The Blog Archive Series is all about unearthing some of my blog posts from the past. This interview with the founder and owner of Latitude Wine & Liquor Merchant in Leeds (around the time they were celebrating a decade) was written in July 2018.
‘I originally came up to Leeds University in 1993 and have not regretted it in any way shape or form and have stayed here unable to escape’, says Chris Hill, founder and owner of Latitude Wine & Liquor Merchant, the retail and wholesale business which is celebrating a decade this month; a huge feat for any independent.
We’re sitting in Art’s Café on Call Lane, where Chris used to work behind the bar in his final year at University and then full time once he graduated. He explains how Art’s Café (known as Leeds’ original café bar) took a ‘big risk’ in late 1994 to ‘open somewhere that was more cosmopolitan; more European; more café bar than a pub; when there was nothing else really around. Without them nothing else would have followed’. Indeed, the opening of Art’s Café spurred on the transformation of Call Lane – many other independent bars ‘very rapidly’ followed suit and a ‘helpful mentality amongst independent businesses seemed to develop’ out of this ‘tight-knit network’ of people working in bars and restaurants in Leeds. ‘My career has developed out of that and a lot of other people’s careers have developed out of that’, says Chris, ‘often what you’ll see is that when a new place opens, there’ll be a representative from an old place who brings that mentality along with them – and that is what kept me in Leeds more than anything else’.
Latitude opened in 2008 (down the road from Art’s Café) after Chris received the offer to take over the former site of Hoults, a Huddersfield-based wine merchants. Alongside the shop, Latitude also dominated the wine list business, with Chris having already developed ones for Oporto, The Angel’s Share and Jake’s Bar whilst he worked for Leelex. These businesses were Latitude’s first wholesale customers and eventually, Latitude would go on to deliver to Mojo, The Hedonist, North Bar’s numerous sites, Friends of Ham and eventually as far afield as Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, York and beyond.
On the retail side of things, Latitude has never just been a wine shop. From the get go, Chris knew there was a ‘place for spirits’, from his experience working with Jake Burger at Leelex and his time spent as the restaurant manager at Harvey Nichols. One of the first spirits that got people ‘really excited’ in the early days of the shop was aged rum, which drew in a big crowd as no one else was offering that in Leeds at the time. Having such a large and varied range also meant that they were able to ‘adapt to the gin craze’ because they ‘were nimble on their feet’. Chris explains, ‘you see what the crazes are in the bar trade and often the retail customers will follow’. There has been a noticeable shift in the ‘cocktail maker’s art’, meaning that people are excited about what they’re drinking in bars and they want to know how to make their favourite drinks at home. That’s where Latitude comes in.
‘We’re a world of fine wine and spirits under one roof’, says Chris, with ‘knowledgeable staff, a great range, exciting products, delivered really well for a good price’. Latitude’s team are all WSET Level 3-trained, by Laura Kent from the Yorkshire Wine School and they’re constantly researching, tasting and on the lookout for what’s new, different and up-and-coming – in fact, their range has increased from 400 products to over 1,500 in the last decade (from 36 gins in 2011 to over 200 this year). Their customers are ‘inquisitive’ drinkers, who want good quality wines and spirits but also want to try something new and learn and develop their own knowledge (and get the most out of Latitude’s loyalty card which offers 10% off wine and beer). They’re the people who Chris was serving in bars ten years ago, who now do most of their drinking at home ‘over a good meal rather than going out’, however, the craft beer movement and the fact that Leeds has a generation of students coming through the city centre every three years (with many staying in Leeds after they graduate) means that Latitude’s customer base is constantly growing.
Chris has also organised a vast number of events over the last ten years and Latitude Tasting Room is a concept he developed, where ‘the wine comes first; the food comes second’. Inspired by the wine shop-bottle shop-restaurant hybrids that are so popular in places like California, Latitude Tasting Room involves Chris writing a wine list that journeys from aperitif to digestif before then coordinating with a chef to create an interesting tasting menu to match. At the heart of Latitude Tasting Room is collaboration, and they have worked with numerous chefs at pop-ups in Duke Studios, Lambert’s Yard and more recently, Laynes Espresso, during this year’s Leeds Indie Food.
It’s those opportunities to collaborate (Leeds Indie Food in particular) that keep Chris ‘excited about Leeds businesses’ and their ‘co-operative’ rather than ‘competitive’ mentality because the chance to collaborate with other like-minded indies gives way to ‘exciting stuff’. With ten years marking such an enormous milestone for an independent, our conversation turns to the struggles that a lot of independent businesses have been facing recently, especially in terms of increasing rent prices. Whilst Chris has also had experience working in the corporate world, he spent ten years working for independent businesses prior to opening Latitude and the ethos of shop local is very important to him: ‘independent businesses offer something much more than corporate-run chains, where their cost-base has nothing to do with the local community’, he says, ‘a town without independent businesses (because it’s too expensive for independent businesses to start up) is a grotty place to live. Be nice to your independents – it’s fragile at the moment’.
For Latitude’s tenth birthday party, they’re going all out. On 8 July, from midday until 8pm, Cherry Tree Walk will host a street party featuring tastings from some of the suppliers Latitude’s been working with since the very beginning – from Bollinger Champagne to Portobello Road Gin and lots of rum, whiskey, wine, vermouth and more in between, including a ‘Build a Spritz, Prosecco & Wine Bar’, a cocktail bar and award-winning craft beer from North Brew Co.. Ox Club will be doing the grill, whilst Frizza Pizza will be serving up Neapolitan Pizza Fritta and Leeds jazz and funk legends, the DIG family will be providing the music, featuring DJs Chico Malo and Eric Speak.
Head to www.latitudewine.co.uk to buy a £5 wristband which will get you entry into the event and some complimentary tastings.
Latitude Wine & Liquor Merchant, 5 Cherry Tree Walk, Leeds LS2 7EB