Cork of the North: having a fine time
There’s a picture of the playwright Robert Bolt above the bar at Cork of the North, a hybrid-style wine merchant in Sale, on the south of Manchester.
A blue plaque high up on the wall outside reveals the reason: the town’s most famous son, the writer of A Man For All Seasons – about the life of Thomas More – and the screenplays for Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and Lawrence of Arabia, was born in the property long before wine shop owner Marc Hough set up his business two years ago.
Hough has resisted pinning up pictures of some of Manchester’s more recent cultural icons, though he did consider putting Mark E Smith of The Fall on display as a mark of respect after he died in January. That was until Hough reminded himself that the last time he’d seen Smith, the singer had thrown a can of cola at him and berated him for his choice of music.
To be clear, Smith wasn’t sipping on a glass of Malbec and enjoying a slice of cheese in the shop at the time. The incident occurred while Hough was executing the other half of his dual professional life, as the tour DJ for iconic Manchester band New Order, the group whose early career helped bankroll the city’s legendary Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub.
“I still do stuff with them but, of course, it’s very much a part-time job working with New Order, so I needed to find something else to do with my time,” says Hough of the decision to slow life down – a bit, at least – to enter the burgeoning independent wine merchant market.
“I started DJing in about 1987 in the Hacienda and got to know the band. I’ve been their tour DJ for about 20 years or so.
“It was a great life. I’ve travelled all round the world and had some great nights and a lot of fun, but it is a young man’s game.
“Running a wine shop and a wine bar does mean you have to work some late nights, but not quite as late as when you’re working the clubs. Sometimes the parties could go on for days.”The decision to keep the famous Manchester bands that his DJ career has brought him close to off the Cork of the North walls is understandable. Why would you want to embarrass your customers?
“Members of New Order, members of The Smiths, members of The Fall, members of The Happy Mondays, members of the Inspiral Carpets, all buy their wine from me,” says Hough.
“I’m not sure there’s a Manchester band who doesn’t buy wine from me – apart from Oasis, because they live in London. And Liam doesn’t like wine anyway.”
Opening Cork of the North was a return to Hough’s first love, wine, acquired in his formative years from his grandfather. “He used to spend a lot of time in France and even made his own wine, which veered from delicious to caustic. From the age of about nine or 10 he was around for Sunday dinner and he’d be giving me a sip and asking me what I thought of it. He gave me my education in wine and since then I’ve never lost my passion for it. I find it fascinating.”
Hough’s family also features heavily in the more immediate backstory of the business, which started out as a private client operation.
First, there was his honeymoon in Madeira. “My love of Madeira lasted longer than the marriage,” says Hough. “The popular misconception is that Madeira is a sweet cooking wine. I went to Barbeito, which is the number one producer, and did a tasting and was blown away. When I was leaving I left half my clothes out of my suitcase so I could load it up with Madeira wine. I took it home with me and let family and friends try it all and a fortnight later I went back with two empty suitcases to get some more. I thought: ‘I might have a little job there.’
“I had five customers initially: myself, my dad, my brother and two friends. It grew kind of organically by word of mouth. I started a website and set up a wholesale business and started importing my own stuff.
“The logical progression was to open my own shop. Nowadays it’s very difficult to just have a retail offering so I’ve gone for the hybrid – but without the tasting machines. I know they’re very successful for a lot of people. Vagabond in London are taking over the world with them, and good for them. It works in London, but personally I really dislike them.
“It takes all the romance out of a bottle of wine. You want to see the wine, pick it up and hear the cork pop. It’s just a cold experience getting a glass from a machine. It’s like holding up your glass to a robot’s mouth. You don’t have the interaction with the person who’s selling you the wine.”
Instead, Hough favours Coravin and Verre du Vin to preserve up to 50 opened bottles, of which 20 appear on a formal by-the-glass wine list, drawn from a retail selection that’s displayed by grape variety rather than country or region.
“I’m constantly questioning whether I’m right to do it that way, but I think it’s more user-friendly for the customer. If you do it by country people will go to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and never go anywhere else. We’re saying we’ve got some fantastic French and Chilean Sauvignon. It gives people an opportunity to try new things.
“We sell a lot of Cahors because it’s on the Malbec shelf. If we did it the old way we wouldn’t sell any because people wouldn’t know its Malbec. It’s a way of introducing people to different wines from countries they wouldn’t usually go for. People easily become ghettoised.”
Hough also takes his wine educational skills with him when he goes back on the road with New Order. “Nowadays backstage at a gig there will be a little impromptu wine tasting after the soundcheck,” he says. “I’ll bring a load of bottles in, we taste what we want and then say we’re having that one afterwards. Do the gig and we’re all drinking fine wine.
“A few years ago the sort of refreshments on offer backstage were wholly different. It was very rock ’n’ roll and debauched. Nowadays, it’s just as rock ’n’ roll but not as debauched. I say wine is rock ’n’ roll.”
TASTING MACHINES: “I think they’re an absolute rip-off for the consumer. If you go into a place with a tasting machine they haven’t got the entry-level wines in there, it’s all the £30-plus wines. If you go into somewhere with a machine and you’ve never seen one before, you get your card and go ‘wow’ and in half an hour you’re pissed and you’ve spent a few hundred quid. I think it’s the new elitism.”
BREXIT: “It’s a real worry. If we leave the single market what does that mean for us? Nearly everything we sell we import. I’ve already seen our margins hit quite considerably. You have to look at every single wine now and decide either to put it up, or take a hit on margin, or say we’re not going to do it and do a cheaper alternative. Whichever way you look at it, someone’s losing out. I’ve got one customer who was a particularly vocal supporter of Brexit, so I say: ‘You don’t mind paying extra for it mate do you, because you voted for it?’”
BUYING DIRECT: “We import from France, Portugal and Croatia. I’m co-buying with couple of other independents in an informal buying group. It means we’re able to get great wines no one else has and get a decent margin. The sweet spot on prices for us is between £10 and £15, We do offer great wines for less than a tenner but generally people come in here because they want a bit more quality. I sell six bottles of Châteauneuf and six bottles of Barolo a week: decent stuff over £40.”
Matching crap crisps
Cork of the North hosts two big wine fairs a year in Sale town hall for 500 people, and runs three or four tastings in-store each month, some played straight, others a little more tongue-in-cheek.
“We do sensible themes such as Malbec or Sauvignon, but the thing we had a lot of success was the Wine & Crap Crisps evening. We all like eating crisps with wine – they do seem to go very well. But when you’ve eaten all the crisps and still got a bottle of wine left, what are you going to do? You go for the kids’ crisps.
“But kids only like crap crisps, they don’t want Kettle Chips. One time, the only thing I could find was pickled onion Monster Munch and it got me thinking about what would go with what. So the idea was spawned. We scientifically matched Frazzles, Wotsits and so on… Frazzles and New World Pinot Noir, spicy Nik-Naks with Riesling. It really works.
“It was just as a joke at first. We’re not twats in cravats. I didn’t realise how successful it would be. The first one sold out in a day so we put another one on. It sold out in 10 minutes. We ended up putting on five, all of which sold out. I’ve put it on hold because I’m in danger of being known as the ‘crap crisps guy’.”