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Reading between the vines

Words by Lucy Cornes

Jon Keast, the vintner who has been blazing a trail in the world of wine for a decade, wants you to buy less wine.

Is wine finally shedding its elite image? How are health and environmental concerns changing what – and how much – we drink? I went to meet Jon Keast, creator of a Cornish neighbourhood wine store of national repute, to find out how a traditional industry is putting down new roots. Scarlet Wines, based at The Old Forge, Lelant, has been enticing locals and visitors with the promise of interesting wine for over 10 years now. A popular café and deli also ran alongside the wine retail and wholesale business, but that has now been transferred to other hands to take to the next level. “At the start of a new decade we decided we wanted to refocus on our original vision and core skills; selling superb wine, spirits and beers,” explains Jon. “We have been fortunate enough to grow our café, deli, retail and trade business over the last ten years to such an extent that the business now warrants separating into its constituent parts. Whilst others take on the running of the café and deli, we can dedicate ourselves to sourcing and sharing the wines we love.” And love is certainly the word for it. Jon’s approach to wine is passionate, and anything but pretentious. Wine snobbishness has no place amongst the shelves at Scarlet Wines, where instead you’ll encounter infectious enthusiasm and a maverick’s thirst for individuality. “There is that old-fashioned image of the stuffy, bespectacled wine merchant prepared to glare down their noses at mere mortals who can’t tell their Pauillac from their Pomerol,” says Jon. He recalls: “When I was in my thirties, I was starting to get interested in actually learning about wine rather than just drinking a lot of it. I was browsing the shelves of a well-known, ancient merchant house in London and said I was interested to try a Cote Rotie, and the chap asked me superciliously ‘and how does Sir like his Cote Rotie?’ Of course, I had no idea how to answer this, and the sole purpose of the question was to make me feel inferior. I don’t think there’s a place for that kind of thing in any service industry, least of all one as fun and interesting as wine.”

Jon believes that wine doesn’t need to be complicated; it’s not an exclusive club for those who ‘get it.’ “To us, wine is a simple, convivial pleasure,” he explains. “I couldn’t care less if you can recite all the appellations of the Rhone Valley, I just want you to find something you will enjoy drinking and sharing around the table with your friends. Here at Scarlet we get equally as excited by a whacky Chilean natural wine as we are by a classically sophisticated Burgundy, and you’ll find wines selected with love and care at all price points.”

If Jon is reacting against the image of wine as upmarket and inaccessible, he’s also flying in the face of the homogenisation of wine on an industrial scale, where often more money is spent on branding than the liquid in the bottle. “Although those supermarket aisles look like they offer great choice, I challenge you to find many bottles there that aren’t one of the big international grape varieties, or a sub-brand of a huge global conglomerate. For example, with whites, unless you want Chardonnay, Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio, there is next to nothing to choose from.”

Jon curates his selection of wines from Europe’s kaleidoscope of terroirs, supplemented with the most interesting and idiosyncratic finds from the New World. Focusing on indigenous grape varieties and regional character means he is naturally drawn to smaller wine producers, some of whom are young pretenders and others whose families have been tending the same rows of vines for generations. The nature of these boutique operations means they are likely to employ organic 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.”

The category of ‘natural wines’ is a step further and involves taking grapes grown organically, usually hand-harvested, and treating them as naturally as possible during the winemaking process. There isn’t an exact definition of what constitutes a natural wine, but generally they are fermented using only naturally occurring yeasts, are free from additives and contain only natural sugars and acids. They have no – or very little – sulphites added to stabilise them, and are bottled without harsh filtration methods. “Natural wines have an immediacy, an unpredictability and a certain volatility which I generally love,” says Jon. However, he adds: “They can sometimes be a little too funky, even for my taste! Natural winemaking is a spectrum and wine drinkers will find the point along that line where it becomes more effort than enjoyment.”

Jon is an active campaigner for action on climate change, and environmental concerns are having a growing impact on his portfolio. “Increasingly I am dropping non-European wines – which obviously have to be transported further – unless they have a really strong case to be included. So, 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.” Jon will soon be the only wholesaler in the south west with a fully electric van, contributing to the gradual ‘greening’ of his supply chain. “It’s sometimes hard to know where to start with sustainability improvements, but I think the key thing is to do just that – start! We all have a responsibility to reduce our carbon output as much as possible.”

As environmental considerations and healthier lifestyles take centre stage, Jon is accepting - even encouraging - of the fact that people will probably drink less wine in the future. “We need to think more carefully about all kinds of consumption, and that includes wine. As a wine merchant it’s my job to create a portfolio with a green conscience, and to share as much information and knowledge as possible to help individuals and businesses make informed decisions.”

He also thinks there is a shift away from homogenisation and the thirst for cheap alcohol. “As the younger generation become adults we’re dealing with a more health-conscious market who may drink less often and look for lower alcohol products, favouring smaller producers and organic or vegan wines - and perhaps don’t mind paying a bit more for wines as a result of all that. In short, it’s exciting times for small independent merchants like us!”


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