I am always thrilled about a new wine bar springing up in London, but there’s something about Grays & Feather in Covent Garden that is even more exciting than most. Self-described as a ‘mischievous wine parlour’, the two-storey venue pricks the senses as soon as you walk in: in your direct eye-line is an elaborate taxidermy peacock perching at top of the staircase, its beautiful feathered train trailing down over the banister. When I think of a wine bar, I picture dark wood – wooden stools, oak barrels – but everything is bright in here; natural light is flooding in through the large windows making the white walls seem whiter; furnishings are soft and welcoming; dusky grey and indigo-blue chairs invite you to sit at neat tables, stylishly set with flutes, cutlery, pot plants and candles.
Downstairs is even more intriguing; an underground lair of colours and curiosities. There’s a gorgeous bar, a feature fireplace and a few tables, but the show-stealer is a sunken cavern lit by brass theatre shell lights and decorated with a stunning hand-painted mural of fanned feathers.
‘We’re a very visual company,’ explains Andrew, the founder, ‘because what we do is unusual.’
What Grays & Feather do is bubbles – that is, more bubbles than anywhere else. They have the largest list of sparkling wines around, comprising of wines from every corner of the world, from small-batch Proseccos to sparkling reds to experimental wines that come from the most obscure and hidden vineyards. What was it about sparkling that sent them so starry-eyed?
Starting in the wine industry after university, Andrew joined Vinopolis and quickly gained a WSET Diploma in Wine. Whilst doing so, he noticed that he was tasting a lot of sparkling wines, but no one was really talking about them. Champagne and Prosecco were everywhere, but what about everything in between? After a spell in wine PR, marketing and sales, Andrew decided to buy thirty cases of wine and sell it. Armed with some good crémants and wines from South Africa and Austria, he built a website and started trading from there and then he hit the street market circuit. ‘Wine sat in the living room,’ he tells me animatedly, so he started doing the foodie festivals. At around this time, his mum Jenny, a professional therapist, decided to jump aboard and join the venture – and about four years ago the idea came to open a bar.
‘The venue brought together everything,’ says Andrew. ‘We found the place about a year ago. It’s central London – recession-proof – and it represents what this whole thing is about: we’re sticking our toe in to see how we can educate people about wine.’
Andrew is somewhat of an unusual wine merchant. Hailing from the rural Cotswolds, he studied philosophy and sociology at university, but when he came to graduate, the recession hit. Whilst looking for another career route, the idea of wine began to appeal. Though not necessarily a self-confessed wine lover at the time, Andrew was attracted to the prestige of wine; he felt it had ‘an aura around it’. The part that he kept returning to, however, was how closed the world of wine seemed to be to ordinary people: ‘It’s a beautiful, complex drink,’ says Andrew, ‘and so many people just don’t have keys to the kingdom.’
Both Andrew and Jenny are determined to show everyone that the keys to the kingdom are rightfully theirs and their entire business strategy focuses on making wine accessible and fun. They rewrote the model of the wine list and the tasting notes, resulting in a wonderful spectacle of a drinks menu that is entertaining to read and easy to understand. ‘Stories are important,’ says Andrew. ‘Stories create a connection, and then you have a window. We’re storytellers as much as merchants.’ I also really recommend the ‘Learn’ part of their website to grasp the concept of wine from its very beginnings and to catch a few tips about understanding what’s in your glass. As Andrew says, ‘This place is to help people understand the building blocks of wine.’
Andrew and I both agree that wine is made to be drank and laughed over, and Andrew feels strongly that wine should be always around something, to ‘give people the chance to communicate.’ The weekly schedule of events at Grays & Feather honours this notion and each day of the week will bring something different to the discernible drinker. During the first half of the week, they want people to have adventures: there will be parlour games, cards and dice; ‘Netwining’, where people can taste and chat; speakers, winemakers’ dinners – and then bigger events, all focusing on getting people to try the bubbles. Andrew and Jenny wish to create the atmosphere of a cocktail bar, where people come to have fun, relax, socialise and enjoy everything on offer.
You won’t find Champagne on the wine list, as Andrew expresses, it is already so well-represented, so guests are offered the unique opportunity to try different kinds of bubbly from all over the globe. The list is constantly changing and evolving, just like the wine world itself, which keeps things at Grays & Feather exciting and fresh. I try the deliciously honeyed Blackdown Ridge Primordia, an English sparkling from the South Downs, and the Blanquette de Limoux, which possesses a sumptuous palate of roasted nuts and bruised apple. A Malbec Rosé Sparkling challenges the perception of ‘pink fizz’, providing a complex palate of cherry-laced herbaceous and savoury notes, and a Grüner Veltliner Brut is absolutely delightful, setting my tastebuds dancing in a twirl of white pepper, apricot and lychee. It is also worth mentioning the food! Den Miso cured aubergine with holy basil, peanuts and habanero salsa is to-die-for, as is the smoked salmon tartar. To finish, I enjoy a gorgeously decorated cheese plate with the Raboso Sparkling Red – vibrant cherry and blackcurrant bubbles make a nice, frivolous change from ending with a syrupy dessert wine or port.
Yes, there is something most unusual about Grays & Feather, from the stuffed peacock to the no-Champagne and even to Mr Gray – Andrew – himself. And it’s exactly what the wine world needs.
Photos from my visit: