Chatting to Thor Gudmundsson and Richard Okroj: Wine Rooms


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You don’t need to jump on the Eurostar these days to experience the Parisian wine bar scene. London now has plenty of similar bars and restaurants to choose from, like The Wine Rooms that now has three different outlets to choose from. Christina Rasmussen went to explore…

Behind the scenes at London’s Wine Rooms which hopes to bring a bit of the Parisian wine bar scene to the capital with rare wines by the glass.

The Wine Rooms have now expanded to three branches from their start in 2009 when co-founders, Thor Gudmundsson and Richard Okroj, opened the Kensington Wine Rooms, having been inspired by the wine bars and restaurants of Paris where they were working at the time. Following their initial success they have now branched out to Fulham and the new launch in Brackenbury.

The restaurants are the result of what they hope are a Parisian attitude to good food and wine, brought together by Italian Enomatic systems. Here we talk to Thor Gudmundsson to better understand their approach to wine and their suppliers. 

How did you get to know each other and what is the inspiration for the Wine Rooms? 

Richard and I have known each other since we first started working together in 1999, when Richard came to work in Paris at The Frog & Rosbif, the pioneering English pub and micro-brewery which I had started in 1993.  Paris’ neighbourhood bistros, serving honest food made from great ingredients were a major inspiration.  

Wine bars such as Tim Johnston’s Juveniles in rue de Richelieu, Willi’s wine bar and Le Baron Rouge were also brilliant models.  We came across the Enomatic dispense system via an Italian friend from university days and were impressed with the flexibility it would give to our wine-by-the-glass offer.

You have a very interesting wine list with particular focus on natural wine. Has it always been this way? 

The wine list has been getting more natural.  This is both a reflection of our evolving tastes and of greater maturity in the natural wine sector, with a greater appreciation of the fact that natural doesn’t mean faulty.  And that calling it ‘natural’ should not be an excuse for faulty wine.

The natural wine movement was born in Paris. Have you seen a particular growth in interest for these wines, and consumer demand in London?

There is definitely greater acceptance of, and interest in natural wines among consumers.  People are curious, and perhaps a little bored with stereotypical mass-produced wines.  They are prepared to try off-piste categories, such as natural and/or orange and skin-contact wines.  

As with food, respect for the environment and traceability are what is valued most. People appreciate that you should be able to grow grapes without relying on pesticides and fertilisers that destroy the soil, and make wines from healthy fruit rather than relying on a plethora of additives.

What do you think is in store for natural wines in the UK?

There is still a lot of work to be done; natural wines will continue to rely on the enthusiasm and love of talented and committed advocates in the on-trade.  These are interesting wines; they have personality and come with a story which needs to be told.  That’s not going to happen in a supermarket aisle!

Do you think this is the same for organic wines too?

Organic wines are an easier sale; people understand the concept of organic food so they should be readier for the mass-market.   

Which suppliers do you use for your wines, and why?

We have around 15 different suppliers. Right now the ones that are strongest on natural wines and are major suppliers include Tutto Wines, Gergovie Wines (people behind 40 Maltby Street), Gudfish and Les Caves de Pyrene.  We also blend our own ‘Ballon’ every year at Vignerons d’Estezargues, where wines have been made naturally since JF Nicq was the winemaker.  

Craig Hawkins of Testalonga (SA) has also done a special bottling for us, his 2014 Stay Brave skin-contact Chenin Blanc.  Gudfish is a joint project I started last year with our wine buyer, Bobby Fishel, importing mainly natural wines from South Africa.

Do you also sell beer and spirits?

We have a couple of craft beers but these rotate to keep it interesting. We have a range of spirits, including Sipsmith, but our focus is wine.

Which suppliers do you use for these?

 We get our beer from Nick Trower at Biercraft, who Richard and I have known since his days at Vinoteca and then Liberty Wines.  We get our spirits mainly from Coe Vintners (now part of EntoriaCoe) and Sipsmith. 

How important is the wine sampling by the glass element to you as a bar?

The Enomatics are important; they make wine sampling fun and interactive, they empower the consumer and they are a great way to display the wines.  Currently we believe them to be the best product for ensuring the quality and freshness of wines served by the glass. 

Your menu is very well created in terms of matching food to wine. How often do you change your wine list and food pairings? 

Our wine list is a ‘living’ wine list, like a natural wine. We’ve decided to limit the size to roughly 100 wines and keep it evolving, both to make it more interesting for our guests and because a lot of the wines we list are available only in limited quantities.  We’ve chosen to emphasise amazing wines rather than have year-round continuity. 

The food pairings change with new dishes and as the selection of wines by the glass changes, so expect a few changes every week.  Bobby, our wine manager, coordinates this with the general manager, Rob, and head chef, Titus.

Which two current wines of yours do you find particularly of interest, and why?

Difficult question, I think they’re all interesting, which is why we list them. But for white wines I would single out the Tscheppe Green Dragonfly, a splendid and original interpretation of Sauvignon Blanc.  Elemental Bob’s Cosmic Flower is in many ways a classic Bordeaux blend, with the generous fruit of South Africa – and plenty of good Karma from the crystals he hangs in the barrels! 

Overall, what would you describe the Wine Rooms experience to be?

It’s about having fun.  Good food, and great wines to test your boundaries, widen your horizons and expand your comfort zone.

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