Around three years ago, Kathryn O’Mara faced a career choice: stay in a career that did nothing for her or switch to a career that promised hard work, long hours and a complete change in direction. She also ended up snaring a husband.
Trying to interview Kathryn O’Mara requires a deal of patience. It is not that she is awkward or unwilling to answer questions: it is just that her telephone always interrupts, with enquiries as to the sulphate content of her wine or the availability of spaces on her bar’s increasingly popular wine-tasting events.
The Australian-born proprietor of the Battersea wine bar artisan & vine has carved a niche for herself as a key player in presenting English wines to consumers: both in the wines she lists and the wine tastings she holds as well as the dinners with key English winemakers she has held in collaboration with DrinkBritain.com.
O’Mara says: “I took over the bar about three years ago. Previously it had been a traditional pub and was a Cuban cocktail bar when I bought it.”
The bar depends mainly on local clientele as there is surprisingly little footfall on the busy road that passes the front of the bar. However, O’Mara’s high octane personality attracts solid local business which she converts to her wine list.
She says: “We serve English wine and natural wines which attracts what I describe as ‘explorers of wine’ who like to drink wines outside of their comfort zones.”
At artisan & vine, a natural wine is one made in a biodynamically or organically farmed vineyard, with indigenous, or wild, yeasts, and minimal or no added sulphites or flavour enhancers.
In terms of English wine, O’Mara only works with winemakers who would deal with her directly. This translates into no distributors or wholesalers. She visited a wide range of English vineyards and tasted over 300 English wines to come to the 25 or so artisan & vine has on its list at any one time. The wines are generally fresh, low alcohol and easy drinking, she adds.
Her openness to customers and the trade is reflected in her buying approach: any grower who would like her to consider listing their wine is simply invited to visit her Battersea bar. If she likes the wine, she will list it. She takes pride that there are no buyers or large corporation involved in the bar.
The bar is very much a reflection of O’Mara’s personality. She has put together an eclectic, almost shabby chic interior that completely works to convey her intention to create an engaging and inviting interior.
She says: “I want to create the atmosphere of a French country bar. I am told this is very much the atmosphere of a bar in Melbourne.”
The bar currently lists around 30 wines from over 15 English vineyards, making her bar almost an embassy for English wines in the capital. She also flies the flag for natural wines.
It comes as no surprise that she doesn’t do easy: she admits that she has chosen two hard niches to develop.
She says: “I sell English and natural wines. I have had to create a market for these wines.”
Curiously, she observes, few people travel to her bar specifically to seek out these specialised wines.
O’Mara says: “My customers are mainly locals; except for the wine-tastings that do bring people from all over.”
These are not only tastings of English wine, and there are other events such as food and wine matchings, that draw clientele.
Her determination not to go down the corporate route has been acknowledged by many in the drinks industry. In May, O’Mara was informed that artisan & vine has been shortlisted for the ‘Innovative Wine Merchant of the Year’ category in the 2011 Decanter Retailer of the Year Awards.
O’Mara came to the licensed trade with an unlikely background, one that had brought her to London a decade ago in the first place. A career in the oil industry and the internet boom saw her transfer from Sydney to London, courtesy of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Disenchantment later set in when she realised that she did not enjoy oil as much as her fellow executives and sought salvation in a career spent in wine, leading her to seek out licensed premises to acquire.
Turning her back on the corporate world as represented by PwC means that O’Mara will not create a chain of artisan & vine wine bars, instead she will be growing her business in other directions.
She says: “I won’t create a chain of wine bars. Instead, I’ll create extra revenue from activities such as the vineyard tours and tastings.”
In line with this, the business is kept low-key in staffing, with never more than five staff employed at the bar.
For some, you can check into artisan & vine and then, unlike the Eagles, leave. However, for one customer, they can never leave.
Andrew Thompson, a West Country native, was interested in English and natural wines and visited the bar. As an ecologist and wine enthusiast, Thompson was drawn to the venue and then the landlady.
The romance has rooted O’Mara in the UK. With a West Country wedding, O’Mara has cultivated a cool life/work balance that sees evenings spent curled up with Seinfeld DVDs, a husband and family in the future, and a vibrant and successful wine bar that champions her favourite wine niches: English and natural wines.