First, a vocabulary lesson for readers outside the UK. A car boot sale is what Brits call the casual marketplace the Americans call a yard sale and the French call a vide-grenier (attic emptying). Second, my subject today is a human whirlwind and part-time fashion model called Ruth Spivey (“Thirty-three but feel free to make me 28”), best known on the London wine scene for organising every six months quite staggeringly distinctive events called Wine Car Boot.
“Wine car boot sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?” she says cheerfully, “but it’s always afternoon and no one drives.” I went to the most recent one in June, held in an open space in King’s Cross, London, and have never experienced such a cool, friendly atmosphere at a public wine tasting. In the middle of what looked like a large encampment, at trestle tables with checked tablecloths and cheery little pot plants, young families were feeding themselves and their toddlers with delicious food while chatting over a glass of wine. Around them, serving an array of truly characterful mid-priced wines from their own jauntily branded vans, was a handpicked selection of 18 of London’s finest independent wine merchants, plus some top-quality food trucks.
It was restaurateur Jonathan Downey’s Street Feast food cart event in east London that gave Spivey her first break in spreading the gospel of wine, for which she is a very new style of evangelist. She still operates Street Vin, the wine-bar element in these weekend night markets, undaunted by the prospect, initially anyway, of hand-delivering the wine and hauling the leftover bottles up to her second-floor walk-up in London Fields.
I wonder whether this mix of alcohol, opinionated locals (“In east London everyone thinks the world revolves round them”) and late nights wasn’t intimidating. She assures me: “It doesn’t get any more rowdy than any other bar, and on Saturdays it’s a much older crowd anyway, something the hipsters can bring their parents to – pork buns, tacos, good wine.”
Before Spivey could launch any of these ventures, she had to arm herself with an alcohol licence, involving a payment of about £300 and a one-day course (“I’d worry if someone failed it”). But she assures me that Street Vin is really quite profitable (“No, I’m not living off my modelling earnings – I should have saved more”) and that the third Wine Car Boot in June was financially viable. Tickets are £10 each, including the first five tastes of wine, a distinctly superior plastic tasting glass and a six-bottle carrier. This must be one of the best-value deals in wine tasting and is presumably underwritten by the merchants’ £350 participation fees. But they are certainly not complaining.
“Bringing together London’s leading independent wine merchants under one roof is no mean feat,” says Edward Hayward-Broomfield of west London merchant Lea & Sandeman, a relatively recent recruit to Wine Car Boot. “Ruth pulls it off in style and with a smile. Her vision to make interesting quality wines accessible to everyone is shared by all of us.”
Merchants are now queueing up to join Wine Car Boot but Spivey has decided to exclude the many independent wine retailers who sell only online, since a big part of her philosophy is that merchant must actually meet customer. She insists that visitors to Wine Car Boot should be able to visit the retailers afterwards and follow up by buying the interesting wines they have been exposed to, by the single bottle. (Retail prices per bottle varied from £6.95 to £25.) Even such a venerable wine merchant as Berry Bros asked to join in last June: Spivey agreed but, mindful of the unofficial uniform of the most traditional sort of wine merchant, she says she was thinking of instructing them beforehand, “No boring wine talk – and no red trousers,” before confessing that “I’m actually looking for a pair of them from Net-a-Porter for myself.”
She would carry them off in style. With more than a suggestion of Audrey Hepburn about her, she has been featured in a wide range of the smartest magazines and advertisements, including for Coke (Diet, of course), surely the enemy of wine in France. Her full-time modelling career lasted between the ages of 16 and 25 and in her time she has lived in Paris, New York and LA as well as working in Japan.
It all gave her a taste for the good life and restaurants in particular. She thought initially that she would like to cook but a stint in a London restaurant put an end to that. It was a copy of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that she bought for her brother – then her flatmate and now running his own environmental technology company in Austin, Texas – that lit the wine flame for her. Soon she was visiting as many vineyards as she could, though she never made it to Domaine de Triennes in Provence. “I got lost with next to no petrol, zero phone reception and a very angry – now ex – boyfriend who didn’t even like wine anyway.”
She may seem to me like the spirit of trend-conscious youth but her personal wine tastes are surprisingly traditional. “I still really like claret, and I’m probably the only female under 60 who uses that word. I’m probably a bit more Old World than New World. I like buttery, oaky big whites.” I ask what she thinks of the current craze for natural wine. “I veer towards avoiding it,” she says carefully, “especially the ones that shout out about it. But I loved that orange wine from DVine Cellars at King’s Cross, mind you.”
The next Wine Car Boot will be in mid-November and Spivey is fizzing with more ideas for ways of sharing her enthusiasm about wine: helping to train staff “in a younger, informal way” and hosting her Flight Club tastings – “talking to small groups rather than ching, ching, ching, all listen to me. I try to make it accessible but it shouldn’t be dumbed down too much.”
The morning after our meeting, Spivey sent me an email that began: “In case it wasn’t clear, I’d like to say just how much pleasure wine gives me.”
These are some of my favourites from the last Wine Car Boot. It was a hot day so most are white.
• Stephan Ehlen Riesling Feinherb 2000 Mosel, £9.80, The Sampler
• Alex Neiss, Estate Riesling 2013 Pfalz, £10 (from keg), Vinoteca
• Dom des Hauts Perrays Brut NV Crémant de Loire, £12.95, Lea & Sandeman
• J H Meyer, Ivory 2012 Coastal Region, £14, Vin Vixen
• Quinta do Feital, Auratus Alvarinho 2013 Vinho Verde, £15, DVine Cellars
• Malibràn NV Prosecco, £15, Vin Vixen
• Cantina Terlan, Terlano Classico 2013 Alto Adige, £16, Highbury Vintners
• Lioco Chardonnay 2012 Sonoma County, £23.95, Roberson
• Jean Comyn NV Champagne, £25 Vagabond Wines
• Broc Cellars, Cuvée 13.1 Syrah 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands, £21.95, Roberson
Illustration by Ingram Pinn