by Helen Arnold
Stepping into Pacific Wines’ newly opened store in Islington in north London, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a seriously stylish spa or upmarket art gallery rather than a wine merchant. Forget oak barrels, dim lighting, cases of wine piled high and subdued interiors and think sleek lines, minimalist white units and light flooding into the interior; this is very definitely a far cry from your usual high street off-licence.
The brainchild of former secondary school maths teacher Rachel Gilbert, Pacific Wines which has been successfully trading online since November 2021 has just opened its first brick-and-mortar store in the fashionable London borough.
Pacific Wines co-founder Rachel Gilbert with her dog Bo and a bottle of one of her favourite US wines
But it was during a visit to California ten years ago when Rachel first acquired her passion for US wines. “I have always loved more natural or sustainable wines, and California and Oregon have a lot to offer in their winemaking techniques,” she says. “There is a rational attitude towards sustainable practices in the American wine industry, as they are heavily affected by the serious consequences of climate change - wildfires and droughts are common issues. It’s not a fad or movement, but a logical way of working with the land. Many of the producers we stock see themselves as farmers first, there to care for the land.”
After graduating from university, Gilbert spent her free time immersing herself in the world of wine, but after six years in the classroom decided she needed some time away from teaching, which coincided with the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. “I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend a few months working within the wine industry in France, and it was there that I developed a real appreciation for how wine was made, and dipping my foot in it this way made me realise that the wine industry was where I wanted to be for the long haul,” she says.
Pacific Wine’s uncluttered approach to design enables the wines to really stand out on the shelves
Fortunately, her father has a solid background in start-up businesses - and also shares his daughter’s passion for wine, so they joined forces to establish Pacific Wines. Initially set up as an online retailer Gilbert and her Dad decided to open a physical store. But how did they decide on the location of where to open? Gilbert admits that that was a really hard decision, and it took well over a year to find the perfect venue, a Grade ll listed building within a bustling, well-established shopping street, and only half an hour from her home. “It was everything we wanted,” Gilbert says. “But we still had to beat off the other companies trying to get it - luck was on our side though, as the owner had also run a small business venture with his daughter years ago and we felt a lovely kinship with him. The rest is history!”
Pacific Wines focuses exclusively on wine from California and Oregon, which between them account for the lion’s share of US total production. While Gilbert says she would love to expand their range in the future to include wine from other US states, with Washington probably the next in line, it is “super important” that any wines she does stock are the perfect fit, and as she says - ‘that takes time”
“But as we are the first retailer to focus exclusively on American wines, we had quite a large job to do when finding wines we loved at reasonable prices. 90% of American wine comes from California, and while many other regions have wonderful wines, it made sense for our small business to start there. Oregon is the second largest American wine producer, and we are very lucky to have a lot of brilliant wines stocked from there.”
Santa Rosa-based DeLoach winery, one of the producers that Pacific Wines is working with to bring its wines to the UK
The newly opened store now offers its customers around 110 wines from the US, with Gilbert planning on gradually increasing the range to around 150, while there are approximately 130 wines currently available on its website. “We are always looking at how to fill gaps in our offering, and a recent focus saw us increase our sub-£20 range by 15 wines. We are always looking for new lesser-known, family-run, and sustainable winemakers to see if they will fit our values.”
Rachel believes that one of the biggest attributes of Californian wine is its sheer diversity, with numerous AVAs from a wide array of climates, grape varietals, and styles of production. And she points out that while some regions such as Napa Valley and Sonoma county are well known, there are numerous other emerging regions such as Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles which each possess their own unique wine styles. “Even within AVAs there is climate diversity - take the Sonoma Coast AVA: the diversity within this very small AVA prompted the creation of a new even smaller sub-AVA of the West Sonoma Coast (WSC) AVA. This is simply because the morning fog the WSC receives from the Pacific Ocean drastically changes the temperature here compared to just a few miles inland. The Pinot Noir grown in the WSC AVA is outstanding, and it deserves its own AVA to recognize this quality.”
Andrew Jones, winemaker at Paso Robles-based Field Recordings, another of Pacific’s suppliers
But does Gilbert think the average UK wine consumer is ready for this US invasion?
“Generally, UK consumers are not exposed to quality American wine at mid-level prices,” she says. “Supermarkets stock some mass-produced bottles, and restaurants may have a few expensive bottles, but the £10-30 price range is seriously underrepresented. We are very proud that 50% of our stock is under £30, with many wines under £20. Each wine we sell is one we personally love, and we believe that a customer should be able to walk away with a bottle of wine that they will really enjoy at all price points.”
Domaine Carneros is a Napa Valley winery best known as a small grower-producer of méthode traditionelle sparkling wine and Pinot Noir, which Pacific Wines is introducing to its London customers
Pacific Wines works with around 80 different US producers, offering wines that are only available in the on-trade, and not in any other UK retail outlet. “Our goal after opening the physical store is to bring wine over from the US ourselves, which would be exclusive to us,’ says Gilbert, adding that the long-term plan is to focus on building good relationships with US producers and in particular those who don’t yet cater to the international market, and then offer their wines on an exclusive basis.
Setting up a business from scratch in the middle of the pandemic sounds challenging enough, but Gilbert says one of the most complex areas to get to grips with was the understanding of how to reach a lot of platforms, especially as there are considerable restrictions on the marketing of alcohol. Conversely, one of the most rewarding aspects, she says, has been advising customers and recommending what food to pair with what wine. ”I have had many online customers contact me for recommendations, even for event orders, and being able to give them a personal touch with food pairings and understanding their tastes is wonderful. I’m really looking forward to meeting customers face to face when the store opens and offering them the same service.”