Wine bar and restaurant owner Michael Sager talks to Decanter.com about the difficulties in getting premium American wines into the UK, and his dilemma over sourcing 'filler wines' - but he says there is hope for the country's American wine lovers.
Decanter.com headed out to meet Michael Sager, a vocal advocate of American wine in the London wine scene.
He built himself a name when, along with his wife Charlotte, they established the go to wine bar close to Hoxton station, named after the couple. After a brief walk down the Hackney Road, the Sager & Wilde wine bar is located next to high-rise flats and a row of rundown shops in an area where London’s drinking scene is thriving, along with the property market – money is not a problem for new residents. The style and offering at the wine bar perfectly encompasses the mood and juxtaposition of East London in recent years.
The European wine trade love this wine bar – which was illustrated recently when Decanter’s Christelle Gilbert asked our wine experts which wine bars they frequented in London.
To fully appreciate its appeal, it certainly helps working in the trade. To a customer it may look like a hip wine bar, with lots of choice of obscure and exciting wine, and that it is. But to the trade, they’ll appreciate the complexity in compiling the ever changing list. Firstly, the wines are sourced from multiple merchants.
‘We’ve listed over six thousand different wines over three years’ said Sager. This approach is a logistical nightmare for most bar owners. Secondly, the wines are relatively cheap for what they are – the bar works on lower margins than the rest of the London restaurant trade. You can afford to drink better quality.
Their American Mission
With their position in the London wine scene on the rise in 2014 the Michael and Charlotte decided, with help of their parents, to acquire a property in Bethnal Green on Paradise Row – an ‘opportunity that couldn’t be missed’. That year the “Mission” restaurant opened with a California inspired offering. The food was a northern Californian ‘inspired fresh ingredients with an Italian heritage twist’ and a wine list that was predominately from the USA. Michael Sager had clearly been influenced by time he’d spent working in and travelling through California – ‘we lived in the Mission district and we wanted to bring the Californian attitude back with us to London’.
It opened to critical acclaim from the wine trade and I visited in the early days, but didn’t return. There was something missing between the step-up from wine bar to restaurant. Firstly, which is unusual for me, I wasn’t overly keen on the wine list.
All the wines that looked interesting from the USA were over fifty pounds, which even for an enthusiast, is a high price to experiment. Secondly, the food was forgettable which didn’t encourage you to pay above fifty pounds for a bottle of wine.
‘It was clear extremely quickly that the casual dining experience couldn’t be matched with a high end offering of American wine,’ Sager admitted, and this mixed offering was felt by the couple financially. The business was not breaking even.
Unlike other restaurant owners who would have shut down and cut their losses; Sager, fuelled with their trademark self-belief, saw an opportunity. A new chef was brought in to refresh and upgrade the menu. The food being served stepped up several notches and is now on par with the wine offering. The wine list went back to the eclectic blend that made the original wine bar so successful. The whole proposition suddenly felt a lot more natural – and business is on the up – ‘we now serve loads of wine over £100 on a Saturday night and don’t have to sit onto stock that’s not selling.’ Sager was trying hard to supress his delight in the early success from the change.
So why difficulties with American wine?
Michael Sager spoke openly and was clearly disappointed that the American wine list had not worked. His own meticulousness and high standards in selection had also hindered the balance of the list. Sager had to purchase filler wines that he ‘didn’t believe in’ – this was the point in our meeting where you could hear true sadness and almost embarrassment when he talked about these ‘filler’ wines. ‘By the time the wine came over, with tax and the middle man, prices where high – I just didn’t believe in some of the wine we were serving. It’s not what we’re about.’
We talked through how the USA wine industry does not need to export due to strong local demand. Though Sager thinks they should, immediately referencing Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines – ‘he doesn’t need to sell any of his wines to the market. 95% could be direct to consumers. But he wants to, to get his craft internationally recognised. It’s like curating artwork’.
I asked what the USA would have to do to get the international recognition that many of the wines deserve, and Sager believed Australia was a good model to follow. Especially with the recent Wines of Australia push on premium, regional wines with character. A small look at Australia’s sales results in the UK and China would seem to back Sager’s opinion.
‘USA wines are starting to be brought over by the merchants – look at Robersons push on the new USA last year’, and other merchants are increasing the US share on their lists. Armit recently added Hanzell Vineyards, Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills Estates, Stony Hill and The Hobo Wine Company to their offering.
Sager is still keen on the US concept especially as the UK merchants are taking an interest in the US. When will the US success filter down to the good quality middle market for the UK? It will come, but before then restauranteurs like Sager may have to go over to the US and take it off the locals by force.
With both their wine bar and now restaurant the Sager+Wilde team are not out to make friends, but to push their passion for innovative wine and “disrupt” the wine market. Now the Paradise Row site has found a more natural fit with its offering – I can only see their influence growing and won’t be surprised to see more American wines appearing on their list in the future.
And the new name of the restaurant: it’s back to being Sager+Wilde.
Sager + Wilde Restaurant
Arch 250 Paradise Row, London, E2 9LE
Sager + Wilde Wine Bar
193 Hackney Road, London, E2 8JL