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Introducing the UK’s 50 Best Indies

Published:  28 June, 2017

Welcome to the second outing of our 50 Best Indies Awards, once again recognising those independent merchants that have done the most to drive forward quality and innovation, while engaging their customers and providing a benchmark for the trade.

And what a cracking list it is this year, unveiled at our Think Indie, Drink Indie event on 27 June, comprising a country-wide selection of the good and the great, as chosen by a UK-wide judging academy of respected trade figures, peers and communicators.

As such, a place among the 50 Best Indies is a genuine recognition of being among the best in the business, while flagging up those that are an inspiration to the sector as a whole.

The Harpers team would like to heartily congratulate all who appear on these pages, with a special mention reserved for our very worthy list topper, Cambridge Wine Merchants, which is in every way an exemplary, modern, go-ahead company, providing a beacon for others.

1. Cambridge Wine Merchants, Cambridgeshire

Cambridge Wine Merchants tops our list this year with a well-deserved win for its fantastic mix of great portfolio, off and on-trade blurring of the traditional boundaries, and strong wholesale arm.

Established in 1993 by Hal Wilson and Brett Turner, Cambridge now has a seven-strong estate, plus wine bars, offering a beacon of liquid good taste across the Cambridgeshire and southern English landscapes. If individual and captivating wines, beers and spirits are your thing, then Cambridge prides itself on offering excellent value, range and service, clearly remaining committed to its founding ethos: “To be the best independent wine merchant in the country, and to have fun doing it.”

2. D Byrne & Co, Lancashire

The Byrne brothers are legends in the trade, with their warren of a shop attracting wine writers and wine lovers in the way that Santiago de Compostela attracts pilgrims. As the great grandsons of the founder of D Byrne & Co, they preside over an inimitable Lancashire-based treasure trove of wines in an overflowing Aladdin’s cave of 3,000 or so labels – not to mention a host of similarly enticing and sometimes rare spirits, liqueurs, Champagnes and bottled ales. The company has also been wholesaling to many of the best restaurants and hotels in the Ribble Valley and beyond for some 130 years.

3. Vagabond Wines, London

From its west London origins in 2010, Stephen Finch’s hybrid retail into wine bar has grown to five outlets, currently awash with 48 funky and fine South African wines on tap as a current special focus – part of a selection of 100 or so ever-changing and always tantalising wines at this cool and innovative vinous oasis. Vagabond headed up our 50 Best Indies list last year and remains a very worthy inclusion in our top three.

4. Lea & Sandeman, London

Oozing quality and long established as one of London finest wine merchants, Lea & Sandeman is a hugely respected company, with west London shops in Chelsea, Kensington, Barnes and Chiswick all offering a fantastic array of wines, with numerous strengths, running from Italy and Champagne to Burgundy by way of much else besides. Charles Lea, who heads up the company, runs a very fine operation, which also has healthy trade and private customer accounts in London and well beyond.

5. Oxford Wine Company, Oxfordshire

Ted Sandbach and his more than able team have created something special with the Oxford Wine Company, expanding well beyond a focus on great wines, beers and spirits to incorporate several shops and enticing wine cafés where deceptively simple food perfectly offsets the quality of the ever-evolving vino on offer. A success on the wholesale side too, Oxford delivers its 900-strong range of wines, spirits and craft beers to a growing number of accounts across its home county and further afield.

6. Noel Young Wines, Cambridgeshire

Noel Young Wines’ eponymous director is a well-known and iconoclastic character in the trade, with his passion, knowledge and energy much evident in the excellent portfolio that he and his equally passionate team offer from their Cambridge base. This is a feisty company that punches well above its weight in terms of quality, professionalism and influence.

7. Hedonism Wines, London

Walking into Hedonism Wines is a fantastic experience, plunging the expectant shopper into a swish, quirky, modern, glitzy wine boutique in London’s Mayfair, which wows with its audacious range and hedonistic philosophy. Some 5,500 wines and 2,000 spirits, including many of the rarest and priciest bottles in the world, provide a cornucopia of vinous and spiritous delights for curious and well-heeled oenophiles alike.

8. Hennings Wine Merchants, Sussex

Third-generation Matthew Hennings has grown his business to four shops, now offering his great list in Chichester, Goring-by-Sea, Pulborough and Petworth, while also driving a growing wholesale operation that now accounts for more than 60% of turnover. Delivering quality, individuality and a warm service to the lucky folk of Sussex and beyond.

9. The Old Bridge Wine Shop, Cambridgeshire

Master of Wine John Hoskins has created a superb vinous oasis in Cambridgeshire’s Huntingdon, comprising wine shop, restaurant and hotel, all packed into a wonderful 18th-century building, bringing yet another exemplary wine outlet to this already rather well endowed county. Hoskins and his team’s mission statement is simple – “to be friendly and helpful, and to stay open-minded about wine”, and this certainly appears to be working.

10. Corks Out, Cheshire

Ruth Yate’s Corks Out is a multi-award-winning regional merchant with shops in Cheshire and beyond, and one that has always displayed great ambition and innovation. It is among the country’s leading champions of Champagne and a pioneer in blending the on and off-trades, with great wines to try in situ at its stores.

11. Woodwinters, Scotland

Having expanded to Edinburgh since opening its original shop in Stirling in 2005, Woodwinters continue to spread its mantra of “helping customers to drink better wine” to both shoppers and Scotland’s thriving hospitality industry.

12. Handford Wines, London

James Handford founded the business in 1989 with the aim of bringing the highest quality fine wines from around the world to the good people of Holland Park. He became the youngest Master of Wine in 1994.

13. Vino Wines, Edinburgh

Vino Wines rose like a phoenix out of the collapse of Wine Rack in 2010, born of three wine lovers and their commitment to a “no snobbery” but quality offer for both old and new customers. The first two Edinburgh stores have been followed by two further wine shops and, most recently, the Vino Waverley wine bar café, sealing the reach of this quality merchant on the Edinburgh scene.

14. Berry Bros & Rudd, London

From its recently extended St James base in London, Berry Bros & Rudd continues to offer an exemplary mix of wine sand spirits, ranging from en primeur Bordeaux and fine Burgundy to on-trend finds from almost every nook and cranny of the wine world.

15. The Bottle Shop, Cardiff

The Bottle Shop’s non-stuffy approach has turned its two Cardiff stores into a safe haven for wine lovers, where they are able to discover 800 lines of different wines, beers and spirits from all over the world.

16. Planet of the Grapes, London

Mixing up wine bar and shops in four locations in London, Planet of the Grapes offers an all-round vinous experience of the highest quality, taking in tasting, food and retail sales.

17. Loki Wines, Birmignham

With two new stores opening later this year, bringing his reach to three outlets, Phil Innes brings together a mouthwatering mix of more than 600 faultlessly-selected wines and spirits at Loki, where customers can also enjoy a glass of something rather good on the premises.

18. Prohibition Wines, London

Prohibition is every ounce the modern merchant, with owners Paul and Louise offering some 600-odd fabulous and fascinating wines, with Spain and sherry an especially strong suit.

19. Tanners, Shropshire

Shropshire-based Tanners has seven outlets in north west England and Wales and has been selling great vino in one form or another since 1872. It now also has a far-reaching wholesale arm that sells to clients across the UK.

20. Highbury Vintners, London

With more than 1,600 wines from all over the world, Highbury Vintners does a great job of hunting out smaller producers to bring to its London customer base, as well as offering an impressive selection of 400 specialist beers and 500 spirits.

21. Cheers Wine Merchants, South Wales

Andrew Morris and son Dafydd have built an impressive business, retailing for 25 years in Swansea and latterly the Mumbles, also with countrywide reach via their online and wholesale sales.

22. Whalley Wine Shop, Lancashire

A rich hunting ground for fine wines, premium and artisanal spirits, real ales and world beers, plus much else besides, Whalley Wine Shop is a credit to Lancashire.

23. Bottle Apostle, London

Bottle Apostle has come a long way since its beginnings in a cramped shop in London’s Victoria Park in 2009. Nowadays, the merchant spreads its wine gospel to its customers via five stores dotted around London.

24. The Sampler, London

The Sampler created quite a stir when ex-City boy Jamie Hutchinson and Dawn Mannis opened shop in Islington in 2006, dispensing fine and funky wines from Enomatic machines, on a mission to make wine non-elitist and fun. Eleven years on, with a second shop in South Kensington, The Sampler remains a beacon for the new wave of cool merchants that continue to open across the UK.

25. Harper Wells, Norwich

Sitting in the Norfolk heartland, the Harper Wells team prides itself on its mix of esoteric and classic fine wines which its sells from its Eaton-based shop, and countrywide through successful online and wholesale operations.

26. Corks of Cotham, Bristol

With stores in Cotham and North Street, this is one of the city’s most eminent merchants, also selling hundreds of British ales and world beers and boasting a vast spirits list.

27. Salut, Manchester

Following its opening a couple of years ago by Sara Saunby and team, Salut’s industrial chic interior mashes up a fantastic combination of shop, wine bar and Enomatic machines.

28. Grape & Grind, Bristol

Darren Willis’s independently-minded business on Bristol’s buzzing Gloucester Road offers an enticing blend of seductive wines, craft beers and artisanal spirits, plus great coffee beans from the best roasters in the UK.

29. Butler’s Wine Cellar, Brighton

Brighton’s two Butler’s outlets offer an oasis of great wines and quirky finds in a laid-back and friendly environment, clearly reflecting the engaging personalities of bosses Henry Butler and Cassie Gould.

30. Yapp Brothers Wine Merchants, Wiltshire

A favourite of many a Michelin-starred restaurant, Yapp Brothers continues to live up to and exceed its status as a supplier to upper echelons of the hospitality industry, as well as the place to find regional French wine stars.

31. Bin 21, Northumberland

Northumberland’s biggest indie merchant, with shops in Morpeth and Hexham, where Paddy Eyres presides over a great range of wines, craft beers and a spirits selection that includes 100 whiskies.

32. South Downs Cellars, Sussex

South Downs Cellars has grown rapidly since Lucy Driver and her team began in 2003. Fourteen years later, the merchant now boasts two shops in Sussex and a growing wholesale business which delights customers with its range of quality wines from smaller, family-owned producers.

33. The Secret Cellar, Kent

The Secret Cellar sells a diverse range of small-batch wines from around the world and recently bolstered its estate with a crowdfunded wine bar.

34. James Nicholson, Northern Ireland

James Nicholson is a veteran of the Irish wine trade and his thriving independent wine merchant supplies hundreds of bars and restaurants across the country.

35. Mitchells Wines, Sheffield

Mitchells has come a long way since from its roots as a beer retailer in the early 1960s to its current incarnation as a leading fine wine merchant in the north of England.

In owner John Mitchell’s words, today the shop is a “department store” for drinks enthusiasts, selling everything from fine wine to beer to spirits and all else in between.

36. Halifax Wine Company

A background as a chef, restaurant manager, sommelier and fine wine broker, as well as a good marriage, have all helped owner Andy Paterson bring his passion for wine to the greater Leeds area.

37. Hangingditch, Manchester

Innovative boss Ben Stephenson champions esoteric and interesting wines through an ever-evolving selection, with in-store tasting and wines by the glass an important part of the mix.

38. Duncan Murray Wines, Market Harborough

Duncan Murray worked at Oddbins during its golden age and has tried to recapture that magic at his Leicestershire-based independent, offering a superb choice of beers, wines and spirits, all served up with infectious enthusiasm.

39. Flagship Wines, Hertfordshire

With a new bricks-and-mortar site in the offing, Flagship Wines’ owner Julia Jenkins continues to ply a great online portfolio from her St Albans base.

40. Connolly's, Solihull

Connolly’s has been family owned since 1976, with two stores in Birmingham and nearby Solihull, along with a wine bar, offering a real treasure trove packed with great wines.

41. Grape & Grain, West Sussex

Wine merchant and delicatessen Grape & Grain brings its love of all things local to the area of Haywards Heath in West Sussex, where customers are drawn back for its top-notch selection of fine wines, cheeses and Italian deli specialities.

42. Le Vignoble, Plymouth

Le Vignoble is a recent Drinks Retailing Award winner and offers 250 different wines, Champagnes and liqueurs in a beautiful store and wine lounge in Plymouth.

43. Solent Cellar, Lymington, Hampshire

Simon and Heather combine backgrounds respectively in the wine trade and the professional kitchen to great effect, delivering winning wines plus a bespoke catering service.

44. Amps Fine Wines, Oundle

Fourth-generation proprietor Philip Amps and his team have carved out an enviable reputation for the quality, interest and individuality of their portfolio.

45. Luvians, St Andrew’s

The inimitable Luvians sells fine wines from the Old and New Worlds and also lists more than 800 single malt whiskies, including some of the world’s rarest.

46. Haynes, Hanson & Clark, London, Gloucestershire and Hampshire

Spanning London, Stow-on the-Wold and Whitchurch, HH&C sources many wines direct from growers and offers a particularly fine selection of Burgundies.

47. Harrogate Fine Wines, North Yorkshire

High quality customer service along with an eye for wines of character and value have made this North Yorkshire merchant a must-visit spot for wine lovers.

48. Reserve Wines, Manchester

Specialising in boutique wines from family owned-and-run wineries worldwide, Reserve Wines has carved out a reputation for hunting out hidden gems for its customers in store and online. 

49. Viader Vintners, Cardiff

Frenchman Gilbert Viader has built a strong reputation for the quality of his portfolio, regularly making buying trips to seek out lesser-known gems.

50. Richard Granger Wines, Newcastle

Since it opened in 1970, Richard Granger Wines has become a go-to quality wine merchant in the north east of England for both corporate and private customers.

How it worked:

To arrive at this list we used a similar methodology to our company’s globally recognised World’s 50 Best Bars. We divided the country into 10 zones, also dividing London, and chose five experts for each region. Each expert was asked to nominate three retailers from their region, plus two from outside the region, and rank them from one to five, with a weighting attached to each vote.

Harpers would like to thank our key partners for their support of our Think Indie, Drink Indie event and the UK’s 50 Best Indies Awards 2017.