Cork-dork and entrepreneur Phil Innes, is not simply in the business of selling drinks. He sells the story behind the wine, and the experience of cracking open something beautiful with people that you value. Conor Rees meets the secret storyteller of Great Western Arcade.
When I think of people in the wine industry, I imagine vineyard owners driving through Italy in their bright coloured Ferraris, or businessmen sharing a bottle over a meeting in a high-end wine bar. But prior to sitting down with Phil Innes, founder of Loki, I knew I was meeting someone completely different from my above preconceptions. Just the name – Loki – refers to the Norse god of mischief. All my prior research indicated that I was meeting someone, who knew his stuff, but was also a bit of a rebel.
What I didn’t know, however, is that I was about to meet one of the city’s best storytellers, who lives and dies by the provenance of wine.
We got our formalities out the way, and within seconds it hit me that Phil was the most passionate and knowledgeable wine guy I had ever encountered. Phil began: “Wine is one of those things where if you have a good palate then it’s something you can really fall down the rabbit hole with. It’s a never-ending journey. With wine, you can never reach the end of it and that’s what’s exciting. I could study wine 24 hours a day and I still couldn’t learn everything in a lifetime. It’s constantly changing too.”
You can get almost any different flavour combination with wine. The astonishing thing with wine is that the same identical type of vine can be planted 100 meters away from one another and both could react to its environment differently and result in a different tasting wine. Phil began telling me the story about how a Lebanese wine he recently tried had infused the flavour and scent of fresh lavender into its wine by having lavender groves running throughout the vineyards.
After chatting for 30 minutes and listening to Phil tell various stories about his wines, I realised that he had a story for each and every one of the wines he stocked. That’s because out of all the wines Loki stocks, Phil has visited around 95% of their vineyards. He wants to understand how and why wines taste a certain way. Who are the people behind the label?
All of this information is then sold to the customers. When you go into Loki, you don’t just buy a bottle and leave the store. You exit knowing how that wine was made, all of the thought and care that was put into that bottle and how the vineyard has extracted natural elements from its environment to intensify its flavour. Phil is selling you an experience and a story.
Phil then went on to tell me one of his most remarkable stories he had about one of his visits to a vineyard.
“One of the most amazing visits I had was to one of my producers in Beaujolais, called Richard Routier. His family are small landowners and they are not your wealthy winemakers. When you go to this area you realise that they are super poor.”
“When I was driving through Beaujolais, I was amazed by how much replanting other vineyards were doing. Replanting costs a lot of money and you would only do it in that area if you really had to.
“A lot of people replant the vines to stop animals from eating them, but these guys in Beaujolais can’t afford to dig up their whole vineyard and replant it. All they are doing is pulling out the dead vines and replanting it with new ones.
“Richard is a pioneer in doing things in a really organic way. The vineyard next to theirs is dying on its arse and he is there with this pristine, amazing and healthy vineyard. I asked him how he does it and he just talked with absolute passion about how he looks after the vines. He doesn’t spray anything, he just uses natural fertilisers, and those natural sprays encourage wildlife. One of the things that a lot of people forget is that nature is very good at dealing with a lot of pests. You have a food chain and certain things eat the little things that will be doing a lot of harm to your vines.
“Richard encourages native butterflies and other animals by building grasslands within the vineyard. His vineyards aren’t normal; they are literally some vines sticking out of a meadow with loads of insects buzzing around. It doesn’t make any sense doing what he does because it takes him a lot of time. He is basically asking nature, ‘can you help me out here’ rather than going to a factory, buying chemicals and a tractor to spray on it. His story proves you can save money whilst saving the environment and saving your crop by doing things in a sustainable way. I love that”.
I became engrossed with this story, and I realised how much more emotionally attached I could get to a bottle of wine. Phil scratches under the surface and shares the riches with his customers.
Phil isn’t just selling a drink; he is selling a story and an experience associated with each and every one of his wines. He is more than just a curator of beautiful and flavoursome liquid; he is the secret storyteller of Great Western Arcade.