It's a wine consumer tale as old as time: you need to buy a bottle of wine but you don’t necessarily know what you want or need, and you’re too scared to engage with the person working in a wine store for fear of condescension or ridicule. Maybe it’s because once upon a time you were scathingly shut down for not knowing that red Burgundy wine was always (or at least partially always) made from Pinot Noir grapes? Or because you once proclaimed your intention to splash out on a fancy wine, only to be told that $20 does not a fancy wine make? As a result, so many consumers—even budding wine geeks—must endure waves of angst and agita at the wine shop, shyly muttering to the attendant that they do not need help, madly grabbing a mystery bottle or shopping purely by price point, and missing all the good stuff in the process.
We’ve all been there—even the great wine snoots of the world were once amateur bottle-guessers. No wine drinker should be for lack of knowledge; wine retail should instead endeavor to kindly guide the curious and thirsty towards bottles of a certain provenance and price range. It's only the right thing to do. Enter Blackhearts & Sparrows—a Melbourne-based bottle shop that was founded on the belief that delicious things exist at all price brackets, and that one need not know everything about beer, wine, or spirits to be able to be led to something that you’ll love to drink.
Opened in 2006, Blackhearts & Sparrows was founded by siblings Paul and Jessica Ghaie after running other bottle shops for many years prior. “Over that time, as our own tastes developed, we found ourselves wanting to explore the world of wine much more widely and to bring our customers along for the ride,” Paul Ghaie tells Sprudge. 12 years later, the Ghaie siblings have a total of seven stores across the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, with a brand new shop coming soon to Canberra, all branded under the name Blackhearts & Sparrows. “It has a sense of adventure and intrigue,” says Paul.
Adventure and intrigue carries through to what's on the shelves. The offering at Blackhearts is incredibly diverse, with well-produced wines across the spectrum from what they’ve lovingly termed “School Night Wines”—those $20-ish and under that you won’t feel too guilty for cracking into on a weeknight—to premium lots like rare magnums from the famed Domaine Moreau-Naudet in Chablis. Pair that with boutique local and international spirits like Monkey Shoulder Whisky from Scotland or Sheep’s Whey Vodka from Tasmania, as well as a range of beers that spans from the local tradie favourite Victoria Bitter (VB as it’s better known) all the way to rare releases of Cantillon—and you genuinely do find something for everyone.
“It's Wine for the People,” Paul offers, by way of philosophy. “We wanted to ensure anyone could walk into a specialist wine store and not feel intimidated. Regardless of knowledge or budget, we wanted them to feel comfortable to browse, confident to ask a question, and to be excited to walk away with something that they may never have heard of before.”
While substance and product-selection are obviously important, in a competitive retail landscape like Melbourne, style doesn’t go amiss—and this is an area that Blackhearts works equally hard at. While the design and fit-out of the first four stores were largely handled internally by the siblings and their team, they eventually got to the stage where they had to up their game a bit, enlisting the services of Lauren Stellar of Champ.Co for interior design, with Studio Round handling branding and merchandising. All of their stores have a delicate balance of timber, metal, and concrete with the overall intention being to present the wine, beer, and spirits as beautifully as possible.
Since launching in 2006—eons ago in terms of today's natural wine boom—Blackhearts & Sparrows has become something of an institution across Melbourne, leading the way in offering a range of minimal-intervention wines to the masses. It is at the very same time a populist go-to for that casual six-pack of beer on a Saturday afternoon, or the place to pick up a bottle of red that your parents will happily sup on at family dinner. These are the kinds of transactions that build an empire, after all, and it's a subtle tightrope walk that Blackhearts have managed capably: to be a wine geek heaven that's also a fine place to grab a sixer. I think it's hard to underplay the role these shops have played in paving the way for the next wave of wine-lovers, able to engage and learn without fear of being shamed.
While the internet seems to be making waves in so many realms of retail—and may indeed be where the next chapters of natural wine are written—I hope there will always be physical spaces like Blackhearts, where you can get lost in the shelves full of delicious products, find your questions met with genuinely warm human engagement, and leave happy with a heavy bag full of the good stuff.
Disclosure: Eileen Kenny is a part-time employee of Blackhearts & Sparrows.
Eileen P. Kenny is a Sprudge Media Network contributor based in Melbourne.