Wine-maker Sergio Verrillo on his London haunts
His voice crackles, fades. Wine-maker Sergio Verrillo is at work in the Blackbook winery, tucked beneath railway arches “slap-bang in the middle of Battersea.” Digital technology dusts off to go another round with Victorian engineering; his voice bounces down the line, shedding its London skin. Before he and wife Lynsey co-founded Blackbook, Verrillo spent his high school and university years waiting tables and working in bars; then buzzed around Connecticut, New York, New Jersey promoting indie bands, avant-garde jazz, that kind of thing.
In the Noughties he moved to London and got a job at Gordon Ramsey’s Maze, on the sommelier team. “If you work with a bunch of people who are passionate about what they do, and what they serve, it’s infectious,” he says. “I went down the rabbit hole.”
Six months into the job, Verrillo knew he wanted to get into the intricacies of the wine world. “I’m not much of a sales person, I’m a bad account manager…. so I looked into production. The scientific background and detail applied to a creative outlet seemed to fit me.”
The next years were a whirl of study (Plumpton College, Sussex “the only English-speaking viticulture and oenology school in Europe with its own vineyards. If you’re in Britain and want to go into wine-making, that’s where you go”) and hands-on work in France, United States, South Africa and New Zealand.
The locations were selected for two reasons: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “They are notoriously fickle, difficult, not well received by all consumers,” he says. In other words, the avant-garde jazz of the wine world.
“I love these varieties. I love the masochistic challenges they present. I love the division they cause. People are real chardonnay haters and don’t understand Pinot, outside of Burgundy, but when they’re grown well, and made well, there is nothing better.”
Knowing what they wanted to do was one thing. Doing it was another. England may be “one of the most exciting emerging wine-producing countries in the world” but the industry isn’t designed to accommodate emerging producers. In the United States young wine-makers can rent equipment, work in cooperative spaces and otherwise find ways to bottle their dreams. The United Kingdom lacks this infrastructure. “If you’re an aspiring wine-maker in the UK your options are to get a job, have someone else make your wine, or raise funds and start your own brand.”
The Verrillos chose the latter. Lynsey’s experience and connections in corporate consultancy and business development (she’s a business development director for Visa Europe, and chair of the WineGB Diversity & Inclusion working group) were no doubt crucial to designing and implementing Blackbook’s business strategy. The naming approach was a looser: “We do what any normal couple does when they try to figure something out: we got drunk.”
The name is an affectionate reference to the pre-digital means of organizing one’s life – jotting numbers, ideas and appointments in a little black book. The titular connection to the wine-soaked Dylan Moran sitcom Black Books was happy coincidence.
Moving out of London was a personal and professional no-go. They’ve always lived in the same square mile of south London and, with Lynsey’s job and two young children, they had no desire to join the commuter crush. Hence the winery tucked beneath phone-signal chomping railway arches, which are also handy for temperature regulation when your start-up winery can’t afford climate control.
Don’t imagine that urban wine-makers elude the challenges of their country counterparts. While not personally tending vineyards, the Verrillo’s discovered that wine-growers challenges were theirs too. “I didn’t appreciate how difficult it would be to get good grapes,” Sergio says. “Some people literally hung up on me, some said yes but never returned my call. That was tough. We did get people on board, but it took time.”
One of the things he loves about Pinot and Chardonnay is “the full gauntlet of styles” they offer. Building a network of growers who share their ethos is key to Verrillo’s wine-making ambition: “The consumer has more of a challenge with these varietals. Nothing pleases me more than to change people’s perceptions.”
When not crafting and marketing the next vintage of pleasantly surprising Pinots and Chardonnay, here are the favorite London haunts of Sergio, Lynsey and their young family.
My Town: Blackbook Winery’s Sergio Verrillo on London
- Coffee shop: Blank, at the top of my road. They make some of the best coffee in London and the corn fritters with chili sauce are incredible. If I’m in town, and there’s no line, Monmouth Coffee in Borough Market.
- Park: Brockwell Park, Herne Hill is one of my favorite parks in London, I’ve been going there forever.
- Tube station: One I like and use a lot is Stockwell. It was my station for half my time in London. It’s on the Northern and Victoria line so, for convenience, it’s great. I also love walking to Brixton for its pure iconicness.
- Budget meal: The Draper’s Arms, in Islington. It has a great wine list and the food is cracking
- Wine shop: There’s Dvine Cellars in Clapham, a biodynamic wine shop where I spend a lot of my time and too much money. It’s run by this great guy, Greg. He had a little wine shop at the end of the road from my apartment in Stockwell in, like, 2011. I was one of his first customers. Dvine has a nice range of stuff, and great coffee. My kids like it.
- Wine bar: One I don’t go to often enough is The Remedy, near Charlotte Street area. It’s a precise wine list, without pretentiousness. It’s not London, but Lynsey is from Edinburgh so when we’re there we always go to Smith & Gertrude. It’s pretty rad.
- Museum: The Natural History Museum. You gotta love it. Every big city has a natural history museum but London’s is really expansive. Look at our website – the Pinot [label] ‘bow tie’ is from the facade of the Natural History Museum.
- Hidden treasure: Live music. Music is my great escape. I love it. The last concert I saw was Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. He was like 83 years old, up there with the dancers, amazing.
- Sunday roast: Canton Arms, hands down. It’s one of those farm-to-table gastro pubs. The menu changes every week, not just chicken or roast beef. It’s all seasonal: pheasants, venison, all sorts. I like brisket a lot.
- Market: I hate to be part of the crowd but Borough Market is pretty epic. It has incredible food stalls, traders – a standout, without a doubt. There are some great smaller ones, like the Richmond market, but nothing beats Borough.