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The Interview: Charlie Young

Published:  23 July, 2008

Is the new bar going well?
I'm really pleased; the first couple of Mondays were quiet, but otherwise it's been filling up. Brett and I will take a few days off as we get settled, but not too many. Most places step back, thinking they've got it sussed after some initial success, and that's where they go wrong.

That will mean long hours.

Once it's open you feel a sense of relief - you can get on with things. The worst bit was the few weeks leading up to opening. Brett and I weren't sleeping, and I lost about a stone running around like an idiot!

Is being your own boss tougher than you thought?

You do think it would be nice to hand the responsibility back to someone else occasionally. And management is the hardest job in the world for one main reason: people. If they weren't there, it would be easy. But I wouldn't change this for anything. I'm at the right age, in my mid-30s, and I've lived with the idea of running a bar for so long.

What made you do it?

It was a long-term plan that Brett and I hatched after working at Liberty. I got into wine in the early '90s, while working as a salesman for Carlsberg Tetley based in Sheffield and Derbyshire. It meant selling beer to a committee of 15 at a working mens' club in Scunthorpe. I would go along and do a presentation, and then they would never agree. There were such politics; the secretary always opposed the chairman. After that, the chance to work in France and learn about wine grabbed me. I worked at Willi's wine bar, in Paris, under Mark Williamson, and just listening to him with customers taught me so much.

Are people getting used to the wine bar and shop idea at Vinoteca?

It's not because we've presented it wrong visually that people may get confused - it's just that we're different. It's the Italian idea of an enoteca: you buy wine and drink in, or take a bottle away and it's cheaper. There have been no complaints about the prices so far. Some people ask, Are the wines you have by the glass also available by the bottle?' Obviously the answer is yes, but you can't assume they know that.

A lot of people have only the most basic wine knowledge.

That's why we want to talk about wine in a clear way. We don't want to overenthuse and scare people off, [but equally] we're not dumbing down. We'll tend to say, By the way, this winemaker has a wooden leg,' rather than bamboozle our customers with lots of technical information.

Wine bars have a pretty bad reputation.

In some places, you immediately feel that people are looking down their noses at you. We wanted to avoid the old-fashioned

claret thing, so we have just a handful of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Although we've just sold out of Ducru-Beaucaillou, so I might have to increase this section. A couple of guys were amazed that they could have the '88 vintage in the bar at 79. They said, At this price, we can't not drink it.'

That's the attitude!

Well, there are more of those fantasy Clerkenwell apartments round here than I thought. A couple of lads in their 20s over the road will hold small dinner parties and they'll have four bottles but decide that they want to come in here and buy a few more. So I'm getting in '95 Montrose and '01 Pomerol to cope with demand. I have a love of rustic Rhne styles from my time working at Willi's, but I'm looking at more Chteauneuf-du-Pape as well as Cornas.

There's plenty of competition in the area, though, before you start expanding your list.

There are a lot of trendy bars that appeal to a completely different clientele. Fabric nightclub is round the corner, and some bars want pre-club custom. But we're not in the vodka-and-Red-Bull market. We fit more with St John and Club Gascon. As for local stores, Nicolas and Oddbins are down the road, but people who live in the immediate vicinity don't venture down that far. Nicolas is good, but it sells only French wine.

Whereas you list interesting things from Australia

David Powell from Torbreck thinks that Mourvdre is better than Shiraz from the Barossa, so we have Nine Popes, as well as Plexus, the new wine from John Duval, both of which blend in this more unusual grape. We have a much lower number of everyday drinking wines from Australia because they're such terrible value - they could be made in any hot country. As yet, no one has asked us, Do you have an Australian Chardonnay at 5?'

Vinoteca, 7 St John Street, London EC1M 4AA, Tel: 020 7253 8786

Charlie left school at 16 to take a diploma in hotel management. He then worked as a chef and waiter in the Caribbean, Germany and the Channel Islands. In the early '90s he became a salesman for Carlsberg Tetley while also studying with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Charlie moved to Willi's wine bar in Paris in 1994, and then, after 18 months, took a diploma in wine marketing at the University of Montpellier before returning to Paris in 1996 to manage a chain of English brew pubs, The Frog & Princess. Two years later, he took a post at Belvedere winery in Langhorne Creek, Australia, and managed a wine bar in Adelaide. In 2000, he returned to Liberty wine merchants, where he met his Vinoteca business partner Brett Woonton. He then moved to Bennetts wine merchants in Chipping Camden, before opening Vinoteca on 19 September 2005.