Wine in restaurants is a whole subject in itself. The obvious gripes are mark-ups and uninspiring choice. Some mark up is entirely reasonable – a restaurant rightly charges for the cost of holding stock, providing clean glasses, service and, sometimes, a knowledgeable and trained person. On the other hand, there is nothing more off putting than seeing a decent supermarket bottle on a wine list and knowing that the £5 ‘per glass’ price is the same as the bottle price in the supermarket. Equally, I can vividly recall returning from Tuscany – where, at least outside of big cities, the mark up is the odd euro added to the retail price – to a smart hotel in Gloucestershire and having to search and search for something that wasn’t going to require taking out a second mortgage. As often in England, something from Chile was the answer.
Hard pressed restaurateurs need to make some money from wine. It is perfectly reasonable to charge a decent mark up if you really do something for it – spend some time finding good and interesting bottles, whether off-the-beaten-track or main stream, laying down wine for years to get some maturity in the bottle, providing a good range and informed service. The most enterprising establishments have flat or at least reducing mark ups, meaning that they could well tempt the punter to trade up to something better. But that requires either knowledgeable clients who can see the added value in more expensive bottles or good staff who can inform the customer in a pleasant manner – again the restaurant is really doing something for its money.
But there are two things that really makes a difference to the quality of experience of wine in restaurants, one obvious, the other perhaps not so. The first is that the restaurateur or sommelier needs to be a wine lover. ‘Passion’ is a an overworked word in this and other walks of life but it’s absolutely appropriate. If the service and the wine list are basically an expression of someone’s love of wine, you are in for a treat. ‘Here is something amazing that I have found, come and share the experience’ needs to be the deal, just as much on the wine list as in the kitchen. If this is the attitude, then you won’t be offered an uninspired choice. Last Sunday, Janet and I arrived a bit earlier than the friends we were lunching with at the splendid Harrow Inn, Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire and spent a riveting twenty minutes reading the wine list. Every page of a considerable tome says, ‘here’s a good selection of interesting wines from region X’ and then at the bottom third of the page is serious temptation – for example, a range of vintages of something very special. And if that is too intimidating, they have a one page list of wines by the glass including Premier Cru Burgundy. How good is that.
And that brings us neatly to the second thing that sets a restaurant apart. Unlike the wine drinker at home, it has the opportunity to have a good number of bottles open at once. Among its many strong points, the Harrow thinks about how it promotes its wine and offers a range of menus each with matched glasses of wine. The four of us plumped for the healthy seafood menu with five courses (clever that: indulgence and virtue combined) and half of us (Ok, it was the male half) had the the five matching wines and promised to share them with our loved ones. While we can all enjoy one or even two interesting bottles at home, a restaurant can – if it has the imagination – regularly offer its guests a range like this.
The advantage to diners of courses matched with wines are multiple. First of all, nobody has to choose anything from that enormous and wonderful/ intimidating list if they don’t want to. Secondly, the flow of dishes is further enhanced by the interest of the number of glasses that accompany them. In this case we enjoyed the subtlety of Marc Hebrard champagne, followed by excellent Australian Riesling (‘Mesh’ I think), then the multi-layered complexity of excellent New World Chardonnay, then wonderful Pinot Noir (of which more anon) and finally a good ‘sticky’ with the pud. ‘Finally’, that is, if you don’t add a glass of Madeira from a selection of five – the youngest offering being 1989 – or something from a range of cognac or grappa. Thirdly, in addition to the interest in the wines themselves, there are the wine and food matching combinations. The Riesling would have been an obvious ‘through the meal’ wine and went brilliantly with the smoked salmon and ginger second course. It was also fine with Thai bouillabaisse but by comparison the hint of sweetness in the Chardonnay did much more for the subtle Thai spices.
And of course there is the joy of discovering something new and of exceptional quality or quality-for-price. The fourth wine, with a brilliant sole and mushroom risotto combination, was Kayena Vineyard 2005, Pinot Noir from Tamar Ridge, Tasmania. This was everything good Pinot should be – some fragrance, excellent red cherry fruit, savoury on the palate, good texture. It’s a real find. This glass came as a bonus ‘upgrade’ from an attentive front of house – we had showed interest in the wines, she responded by giving us something special, we rewarded her initiative by buying a bottle to take home. Here the Harrow scores another top mark by offering some of its wines at value-for-money retail prices to take home, £14.50 in this case. And so we had a memorable meal and the wheels of commerce turned. Roger and Sue Jones’ Harrow Inn is exceptional. When you think of how many restaurants charge high prices for ordinary wines, they show how it should be done, in equal measure delighting and broadening the wine horizons of their customers. And in case I didn’t make it clear enough, the food is as outstanding as the wine.