that are this good, when you sip them, you get one thing, and when you go back to them, you get another. It just kept giving.
“We have something in the shop [referring to the Vinoteca shop area as soon as you enter the Brum branch — above] that has similarities, but is mercifully more affordable: the Cornas, by Mark Haisma. It’s another Northern Rhone Syrah but without the addition of Viognier that the Côte-Rôtie has. But price-wise it won’t break the bank, unlike the Rôtie. I mean back then, in ‘94, that Côte-Rôtie may have been £60 a bottle and now, the equivalent quality vintage with ten years on it could be more than £600. The Cornas in the shop is £45. We get most excited about wines that are affordable and, though £45 isn’t cheap, it isn’t crazy. But rest assured our starting price is down closer to a tenner."
“You see my ‘wow moment’ wasn’t a particular wine. It was a moment. Actually, maybe two moments.
“I studied hotel management in New Zealand for three years. My parents are pretty much teetotal. I didn’t grow up around wine at all. Maybe on a special occasion they would buy a bottle of something really quite unpleasant. But when I started working in hotels, part of the training was to go to a vineyard, on a field trip of sorts. And the great thing about being in Auckland is you're surrounded by some seriously good vineyards.
“One out West of Auckland is called Kumeu River, close to where I grew up. It wasn’t so much the wine that blew me away, but where the wine was coming from. Being present at the place where these processes happen was what really gripped me tight.
“And what I realised from that vineyard visit onwards was that wines have stories. The particular vineyard was owned by the Brajkovich’s, Yugoslavian producers who came over to New Zealand in the 1930s because of war — to get away from Europe and find another life. They brought their skills over with them, but to start with they had to do various jobs for other wine producers to earn some capital.
“By 1944 they had worked so hard and saved enough money to purchase a small plot of land and plant vines. From there their story really unfolds and, although it’s a long one that we probably can’t go into right now, in 1979, they moved away from the hybrids used for making fortified and basic red and white wines, to varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. All popular these days, but relatively unheard of back then.
“Their Chardonnay is now accepted as one of the best Chardonnays outside of Burgundy and it’s come from this small family who had to work their arses off to get a small section of land. And from that one trip, decades ago, we have their wine here in Birmingham because their story has lived with me. It’s cracking Chardy and at £25 it’s pretty affordable. It’s one of those wines that doesn’t need food with it at all. I tell you what it’s great for: it’s great if you’ve had shitty day and you just want to cut that part of your day out and crack on with a better evening. The acidity cuts through the crap. And it’s a real talking point of a wine. If you’re coming to Vinoteca for the first time, maybe give it a go.
“But one last thing if we have time? It’s not just the stories, it’s the people behind the stories. The people that get you into wine, like Charlie touched upon. We had this cellarmaster when I was a youngster and he exuded wine knowledge. His passion would just suck you in and, I’ll never forget, there was this one Friday and we were working in the cellars doing a particularly brutal stock take — pretty hardcore — and he cracked a little under the workload and said: “Right, I’ve had enough, go and get some fish and chips, because who gives a shit?’ When we return with the fish and chips he’s got this Krug Champagne out — something revered as an incredible Champagne — and this cellarmaster brought it right down to Earth, using fish and chips to do it. He made Krug accessible, by showing it’s not something to be afraid of. It doesn’t have to be oysters, you know? I think his point was that wine’s about the fun and the moment. And hopefully there’s more than a little of that in what we do."
Vinoteca opens July 18. Bookings can be made here, walk-ins are welcome.
THE OTHER MOSELEY FESTIVAL
Almost reaching a half-century, in community festival innings, is pretty darn impressive. One of Birmingham’s oldest, Moseley Festival— a ripened middle-ager — started in 1974 and is still going strong... and still working hard to avoid being mixed up with the teenagers down the road, Moseley Folk and Mostly Jazz. This year’s four-day celebration takes place all about Moseley from Thursday to Sunday, July 14 to 17, slotting neatly into the village’s festival agenda, post-Jazz & Funk.
There’ll be a huge line-up, helped by the festival winning one of Birmingham City Council’s Celebrating Communities grants as part of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. The focus this year is on sustainability and supporting others, with events tailored around this theme to create a packed, four-day bonanza. Highlighting sustainability, there’ll be a foraging workshop, exploring what fruits Highbury Park has to bear. Non-profit arts organisation, Itzamna, will be showing you how to not cook on gas, using a traditional Mexican earth oven to roast potatoes; all part of a slower, more sustainable way of living. It’s also the first anniversary of the Moseley Clothing swap shop at Moseley Hive (1 to 3pm), with a summer-themed swap, cake, and a sewing guru on hand to zhuzh clothes up, Gok Wan style.
The much-loved Street Fair returns on the Saturday, with food and drink, sellers, artists and makers, local charities and community groups. There'll be mask making workshops that are — finally— proper, fun masks again; laughter yoga; singing; dance; art and African drumming workshops. The emphasis is on free fun for everyone, in various locations throughout the weekend. We recommend the hula-hooping sesh for an abs workout like no other (from laughter or hooping, couldn’t say). Spinning artistically like hula leader, Michela Hoops (pictured), not guaranteed.
And on the theme of supporting others, Sunday sees Highbury Park host KHARnival, with Kings Heath Action for Refugees, under the theme ‘we are all birds under one sky’. Sitting among other bird-themed spaces, there's a curiously named Flamingo Yoga zone, and Seagulls dining area offering pay as you feel food, not aerial attacks on your chippy tea. It all sounds bloomin’ lovely. Another potential highlight? Get down to Friday’s after-school party in Moseley Park and Pool, with old-school party games, courtesy of Circus Mash. Musical chairs and pass the parcel en masse? What could go wrong?...
If you haven't got plans on Saturday, I'd like to stick one vote in for the Migration Stories: Stratford Road Walking Tour, 11am. Hosted, when I went, by actor and tour guide, Vimal Korpal, but steered this weekend by Dharmesh Rajput, it's supported by Sampad, a Brum-based charity that's mission is to connect people with South Asian and British Asian Arts and Heritage. It's an incredible snapshot of one of our city's most diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods.
You'll congregate behind the Bordesley Centre (the old Camp Hill school on Camp Hill Circus — give yourself a little more time than you think), before setting off past Priestley Road (former home of your boi Joseph Priestley and the scene at which his lab was burned to the ground during the Priestley Riots). The first stop, and perhaps the most fascinating for me, was Al Fursan Yemeni restaurant, the sort of place — and I can only speak for myself — that I tend to not go in. Not through any concern about the diners, not at all, just because I would feel totally out of my depth. Sure enough I did! But beautifully baked flatbread — perfectly charred and buttery — is handed to the group and a section of the predominantly male clientele (there may have been women in the private rooms) even asked me to join them and break bread. You just can't imagine strangers asking you to pull up a chair at your average Boston Tea Party.
Our host, Vimal, was exceptional. Knowledgeable, bold, friendly, he even stopped at various points to read and act out a script, performing a piece of dialogue often written or assisted by the owners of the venues you enter. Perhaps most surprising of all the stop offs is the Hindu temple and former cinema, the most relaxed place of worship I've ever been. There are fish out of water moments, of course there are — like being blessed in a Sikh Gurdwara — but these are, surely, the things we should be doing. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and that zone won't be uncomfortable after. "There are so many Brummies whose only experience of this section of the Stratford Road is travelling through it on a bus," said Vimal at one point. "What a total bloody waste."
At £15 it's excellent value to unlock a suburb that perhaps you know you should know more about, but don't know how to go about getting started. I've already been back and discovered lamb samosas that tasted so good it was like the first time I heard the Beatles.
Note: You are on your feet for a while, it's a workout as well as a tour. More
DIRECT FROM THE SAUCE
If anything, I've got too much hot sauce. I've just looked in the kitchen and I have six bottles, if we're counting sweet chilli and sriracha — which we might not be? I'm not exactly an expert in hot sauce but a decent rule of thumb, I find, is to avoid anything that has a nuclear symbol, a scorpion or the words 'MAD DOG' on the front. But what do I know? Thankfully for me (and you) this weekend, Birmingham is gifted with the chance to change that.
If you want to speak to someone who does know a lot about hot sauce, you're going to want to get yourself to Hot Sauce Society at the Custard Factory on Saturday (July 9). At this one-day festival you'll find over 25 independent hot sauce makers from the UK and further afield, including Birmingham heroes of the scene, Pip's Hot Sauce (try the Nagatropolis) and Epicuriosity (go for the Pineapple Jerk). Swooping in from parts unknown — actually scratch that, we know exactly where they're from — will be Northern spice gurus, DevilDog; Bristol-based Lipstick Cowboi; award-winning YoYo Laos; and horror hot sauces from Dean of the Dead (Texas Chainsauce Massacre, anyone?). Eaten Alive, Satan’s Gravy (good grief), Frank’s Sauces, Howl at the Moon, Pineapple Xpress, and others will also be present. If there's one thing I've learnt about hot sauce traders it's that, like the X-Men, they all have an interesting origin story, so do be sure to ask how they got into the business.
On the food side of things there's a fierce collaboration between Moseley's own, Chef Brad Carter and funky Mexican street food van, Tacos el Pap. The bar will feature beers from Attic Brew, Mondo and Lucky Saint, as well as spicy cocktails from The Horse with No Name Saloon, plus DJs of course. There are two sessions (11am to 3pm and 4pm to 8pm) and tickets include a free cocktail. £7 (under 12s go free)
Great Western Arcade's Pineapple Club are running a Commonwealth-inspired limited edition cocktail menu, July 28 to August 8. Jamaica, Rwanda and India are all featured. Meanwhile, their basement-based sister venue, Shibuya Underground, have released tickets for their first ever special event, which will pair karaage chicken and sake. August 12, £17.50 —
The brilliant Lil's Parlour, in Northfield, has gone 'Pay As You Can' so those less fortunate can afford the fabulous sweet treats within. The best way to applaud this ace initiative (on top of shopping there and paying well, if you can afford to) is by getting behind Lil's Crowdfunder, which seeks to make 'Pay As You Can' a long-term pledge. — Balsall Heath Film Festival runs July 16 to 31 and includes aquatic, kid-friendly short movies, screened in the water-free gala pool at Moseley Road Baths, on the final day. —
Remember when Pizza Hut used to do bottomless pizza buffets? It's like that only not revolting. Tomorrow at Mulino in Millennium Point, the restaurant run by the same people behind the mighty Laghi's. More —
The aforementioned Pip's Hot Sauce will host Pip's & Pals, a compendium of 15 of the city's best independent traders all gathering at Attic Brew Co, Stirchley. July 24 —
Pride House — a new venue devoted to inclusion and culture, located in the heart of the city’s Gay Village — will announce their lineup and schedule at 9am today (July 7). More
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