Wine is many things to many people. For some, it’s an essential accompaniment to lunch or dinner; for others it’s the crucial component in a relaxed evening of great conversation, and, for an unfortunate few, it’s the perfect friend while sobbing into a Dear John letter. But for Chris Connolly, wine is so much more than that; it’s a way of life.
It all started in 1878. Not because Chris is 137 years old, but because his family “has been hawking booze around The Midlands since my grandfather stepped off the ferry in Birkenhead.” It got rather more professional than that in 1976 when Chris’s father first opened Connolly’s Wines, but it’s not until 1980 that events conspired to bring Chris into the fold. After “a short fling in uni” and a brief stint as a chartered surveyor, he offered to lend his father a hand “for a few months” in a moment of need for the business. He never left.
Despite having zero ambition to follow in his father or grandfather’s footsteps, Chris has since become a proper expert, garnering qualifications – “there are courses that one does, and I hold a diploma in wine and spirits that’s very difficult to get now” – and initials after his name. That makes him the main selector of wines and chooser of what to sell in what is, somewhat shockingly, the only independent wine merchant shipping into Birmingham City Centre.
Chris has a mission to dispel the myth that great wine is expensive. “Quality is the first thing we look for, but it has to be sensibly priced. It’s easy to find wines that sell for £20, but the challenge is to find good ones that retail at less than a tenner.” To spread the word, he hosts tastings at the two Connolly’s stores (one in the Jewellery Quarter, one in Solihull), puts on wine dinners in domestic settings and creates wine and champagne days wherever opportunity knocks: “It’s about getting glasses into people’s hands so they can see what’s out there, and that it’s not imperative to spend vast amounts of money.”
On a personal level Chris is a reds man, and right now, among a list of vineyards stretching across Europe, he’s big into a chap called Peter Bright, an Australian based in Portugal since 1982. “We’ve been buying his stuff for a couple of years and he makes some really exciting wines. His “Terra D’alter” is a big, blockbusting, densely-coloured Alicante Bouschet – a sturdy, steak and kidney kind of wine.”
If you’re more an appreciator of ales, all is not lost. Connolly’s stock a bunch of local beers from Two Towers brewery, about 300 yards away, along with Bathams in the Black Country and Birds in Bromsgrove. Cornwall gets a look in too, with Padstow Brewing Company producing a Chris favourite, the “light and hoppy” May Day. Its bigger brother, however, the 6.8% Sundowner, is the one that tickles Chris’s palette the most. As well as being “like May Day on steroids”, it comes with perhaps the most seductive recommendation ever:
“My wife doesn’t let me drink it any more.”
Connolly’s Wine Merchants Ltd
Arch 13, 220 Livery Street
Birmingham B3 1EU
0121 236 3837
379 – 381 Warwick Road
Solihull B91 1BQ
0121 709 3734