Battersea based wine bar and wine shop Artisan and Vine closed it’s doors last week for the last time. Owner Kathryn O’Mara stated a combination of several reasons for the closure but the major one was the rising costs of the on-trade side of the business.

The rent and rates in a bar/restaurant are always a major expense but the constant increase in wholesale food prices is having a major impact on reastaurants all across the UK. Basic ingredients like butter or cooking oil have almost doubled in the past two years, and the price of meat and fish has steadily increased too as the demand in emerging countries like Russia and China has squeezed availability.

This must have been even harder on Artisan and Vine as they only sold natural or local produce which of course costs even more. Energy prices have also risen dramatically and these are a major expense for a bar or restaurant. But the biggest blow to the trade in general was the increase in VAT to 20% which increased prices at the table just when the consumers’ disposable income was reducing due to the effects of the recession. Even though raw ingredients also increased in price, many restauteurs daren’t put their own increases on top of these so were forced to take a drop in margin instead. Most European governments faced with a similar situation bowed to pressure and reduced VAT for on-trade premises to between 5%-7% which not only saved them from closure, but actually increased revenue. There is now some pressure on the UK government to do likewise, but even if it does happen it will be too late for many like Artisan and Vine.

There were other reasons too of course. Kathryn cites their location,  but a residential district can be good for a restaurant. And even for a specialist shop. She said to survive they would have had to move away from their core market(s) of English and natural wines into more mainstream wines where they would have struggled to compete with the bigger operators.

While natural wines is a growing sector, it is still a tiny sector and growing slowly with the general public as there is an awful lot of confusion about what is natural and what isn’t. Even Artisan and Vine themselves weren’t clear on this as they listed biodynamic certified wines as “natural” although they still had plenty of added sulphites – to me these wines aren’t natural (or even close to it!). I’m a big fan of (good) natural wines but I think it will be an uphill struggle for them to get a foothold in the market until a clear definition of “natural” is agreed upon and adhered to. To me “natural” means without chemical intervention, but already we’re seeing the term bastardised by certain growers, importers and retailers who use it to sell cheap organic or biodynamic certified wines with plenty of added chemicals. The term needs clarification if the consumer is to be able to rely on it to source the healthy natural wines they’re looking for.

They also specialised in English wines. While some of them, the sparkling in particular, are decent quality, the price is simply prohibitive. Basically land in the UK is expensive so wines can never be produced here to compete on price with the rest of Europe. While people may want to “buy British”, ultimately they are constrained by budget. As a very niche sector on a small scale this may work, but as a commercial enterprise it was always going to be challenging.

I think combining these different sectors, and the on and off trade,  into one business gave them the best chance possible to succeed. It is very sad that the pressures of the struggling economy and high costs of running a business in the UK forced them to close.

By all accounts Kathryn is well respected and well liked, and those in the trade that know her well say she’ll be back. The natural wine movement is slowly but steadily growing in the UK so let’s hope she finds another niche to get involved with soon. We wish her well for the future.