It’s Friday afternoon in suburban Brisbane – about the time “drinking day” shifts to more respectable drinks. We’re sitting at a communal table enjoying a glass of wine with strangers as a lively playlist spans decades and genres. We are not in a bar, a pub or even a restaurant. Instead, we’re in a store. More specifically, a wine shop.
Queensland bottles used to be a place you’d briefly drop in on your way to another place. And while old-school chains may still be the place for a smash and grab weekend, a growing number of independents in Brisbane have embarked on more Italian-aligned wine shop/bar hybrids. enoteca.
Sommelier and winemaker Danilo Duseli took over Ashgrove’s Arcade Wine in a retro arcade four months ago. He comes from northern Italy, where appetizer time sees the locals gather in enoteche that populate even the smallest towns for a neighborhood snack, a pre-dinner drink, and always some kind of food.
“It’s very unusual to drink wine in Italy without some food,” he says, putting on slices of bread topped with anchovies and homemade salsa verde.
I fell in love with the tiny bars in Spain and the rest of Europe – that very intimate atmosphere
While enjoying our wine, many customers engage with Duseli, interested in recommendations or to report on past purchases. Some stay for a while, taking a stool at the table or settling on the couch for a drink. Next to us, a couple reminisces about their recent trip to wineries in Tuscany.
“My goal is to get to know my customers and educate them about wine,” says Duseli, and he is not alone.
A similar ethos exists at Wineism in Albion, Grape Therapy in the CBD, Barbossa in South Brisbane, Baedeker in Fortitude Valley and Honor Avenue Cellars in Graceville.
“While the opportunity to have a wine shop/wine bar combination has been around since the Wine Industry Act was passed in 1994, it is probably the interest in all things artisanal that has developed in recent years that has made people looking lately at what’s possible,” says Matthew Jones, a Queensland liquor licensing expert.
The stores are using a “wine merchant license”, which allows a store to sell take-home and glass wine. The license was created specifically to support the Queensland wine industry, its grant is dependent on the site’s active contribution, whether it is selling and promoting Queensland wines or, in some cases, manufacturing them. There are currently around two dozen Queensland companies using the licence.
“It is certainly the cheapest and one of the only ways anyone can participate in the takeaway market. [in Queensland],” says Jones. “The alternative is a hotel license which obviously requires you to own a real hotel.”
Michael Nolan, owner of Wine Experience, opened a bar 18 months ago after 16 years of operating a wine shop in Rosalie.
“I fell in love with the little bars in Spain and the rest of Europe – that very intimate atmosphere – and I always wanted to do something like this, but I never wanted a full-time bar,” he says.
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The Wine Experience’s tiny, 12-seat bespoke bar is open Wednesday through Sunday at 3pm, with a few additional tables for drinkers or trail patrons.
“For us, the bar was about building community,” says Nolan. “People come and we get to know them and build loyalty. It definitely built a following – people drop by on their way home from shopping or stop for an afternoon drink before heading to a restaurant or movie.”
There are regular wine masterclasses and up to 50 glasses available at a time, always with some Queensland wines and some that “are a little esoteric or harder to come by,” says Nolan.
“And, of course, you can take any wine off the shelf and with a $30 service charge, drink it here. That’s a huge savings compared to the margin you’d have to pay for the same bottle at a restaurant.”
At Wineism of Albion, owner Ian Trinkle is a former sommelier, as are all of the store’s employees. Trinkle opened in December of last year. A long, tiled communal table dominates the shop, used for tastings but also for the late-night crowd that comes to eat and drink.
It is individual involvement that he values most.
“I’m surprised at how adventurous people are now,” says Trinkle. “People really want the experience and talk about wines. I can talk about tannic structures forever, but it’s great to be able to open a bottle and say, ‘Hey, let’s taste this and sit down and talk for a while’.”