When Carole Bryon decided to open her first wine bar, she knew she wanted to challenge preconceptions around wine.
“For some reason, deep down people think alcohol is for men,” she explains. “I want to put women forward and promote them, that’s something that’s very important to me.”
It’s this drive that’s behind the opening of her first bar, Lady of the Grapes in Covent Garden, which offers around 90 wines – 60% of which are from female producers.
The launch is something of a passion project for the former art director, who worked in advertising in London and Paris for eight years until quitting in 2015 to pursue a career in wine.
“I’m French so there was always wine on the table,” she says. “Once I started to investigate what was actually inside a bottle I realised it was really geeky. Getting interested in wine is a trap – you just want to find out more.”
After leaving her job as senior art director in 2015, Bryon began studying with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), while working as a wine advisor and later buyer at The Grocery Wine Vault café and store in Shoreditch. It was here that she was surprised to discover how male dominated the wine industry was.
“I’m in my 30s and look quite young, and older guys would come in the shop and say ‘I need some advice, can you get someone to help me?’, even though I was there!
“From winemakers to sommeliers, the industry is mainly male. Even when vineyards are run by a couple, people know the name of the man, though he’s not the only one making wine. I want Lady of the Grapes to give some support to women in the industry, because we need to expose them.”
Lady of the Grapes is not the first restaurant to highlight women in the wine industry. Bellita in Bristol has an all-female produced wine list, as does dim sum restaurant The Courtesan in Brixton.
While Bryon doesn’t believe there is a difference in the style of wines produced by women, she feels they are often overlooked due to their gender.
“Woman are as good and as passionate as other winemakers, and it’s important to make them more visible. In some more macho countries, when the father who owns the vineyard dies it is given to the son-in-law and not the daughter, which is a bit unfair. But there are more and more women taking the lead at vineyards, which is good.”
At Lady of the Grapes she is working with 20 suppliers to create a 90-bin wine list – Bryon was originally aiming for 80 but struggled to choose – with around 70 wines on the list from female producers.
The majority are from France, Italy and Spain, alongside a few bottles from Australia, New Zealand and the US. The UK also gets a look in, with wine from Oxney Organic Estate in Beckley, East Sussex, where co-owner Kristin Syltevik oversees the vineyard.
Also on the list is a blend of petit verdot and malbec made by Vanya Cullen’s Cullen Wines in Margaret River, in western Australia – an estate which focuses on biodynamic wines and aims to be carbon neutral. Another favourite of Bryon’s is Josmeyer from Alsace. The vineyard dates back to 1854 and is now run by its founder’s great-great granddaughters, Céline and Isabelle Meyer.
Importance of certification
Lady of the Grapes’ list is made up of entirely organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Though much of the debate on the benefits of buying organic has centred on other areas of the food industry, Bryon feels ‘transparency’ in wine making is just as important.
“As there are no ingredients listed on the back of the bottle, like with other edible products, I think certification is important. Customers can rely on this and we all know organic, biodynamic and natural wines are healthier for the people drinking it and for the producer making it.”
With prices starting at £4.50 for a glass and bottles from around £26, the menu is designed to be accessible for everyone. There will also be a ‘takeaway’ offer, with charcuterie and bottles available at slightly cheaper retail prices. Bryon wants the list to change continually, and is ensuring winemakers’ names will be prominent on the wine list.
“I don’t want people to think wine is just grape juice, but to draw attention to the people working behind it. It’s important because each wine has a history.”
Bryon’s concept has also won a fan in chef Victor Garvey, whose restaurant Encant occupied the plum Covent Garden site until it closed in December. The pair became friends several years ago, and it was Garvey’s suggestion that she take the site. The chef, whose tapas restaurant Sibarita sits a few doors down from Lady of the Grapes on Maiden Lane, has created a menu of small plates for the bar, inspired by the south of France.
“He loved the concept and wanted to get involved,” says Bryon. “His mother is French and Spanish, he grew up in Catalonia and spent time in France so he has fond memories of the food there, which he wanted to bring here.”
The affordable small plates menu includes the likes of bone marrow with mussels and clams; steak tartare; and artichoke barigoule with roasted chestnut, lemon and comté.
The bar’s team is also gender balanced, with three female and a male working the floor, and both a female and male chef in the kitchen, which Garvey oversees. “It’s important to have women working here but we don’t want to discriminate,” Bryon insists. “We’ve taken staff who know what’s what.”
So, with her passion project finally opening, what’s next for Lady of the Grapes? Bryon currently works with several importers to source wines, but would like to expand the list and begin importing directly in a few years.
The response ahead of the opening has been so positive that she hopes Lady of the Grapes could put down roots elsewhere in London in future.
“In a couple of years if it all goes well I’d like to have another one, but it depends on the location,” she says. “Everyone I speak to is really excited about the project. It’s great to see that enthusiasm for female winemakers.”
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the August issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.