Drink producers, retailers, advocates

The brother-and-sister team that rebooted the bottle shop for a new generation of drinkers and producers.

Paul and Jessica Ghaie have transformed the way we buy wine in Australia. The siblings’ Blackhearts & Sparrows brand has grown from a single outlet in Windsor, back in 2005, to a community of stores that stretches now from the 10 in Melbourne to outposts in Hobart and Canberra. The Ghaies saw an opportunity to create specialist wine shops that had personality but that were also approachable to the person on the street. Places with a boutique feel that nonetheless could find something that fit your needs even if you a) didn’t know anything about wine, b) just wanted a beer or c) didn’t have a lot of money to spend. It might sound like a straightforward ask from the perspective of Melbourne in 2020, but a whole lot has changed in booze retailing since they started out, and Blackhearts and Sparrows has been a key driver of that change.

Paul and Jess have played a crucial role in shaping Melbourne’s – Victoria’s, Australia’s – modern drinking culture, by promoting diversity, independent thinking and deliciousness, all wrapped up in a really accessible, engaging retail package,” says wine writer Max Allen. “They’ve stayed right at the top of their game, too, continually picking up on the latest trends, searching out the best emerging producers and products.”

The growth of the business has been organic, says Paul Ghaie, but the direction and style of Blackhearts & Sparrows, and the way it challenged the existing models for drink retail were by no means accidental. He and Jessica were looking to shake things up. Back when the business started, Paul says, there wasn’t really a place to buy wine that they – as people in their 20s and 30s at the time – felt catered for them. “There was nowhere you could go into a specialist wine store and have a casual but informative conversation about wine with maybe a budget of $20, that looked good from a design aesthetic, and where the service was warm and welcoming.” 

In filling that gap, the Ghaies have championed the small, the local and the diverse, been leaders in supporting producers of organic, biodynamic, lo-fi, vegan, low- and no-alcohol drinks, and – most important – they’ve managed to do this in a way that has made these drinks (wine and craft beer in particular, but also spirits and cider) more approachable and inviting for the person on the street, not less. “It was all too serious then,” says Jessica.

Paul and I always set out to have shops that had a unique feel about them, whether it be the way they’re designed or the way they smelled or the music that was playing or even the way that we spoke about wines. Each store of ours is individual, so I think that’s what makes us Blackhearts and Sparrows. I wanted it to be like a clothing store, you know – they’re beautiful and there was just no one doing that sort of stuff.”

What’s been on the shelves and in the fridges has always been very appealing across the board, and there’s something in the Blackhearts DNA that leaves you walking out of the stores with your horizons expanded almost every time, whatever your level of interest. “I think I’m pretty on top of what’s happening out there in the booze world,” says Max Allen, “but if I want to find out what’s really new and interesting, I visit a Blackhearts store or hop on their website. In fact, I just did that and I am now deep down yet another rabbit hole of discovery, following up a new wild cider and a fascinating amaro they’ve just started stocking.”

And that’s the other thing. You don’t need to be knowledgeable about cider or wine or spirits or beer to get good value out of Blackhearts. Heck, you don’t even need to really know the name for what you’re looking for. “We wanted people to be able to come in and if they described a wine saying ‘I want something that’s red and slurpy’, we could say ‘this is for you’,” says Paul. “We understand you and we’re not going to be, like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’. We wanted to make it simple for people to buy wine – and fun.”

Talk to people who work at Blackhearts, some of whom have been with the company for more than a decade, and they’ll use the word family a lot. They talk about how present and accessible Jessica and Paul are in the business, the care they take with every aspect of the work, and the investment they make in recruitment and training, in listening to their staff, and taking time to find the right fit between their people and their stores, all of which contributes to that most essential element of the Blackhearts experience: the service.

“It’s still exciting for us to try new things and see what people are doing, and the fact that we can convey that to our staff and they can convey that to the customer is what we want,” says Paul. “All we’ve ever wanted is for people to have fun with wine. Everyone talks about democratising wine these days and when we started it wasn’t really out there much, but I think the fact that we continue to do that and still make it fun is great. It’s not just a job for our staff ­– they really believe in the products and the stories they’re telling.”

Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.