Last month we caught up with Ruth Spivey of Wine Car Boot. We talked supermarkets, fast fashion, sustainability and English wine – not to mention the benefits of a non-traditional route into the wine trade.
Ruth Spivey is busy shaking up the UK trade with what fast becomes apparent as a trademark combination of whimsy and grit. ‘It’s the doing which actually counts.’ She says. Hardly revolutionary stuff – except, it sort of is in the age of Instagram and side hustles. ‘Even if you have masses of great ideas, if you don’t do any of them they’re meaningless. Have the confidence to think that if you think it’s a good idea – then it might well be.’
‘It’s been a positive that I didn’t ‘grow up’ in the wine trade and didn’t take a traditional route coming to it as a second career.’ Ruth freely admits that she has no typical background in wine. Her family don’t really drink wine and, as an ex-model, she came to it first as a consumer through supermarket wine fridges and niche wine bars. These combined experiences are what Ruth believes gives her her edge: ‘when I worked in fashion it gave me a sense of ‘anything’s possible’ – I was scouted as a model and that just became my career. It wasn’t something that was ever planned and it opened up this world of work where you realise there are all these jobs which you can make your own; [you can] do whatever you like. Spending a lot of time in that industry which is creative and doesn’t put limits on itself has informed the way I approach life generally – and working with wine specifically. In the wine trade people have been trying to do the same thing forever and obviously these tactics aren’t working. […] For years everyone’s been trying to make wine accessible – sometimes you do need to come at a problem with a completely different approach’.
This ethos seems to be working. From Flight Club, through pop-up The Cellar at Wilderness to her calling card, Wine Car Boot: Ruth’s brand of curiosity-cum-cool is making waves. The latter is billed as an antidote to supermarket wine: ‘buying wine in supermarkets is really convenient. I just wish it was better – then I wouldn’t have to do my bloody event!’
Ruth is shrewdly clear-eyed about consumers. ‘In wine there seem to be two approaches: should we defend the consumer who refuses to spend more than [the national average spend of] £5.62 – or should we force them to change? [I think that the bigger question is] who drives who? Do you meet the consumer where they’re already at or do you create the demand yourself? Everyone wants thing to be easy – that’s why experts exist. I think that consumers want to be sold to; not in an annoying way, but they want to drink wine and be told what to think. I’m looking for ways to improve people’s drinking experience. It’s easy to sell to people who like wine – it’s preaching to the converted. You need to move the rest of people just one step in the right direction. It would have a huge impact on sustainability, the kinds of wine available.’
On the subject of sustainability, Ruth’s fashion background enables her to draw alarming parallels. ‘There are new clothes every season in the same way that there are new vintages. You don’t always have to drink the new vintage but people do. It’s just ingrained in shopper consciousness – like you feel you always have to go out and buy a new jumper every winter.’ With her events, Ruth wants consumers to recognise that the status quo is there to be challenged. ‘[The question of the national average spend per bottle, it frustrates me because] no-one’s upped their budget. We all pay more for clothes. We pay more for food. The cinema is basically unaffordable. Inflation has just ignored wine. No-one questions how they’ve managed to maintain the price for two decades. Because of inflation, the relative cost has actually gone down and no one questions it.’
These concerns greatly inform her choice of winos to watch – the movers and shakers she’s betting on for future influence and success.
‘Even if you just have a party at home and drink a lot of wine, just the volume of empty bottles is incredible. When I put the recycling out it’s making a very large ‘clink’. […] My friend Rupert Taylor has set up Uncharted Wines which is 50% bottles and 50% wine in keg, eliminating a lot of the wastage from traditional packaging formats. What [he’s] doing with kegged wine – it makes so much sense, financially and environmentally and in terms of attitude to wine. It’s a no brainer’, she argues, to bet on kegged wine as the answer for people increasingly aware of the environmental cost of traditional packaging solutions and wine wastage.
We ask if there are any other brands or people she keeps tabs on. ‘Noble Rot have […] done a really good job of bringing other subjects into wine, making it part of a lifestyle while talking about interesting, high end, quirky stuff. They have their own voice – but they talk like normal people.’ It’s this, the antithesis of formulaic wine communications which really resonates with Ruth, and with the consumers who attend her events. Unconventional, but familiar could be the mantra of Wine Car Boot – essentially a farmer’s market, just for wine, and ‘just’ changing the way that slews of consumers think about and drink wine.
Ruth is a blue jay among the trade’s fat cock pheasants. Unassuming, passing unnoticed in many circles, but with a flash of guile and determination which mark her as a woman – as a wino – to watch.