Not that long ago we asked Devin Stewart to help us compile a what we thought of as a kind of bluffer’s guide to wine. What he gave us was a better than that, amounting to more of of teach-a-man-to-fish introduction to the grape and, ever since, we’ve been quaffing differently.
Not that we’ve gone all “bitumen, uranium and a whiff of Autumnal disappointment”; Devin’s approach is refreshingly straightforward – “I’m sure as Hell not going to tell you what you can taste!,” he told us – even if the wine he sells isn’t necessarily straightforwardly refreshing. Though he also compared his wines to Tom Waits.
The Liverpool-based Nova Scotian can often be seen at wine-tasting events around the city and you can even make use of his personal wine-buying (and drop-off) service if you ask nicely. He’s gone one step further recently and opened up a shop on Queen Avenue, that peculiar little somewhere-only-we-know snickelway that connects Castle Street to Dale Street.
R&H Fine Wines is now Liverpool’s only independent wine merchant. It’s cosy and intriguing, offering up wines and spirits that draw admiring glances from people who know their drinks – and an opportunity to delve into something new and thrilling for those who don’t. It’s tempting to compare the bottles lining the shelves to well-chosen books, as all of the wines have a story to tell, as does the man selling them.
“I’ve always done part-time wine work for Oddbins, bars and restaurants for 15 years – it was always an interest and a way that I could support myself while I pursued my dreams of rock’n’roll stardom.
“I always enjoyed the stories that went with good wine and when I came back to Liverpool I took the job in Oddbins as they needed a manager and enjoyed it, but then they closed. Meanwhile I found out I was going to have twins, so one of the knee-jerk reactions to news like that is to take up studying again.
“So I was studying law and thought, well if I’m working in Castle Street I’m going to know all the lawyers in town, selling them wine, and I’ll get in somehow – but then I decided that I’d just rather sell them booze.”
Devin built up a formidable list of Liverpool’s wine drinkers through his time at Oddbins and continued to offer his personal recommendation service after Oddbins closed.
“It’s a very personal service. It’s not uncommon to be invited to dinner and over the last year I’ve got to know quite a few of my customers to the point where it’s more than simple acquaintances. It’s very much part of the reason that I enjoy doing it.
“I really enjoyed my time at Oddbins and it all seemed to work for that little while; I decided that if I could make it work for somebody else, I could do it for myself.”
Fast forward just a short time later and the shops has been open since late in 2012, situated right next door to cosy brasserie Toffs. There are plans afoot to offer diners the opportunity to buy wine from R&H Fine Wines and enjoy it with a meal in Toffs – it seems like a great offering, particularly in the lovely surroundings of Queen Avenue. It’s all part of a proposition that Devin hopes is a winning combination.
“The shop offers a look into, and an opportunity to try and buy, real wine,” he suggests.
“Wine that isn’t mass produced, that isn’t filled with additives, that tastes delicious and includes wine that you won’t find anywhere else in the North, let alone Liverpool.”
That’s no idle boast either. Devin has stories to tell about many of the wines in the shops – like the irresistible story of Fat Pig, the wine named after bankers who refused the initial loan to get the vineyard off the ground. Like Fat Pig, much of the wine in R&H is organic or biodynamic, something the proprietor feels strongly about.
“I like handmade wines that speak of the place they are from and that surprise and excite – and sometimes disappoint. These tend to be organic or biodynamic wines. Sustainability is commendable and I do believe that organic or biodynamic agriculture should be applauded – and ethically outweighs a market demand for cheaper wine.
“I’m just very happy that there are still people making food and wine and art and music in a very basic, pure and exciting way and if I’m going to drink – and I’m not a big drinker – I’d rather it be that.”
Sound good? Devin’s offering 10 per cent of all Old World organic or biodynamic wine, in store to the first 50 people who say “SevenStreets sent me”.