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April 3, 2023
All the Natural Wine That’s Fit To Print

A decade in and London-based Noble Rot is still re-thinking the way we drink, and write, about wine.

Right now, our quintessential “wine person” bears little resemblance to the hyperbolized stock versions of yore (wealthy, monocled, middle-aged, into Proust). Our sceney sommeliers and importers du jour transcend age brackets, wear Adidas Sambas, sport stick-and-poke tattoos. They love a Chablis Chardonnay—but they’re just as thrilled about less classically lauded varietals: Chenin Blancs from Mexico, Slovenian Malvasias, young pét-nats from the Pacific Northwest. 

That wasn’t quite the case back in 2013, when wine clerk Mark Andrew and music writer Dan Keeling first launched Noble Rot: an independent quarterly print magazine dedicated to reinventing (or at least shaking up) traditional wine media—specifically the rhetoric around natural wine. The idea was to make wine writing, and thus wine as a whole, more relatable, more poetic, and, well, more fun. Think: meditations on the art of the nightclub Champagne shower, Q and As with the Beastie Boys, early reporting on the always divisive “to sulphur or not to sulphur” debate. Named for a fungus that commonly affects wine grapes—which can be harnessed on purpose for flavor or cruelly spoil a harvest—Noble Rot was intended as an homage to the high-low, give-and-take spirit of winemaking and drinking itself. 

By 2015, once the magazine had garnered some acclaim, Andrew and Keeling decided to test new waters: their own brick-and-mortar wine bar. “At the time, there weren’t many places in London where you could go and drink the wines that we loved at prices we could actually afford to pay,” Andrew says. “So, inevitably, we thought to ourselves, ‘Could we do a wine bar with the image and the energy of the magazine?’” 

The eponymous Noble Rot, a snug wine bar and restaurant located in London’s historic Bloomsbury neighborhood, opened alongside the eighth issue of the magazine. In 2020, Keeling and Andrew opened a second location in Soho. Now that the duo has distributed issue #31 (the publication’s tenth anniversary edition), they’re gearing up to open—you guessed it—a third location, also stationed in central London. So, in honor of Noble Rot’s ever-growing empire, TASTE sat down with Andrew to talk about the state of great wine writing, the art of curating a by-the-glass list, and the (noble) chaos that comes with producing magazines and restaurants alike. 

Where did the idea for the magazine initially come from?
Dan and I met in 2010, when he was working at a music label called Island Records, which just so happened to be located next to the wine shop where I was working. He was starting to get more and more interested in wine, so he was coming into the shop all the time and attending these weekly wine tastings that I was organizing in the basement of the building. Quickly, we became good friends, and one of the things we bonded over was the fact that there weren’t really people out there writing about or talking about wine in our language, so to speak—the way you’d talk casually and comfortably among friends. So we decided to do something about it. 

The first issue was more like a fanzine than a proper magazine. It was very DIY. We kept asking each other and other people, “What do you think should change in the wine world?” We talked about everything from making wine to serving wine to writing about wine to designing wine pairings. And it wasn’t because we intended to go ahead and transform the wine world, exactly; we just felt it was time that we started some broader conversations. We were finally seeing some new, different, curious folks exploring wine, so there were all these voices that we felt needed to be heard. We wanted to give them a platform. 

Of course, while we knew there was a lot of opportunity there, we didn’t have any money. So folks contributed to the magazine pro bono, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover printing costs, and we distributed copies locally by hand. 

At the outset, was there a negative response to the magazine from folks in more traditional wine media?
The reality is that when you’re two guys who just decide to start an independent wine fan magazine on a whim, the big bad publishing world doesn’t really pay too much attention. The major media companies weren’t exactly scared that we were gonna take over the world. But fortunately, we already knew a lot of people in wine journalism, because a lot of them came to the tastings that I was organizing, so they definitely helped legitimize the project at the start. 

Broadly speaking, everyone was quite positive about the idea, actually. Back then, it wasn’t a particularly competitive space to tap into. Few very traditional, well-known magazines were interested in the wine world. Most newspapers continued to cover wine in the same ways that they’d been covering it for a small eternity. And because we were taking a different approach, it felt like folks ignored us more than they maligned us. In fact, when we printed our first copies and we were taking them around by hand, trying to get people to sell them in their shops, I think people thought we were a bit crazy. 

How did the magazine spur the decision to open a restaurant as well?
There was probably a lot less thinking than you might assume. Looking back at the start of Noble Rot now, ten years later, it would be easy to assume that there was some big master plan. The truth is, we never had any idea what the next thing would be. At first we wanted to start the magazine, because we thought it might be an important addition to of-the-moment wine media. We had no idea if it would even last. Then, as it grew and we developed a fan base, we started talking about other opportunities to expand further into the wine space. 

Of course, for years, we were basically breaking even on the magazine. But at long last, when it was finally making some money, the conversation between Dan and me turned back to, “What else can be done here?” At the time, the two of us spent a great deal of time drinking and eating at this pub in Notting Hill that kindly allowed us to bring in our own wines. So we would go and eat and conspire over amazing natural Burgundies that we could never have afforded at restaurant prices. And that was one of those things that really cemented the fact that there weren’t nearly enough places for young, excited, passionate wine drinkers to visit that were affordable or accessible. So, you know, inevitably the conversation turned to, “Well, what about a wine bar? What if we had a wine bar in the image of the magazine?” 

Of course, for years, we were basically breaking even on the magazine. But at long last, when it was finally making some money, the conversation between Dan and me turned back to, “What else can be done here?”

Logistically speaking, how did you pull it off? Is there crossover between running a magazine and running a restaurant?
Well, due to a stroke of luck—or rather a nice coincidence—Dan’s wife, Naomi, who’s been running Noble Rot’s marketing from the start, has a cousin who happens to be one of the best chefs in the country: a guy called Stephen Harris, with an amazing Michelin-starred restaurant, the Sportsman, in the South of England. He’s a bit of a self-taught genius and a real wine lover. After a couple of nice bottles of wine, Dan managed to talk him into helping us put together a menu for a bit of food, should we even secure a space to open a wine bar. 

It took forever to find any vacant real estate—and I assure you, we were not looking for an architectural wonder, just a place people could go and enjoy a glass of wine. When we finally found a spot, it was a lot bigger than we’d planned on: this amazing wine bar space at the front, but also this enormous full-on restaurant out back. So we went back to Stephen, and he helped us hire a staff and get the whole thing properly off the ground.

Obviously, we needed a lot of financial support as well. Fortunately, thanks to nearly three years of running the magazine, we had a constituency of people who we knew were excited about what we were building. That’s where we got a lot of the money from, honestly—through readers’ support and their connections by way of crowdfunding. 

How do you go about curating the wine list for each of your restaurants? Is there a process?
While the wine lists at both locations differ for the sake of versatility, they’re formed around the same guiding ethos. Right now, we’re representing lots of places around Spain, Greece, and other more off-the-beaten-path places. We track down private collectors, obscure little regional wine merchants, and auctions, not just in the UK but around Europe. We really go the extra mile to find exciting bottles of wine, and we have well over 800 bottles on each menu. But it’s important to note that, for us, the by-the-glass menu is the most exciting part. Dan and I always want to be able to stop in the bar on our way home for the evening and have a quick, affordable glass of something that blows our minds, with a great story behind it.

House pours aside, our by-the-glass lists typically include anywhere from 14 to 16 options at any time, and they’re in a constant state of flux. We never really buy more than, say, 12 to 18 bottles of a given wine for a run on the list, and we make sure it features accessible price points alongside really special vintages you’d typically only ever see by the bottle. And as soon as that supply is exhausted, we move to the next thing. We want enthusiastic wine lovers to be able to come back, time and time again, maybe even every night or every week, and have a different drinking experience each time. 

What, in your opinion, makes for great wine writing?
Well, it’s quite difficult to find great writing, full stop. It requires real talent to engage people in new ways through writing—frankly, it’s commendable that anyone can still capture a person’s attention in prose for the time required to read an article. But with wine writing in particular, I’d say it ought to teach you something, even if it’s something small. It should always leave the reader more enlightened than when they began—but at the same time, it should be fun. It has to be serious about its subject without taking itself too seriously. 

I think it’s fair to say that natural wine has made a massive contribution toward shifting the dial where the wine scene is concerned. Of course, not everybody in the wine world is happy with all of that, but the truth is, natural wine has brought a whole new set of nontraditional wine drinkers, younger people, and people with different backgrounds into the wine conversation. They’re reconsidering how wine interfaces with food, how we talk about it, where we drink it, what we drink it out of. And, in part, that’s a testament to the power of good wine writing. It gives new life to the craft, and it celebrates the inherent storytelling in making and drinking wine. We have more interesting things to read, more interesting wines to drink, more interesting places to go and drink them, and more interesting foods to eat alongside them. We’ve watched a proper revolution take place in the last decade, and it’s been a real pleasure to witness it take shape from the ground up.