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It is just such a people thing.

There's no other wine shop like it. Crammed into the station buildings of West Jesmond Metro in Newcastle, you'll find one of the most exciting selections of fine wines in the North-East.

The business began in 1970 when Richard Granger refused to move to London. He'd run the Northern shops of one the best-known high-street wine shops, and wanted to stay here (at the time he was trying to restore an old barn on Holy Island).

He moved into the station four years later and his business was boosted in no small measure when he became the North Eastern agent for Theakston's Beer ( just as real ale was finding favour.

The wine list was based on the traditional French favourites, with some very fine port and sherry and a very occasional foray into more exotic territory. (I bought my first bottle of Vinho Verde from northern Portugal from Richard in about 1977 along with `real' Lambrusco!)

The shop was (and still is) a great favourite with the better-heeled students of Jesmond.

One of them, Alastair Stewart, who prepared for a career in the RAF by reading zoology, returned for a stag night in 1982 and popped in to renew his acquaintance with Richard. Richard always greeted old customers like family friends, and took little persuasion to cement the friendship further with a glass of wine.

How many glasses of wine he and Alastair shared that afternoon will never be known, but the upshot was that Alastair stayed and joined the business.

One wet night, on the way to a wine tasting in Whalton the following year, stuck at a red light in Gosforth High Street, Richard confided that the beer side of the business was going no-where.

It was, says Alastair: "The tail wagging the dog ( a big turn over, but little profit."

As the light turned to green, they agreed, from then on, the business would be re-structured solely upon fine wine. They worked hard and, slowly but surely, the business ( Richard Granger Fine Wine Merchants ( was put back on a sound financial footing.

Richard died in 1997, aged just 60. By then Alastair, now a member of the family in all but name, had assumed full control. Alastair reflects: "Apart from his friendship, the one thing I'm eternally grateful to Richard for is that he allowed me to keep the name of the business."

It's still the case that some customers only stop at the station once a year ( when they need good advice for special occasions wines (often at Christmas). Continuity of name and location is very important, though Alastair has often felt tempted to find less cramped accommodation.

He's since been joined by Mark Rennie, who after a lifetime in the brewing industry, realised that wine was "where his heart was". They form an engaging double-act, full of enthusiasm for the wine they sell and which they can describe, at the drop of a hat, in almost Trivial Pursuit-like detail.

"We take what we do very seriously, but not ourselves."

One of Alastair's aphorisms is that "we will sell nothing that we wouldn't take home ourselves".

Another is, "we're only as good as the last bottle we sell".

Time moves on. The present generation of younger wine lovers, business-folk and better-heeled students alike, know little about traditional French goodies like claret and Burgundy, but have been brought up on New World Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Another radical re-think of the business was needed. Alastair confesses: "I've had my eyes opened to the sheer quality of the best New World wine. These days I'll often suggest a New Zealand or Californian Pinot Noir rather than a pounds 15 bottle of Burgundy."

The present list still has the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy and the Rhone Valley (including the two best Cheteauneufs ever made ( Chateaux Rayas and Beaucastel), but their selection of top New Zealand wines is far and away the best you'll find in the region, and all the significant players from around the globe are well-represented. Alastair is excited too about the resurgence of fine Spanish and Italian wine.

Don't think this is just a shop full of expensive goodies, there are lots of bargains at prices competitive with most supermarkets, but if you want something rather special, this is the place to stop.

As Alastair says: "Long after the television's blown up, you'll remember that stunning bottle of pounds 40 Italian red you bought here."

Wine of the Week

Vigna di Pallino, Tenuta Sette Ponti Sangiovese 2003, Richard Granger, pounds 9.22.

Deep ruby red from Tuscany with a glorious smell of ripe plums and black cherries and an elegant, dry taste that doesn't overpower you with jammy fruit. Superb with lamb.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 4, 2005
Words:788
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