Words by Lucy Studley
Despite having the world of wine at his fingertips, Jon Keast says his focus will always be local.
© Ilya Fisher
Wine merchants are in the enviable position of being able to taste their way around the world from behind their desks. With finely-tuned palates they can skip lightly from region to region, appreciating idiosyncratic grape varieties while honing an appreciation for diverse winemaking traditions. In fact, with Covid-19 and climate change awareness impacting future travel, inhaling the scent of a heady, rich and spicy Aglianico from sun-drenched Southern Italy is something we all may have to get used to as a substitute for care-free globe-trotting.
Jon Keast of Scarlet Wines is well prepared for a future where our carbon footprints are smaller but our thirst for new experiences (and great wines!) remains undiminished. From the small but perfectly formed Scarlet Wines store at The Old Forge, Lelant, he and assistant vintner Daniel Amos have created a microcosm of good things in the world of wine. Visit the miniature emporium and you’ll discover shelves packed with interesting finds at all price points, each hand-selected by Jon. Best of all, Scarlet Wines is known for its enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach; no family cellar or encyclopaedic knowledge of French appellations is required to gain entry. “I just want you to find something you’ll enjoy drinking and sharing around the table with your friends,” says Jon. “It really is that simple!”
These days even the smallest independent merchants are able to sell their wares online, giving wine lovers across the nation access to their cherished finds and specialist knowledge. However, for Scarlet Wines, local customers in and around St Ives remain the clear focus. “We’ve recently put our full catalogue online and can deliver anywhere in the UK for a flat rate of £10,” explains Jon, who decided to follow his passion for wine and start the business over a decade ago.
© Ilya Fisher
“We’ve been asked for this service for many years by people who first discover us while on holiday in St Ives. People come back year after year and we stock up their holiday lets with wine before they arrive, so the natural next step was to offer national delivery. However, we’re still a local wine merchant and we’re not ashamed to say that our local service is much better!”
Excelling in local service means that Scarlet Wines is able to put sustainability high up the agenda. In the early days of Covid-19 Jon purchased an electric bike (a Riesse and Muller Load 75 e-cargo bike which can carry about 60 bottles at a time) for deliveries in town. He now zips around to homes and holiday lets, weaving in and out of traffic and negotiating narrow lanes in picturesque St Ives (delivery is free to all TR26 postcodes), transporting carbon-neutral wine deliveries to appreciative customers.
Jon has structured his service very deliberately, nudging people to think sustainably and consider each purchase and its environmental impact. “E-bike deliveries are free because I want to encourage people to shop locally so that we can take more delivery vans off the road and improve the environment for everyone,” he explains. “Our electric van which, like the e-bike, is charged using renewable energy, goes further and covers the whole of West Cornwall, for which people pay a nominal delivery charge. Beyond that, customers need to pay a little extra for a carbon-neutral delivery from our national couriers.”
In a characteristic move, Scarlet Wines closed on Black Friday this year, instead encouraging everyone to buy nothing and spend the day enjoying nature instead. In fact, this low key but much-loved merchant has become one of the greenest in the UK in recent years. Jon’s carefully curated portfolio is increasingly dominated by organic wines – many of which are also vegan – and he has drastically reduced his selection of non-European wines in order to save carbon from their long-haul journeys.
© Ilya Fisher
As Jon explains, there is a clear logic and pragmatism behind this approach. “A cool climate Riesling from Tasmania has to have a discernible character and quality which can’t be found in an Austrian or German counterpart to make it onto the list. We can no longer justify tick-box wine lists which must have a New Zealand Sauvignon, an Australian Cabernet etc, when there are plenty of excellent European counterparts which do the job just as well.
To find these European wines of indigenous grape varieties and regional character, Jon regularly attends specialist tastings in London and travels to the continent – by train these days – to seek out and visit small producers. Some of these operators are maverick upstarts who are challenging the status quo, others are run by families who have been tending the same rows of vines for generations. The nature of these boutique operations means they are likely to employ organic, low-intervention principles in their vineyards – something Jon firmly believes benefits both the wine and the environment. “Wines which are produced in organic vineyards, where the soil is free from chemicals and the natural biodiversity of the land is encouraged, have greater nuance of flavour and texture,” Jon explains. “As well as healthier soil, this approach helps preserve habitats for local flora and fauna, for example encouraging bees and butterflies.”
A vegan himself, Jon has dedicated a section on his new website exclusively to vegan and organic wines, and it’s absolutely packed with great finds. Many wines – especially from large commercial producers – are filtered of excess proteins or tannins using fining agents like milk protein and egg whites, making them not suitable for vegans. All wines have the potential to be vegan – there are various vegan fining agents in use, or the wine can simply be left to self-clarify over a longer period of time. “It’s really important to us that we offer a good selection of wines for anyone who is on a vegan diet,” said Jon. “Wines can be filtered perfectly adequately without using animal products and I expect we’ll see the majority of wines moving in this direct soon, but for now we’re helping our customers out by highlighting which of our wines are vegan.”
Naturally, Jon will be drinking vegan wines and enjoying a plant-based feast on Christmas Day. “We recently supplied wine for a vegan Sunday roast in collaboration with our friends at Yallah Café in St Ives, so these wines come as tried and tested recommendations for a vegan feast,” he says. “I’ll be drinking Circle of Life – a blend of Sauvignon, Chenin and Semillon from Stellenbosch, and Chateau Beynat – a delicious organic Bordeaux.”
Jon also has thoughts on what to pair with the traditional turkey for Christmas lunch. “A lot of our friends have reduced their meat consumption but are treating themselves to a locally-reared turkey on Christmas Day,” he says. “To them I’ve been recommending Kovacs Battonage Chardonnay – a superb, full-bodied oaked style from Hungary, and Gomez Cruzado Rioja Reserva from 2012, which is a classic and soft Rioja which is drinking perfectly right now. They’ll work beautifully with the flavours of a traditional Christmas lunch.” Whatever the next year brings, it’s worth remembering that your local wine merchant can help you travel the world from the comfort of your own home. All you need is a large table, and several good friends with a thirst for new experiences.