Many wine bars had to pivot, almost overnight, into retail this year. But I can’t think of one that did it with quite as much flair as Top Cuvée. Tucked away down a scruffy side street in Highbury, north London, this lo-fi neighbourhood wine bar gained a loyal following as soon as it opened in 2019. People came for the friendly service, unfussy modern British food and a cool wine list just the right side of natural.
It wasn’t until lockdown, though, that its playful personality was fully unleashed. Rebranded Shop Cuvée, the company exploded onto Instagram with a succession of irreverent, eye-catching wines: the bestselling vinho verde Chin Chin with its colour-saturated illustration of a pit bull in football shorts; Laurent Saillard’s cheekily titled white-blend Lucky You!; amphora-aged rosé from Austria’s Claus Preisinger labelled with nothing but a Dymo strip imprinted with one word: Dope.
While other wine merchants fumbled their way through social media for the first time, Shop Cuvée founders Brodie Meah and Max Venning carpet-bombed their Instagram Stories with videos of themselves sabering the corks off rosé pét-nat in the street, shucking oysters and delivering chilled orange wine and negronis en magnum by bike to people in the park. They packed takeaways in brown paper bags stuffed with tissue paper in their signature neon orange and hand-stamped with the Shop Cuvée logo – a cartoonish image of a wine bottle on a speeding trolley. At a time when the world felt pretty dark, they marked themselves out as resourceful, spontaneous and fun. And people in the trade started to talk.
“In my opinion, there’s a problem with the way people sell wine,” says Meah. “It’s often portrayed as elitist, scary, structured – there’s a barrier. At times, it’s almost anti-consumer. We wanted to do something different.”
Meah and Venning (both 31) already had form in hospitality – Meah used to work at Dinner by Heston in Melbourne, and Venning is also co-owner of the excellent Dalston cocktail bar Three Sheets. But when it came to doing retail, they had to think on their feet.
“We had a meeting on 19 March, just before lockdown, and were like: What are we going to do? Fire the whole team? Sell the property?” recalls Meah. “We decided to pivot, and within 24 hours we’d set up the shop in the restaurant. And it went crazy: we sold all of the wine in the restaurant – two to three weeks’ worth – in two days.”
With the help of their fellow bartenders, they amassed an unrivalled selection of bottled cocktails too: the Diamond Rickey by the multi-award-winner Mr Lyan; the Sunflower Martini by former Savoy head tender Erik Lorincz; a Fig Leaf Whisky and Soda from Scöut; Bergamot Margaritas from Tayer + Elementary; multi-coloured cans of patchouli gin fizz from Porter’s Gin; as well as Venning’s own French 75 made with verjus and orange flower water. Their website also bristled with craft beers and ciders, seltzers and kombuchas – each one more colourful and idiosyncratic than the last.
Shop Cuvée was only ever meant to be a temporary measure – but it was such a success they’ve now opened a permanent shop round the corner. Video installations by local artists fill the window; the shutters are a commission by graffiti artist Panik. For Christmas they’ll be doing hampers in utilitarian blue crates by Copenhagen design company Hay. The wine bar, meanwhile, is also back up and running.
“When [lockdown] first kicked in, regular guests were coming in and saying: we love you, we want you to stay here and we’re willing to pay. If you need money… It was very emotional to see,” says Meah. “It was always the idea to be the neighbourhood spot. To realise you’ve actually achieved that is really nice.”
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