Launched in 2013, quarterly wine fanzine Noble Rot was the first iteration of Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling’s quest to ‘de-twattify’ the traditionally pompous and pretentious world of wine. “I think it’s more about the fact that you’ve got this subject that is vast, and some people will use that feeling, whether it’s wine or any complex subject, to intimidate others,” says Keeling, when CR catches up with him (over a glass of wine, of course) prior to the UK’s lockdown 2.0.
“We want to talk about wine like we would talk about football, or talk about films, or talk about cooking. Wine especially can be talked about like it’s in a vacuum, but most of the time if you’re into wine and food you’re probably into music, you might be into art. People into using their senses are into using their senses, it doesn’t matter what it is,” he adds.
Named after the grey fungus that is used to enhance the flavour of certain wines, over the last seven years Noble Rot has grown to encompass import company Keeling Andrew & Co, two restaurants in London and, most recently, a spin-off book documenting the story behind the business and what its co-founders have learned along the way.
While Andrew’s background was always firmly rooted in hospitality, Keeling came to the world of wine a little later, following a successful career in the music industry. He started out writing for music publications including Melody Maker and Jockey Slut before getting a job on the A&R team at Parlophone Records, where he signed Coldplay and Lily Allen, among others. It was only after joining Island Records, where he signed Bombay Bicycle Club and oversaw a roster including Amy Winehouse, that he decided it was time for a change.
“The industry changed, I changed, I got older. I really wanted to get out of music because I didn’t really like the music that was getting signed – I knew that if Ed Sheeran came up, I wouldn’t sign him,” says Keeling. While considering his next steps, he began spending more and more time in the wine shop next door to Island’s offices, which was serendipitously where Andrew was working at the time. The duo immediately hit it off, and the rest is history.
Just as writing about music helped Keeling get his foot in the door of the record industry, putting words on the page seemed like the most obvious way for him to pursue his newfound passion in collaboration with Andrew. Since its launch issue in 2013, Noble Rot unique’s blend of gastronomy and creative arts has seen it build up a loyal fanbase of readers and contributors, including author-turned-agony uncle John Niven and the Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, who is also an investor and consultant for the Noble Rot brand.
Aesthetically, Noble Rot is a far cry from your average wine magazine, which have traditionally been more focused on clichéd shots of clinking glasses and cheesy advertorials. Instead, a group of regular contributors from the worlds of illustration, design and photography help to make its features sing: from Spanish illustrator Jose Mendez, who also created the colourful label for the team’s Vinho Verde import Chin Chin, to photographer Ben McMahon, who has accompanied Keeling on his visits to wine regions around the world.
The magazine is also known for its eclectic mix of guest features with food- and drink-loving celebs, from Keira Knightley and Caitlin Moran to Mark Ronson and former Labour MP Ed Balls. “Brian Eno was the ultimate guest,” says Keeling. “It wasn’t really much of a shock when we did a wine tasting with him and he announced that he collected smells. We then found out that he’d actually designed his own perfume; he said that he’d designed a perfume that was so sexual, you couldn’t wear it in the street!”
After a couple of years of focusing solely on the magazine, Keeling and Andrew decided it was time to give Noble Rot a physical home. Their first eponymous restaurant and wine bar opened in an 18th century townhouse in Bloomsbury in 2015, and has become a cult destination for wine and food lovers thanks to it’s carefully curated wine list and Franglaise style cooking.
“You should start things before you’re ready in a way, and we certainly have,” says Keeling. “We started the restaurant before we really knew what we were doing, and when we started the magazine we had no idea, but just got on with it. If you can put teams of people around you, and if you can get good advice from people who know what they’re doing, then that’s the key.”
The same principle applies to Noble Rot’s difficult second album, which opened in Soho in September – even more impressive considering that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. The restaurant is located in the former site of the historic Gay Hussar, a Hungarian eatery that was a favourite among political, intellectual and journalistic circles, and was reportedly the site of the Tory plot to overthrow Margaret Thatcher in the early 80s. Both Keeling and Andrew’s respectful renovation of the building and the restaurant’s well-considered menu are designed to pay tribute to this colourful history.
Meanwhile, the duo’s latest venture sees them come full circle with the publication of The Noble Rot Book: Wine from Another Galaxy. Featuring a striking cover design by Kellenberger-White, the coffee table-worthy tome covers everything from Noble Rot’s back story to how to order wine in a restaurant without fear, and even has an alternative wine aroma wheel. At its heart though, it tells the story of the people and places that make up the weird and wonderful world of wine. “That’s really a key part of what that book is, the people behind the wine. Wine is a reflection of people and cultures and lands, and we’re lucky enough to be able to [celebrate] that,” says Keeling.
The rise of the craft beer brigade is well documented by now, but it’s still remarkable to think how the creativity and passion of the individuals behind the phenomenon have helped to transform an entire industry over the course of the last decade. Does Keeling think that wine is finally set for its own moment in the spotlight? “I think there is definitely a growth in interest among younger people,” he says.
“That’s still a very small part of the overall picture of wine, because for most people they don’t care, and I don’t know if that is ever going to change. But of the small part of the population who do care, I don’t think they are necessarily going to go back to thinking, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just drink something made in a big industrial factory in the desert’. These kind of wines, you go and visit these people and it will be in a garage in an outhouse of their property. They’ll do it all by hand, and they’ll really care.”