We can all appreciate a great wine list, or identify when the sommelier just isn’t firing on all cylinders. In the case of The Vineyard Hotel in Berkshire, their wine-pairing evenings take the wine list into unchartered territory, argues Mike Turner, who says that the way the Old World wines are matched in pairs against Californian wines is a lesson for all budding sommeliers to do something extra with a wine experience – and give customers something that will live long in the memory.
“The Vineyard pairing are not obvious at all: a 2015 Jurançon paired against a 2010 Cali Roussanne had me completely flummoxed.”
In a previous life, when I used to do the odd bit of corporate schmoozing, I clocked up quite a few pretty decent restaurants. Whichever country I landed in, we managed to find somewhere fun to fill our faces. The food was usually pretty immaculate, but the wines tended to be good without being exciting. Blame it on the list if you want, blame it on the head sommelier, or even blame it on the boogie, it was rare I was ever blown away by the wine experience. Which made this summer’s trip to The Vineyard Hotel at Newbury that much more special.
Most of you reading will have heard of, if not visited The Vineyard Hotel yourselves by now. It’s a fairly decked out “Relais & Chateaux” hotel, restaurant, and conference centre, that’s been open in its current guise since the late 90s when Sir Peter Michael (of electronics and Classic FM fame) got involved. Sir Peter is a wine nut, who owns his own Californian winery (as you do), and was inspired to do so by tasting wines that smashed it at the Judgement of Paris in 1976, most notably Château Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay.
Walking into the place you’re reminded very much of that seminal moment of modern wine history, with a very neatly done mural of Steven Spurrier and his band of merry tasters collected round the table over 40 years ago, highlighting the shock and surprise as the results were announced. It’s done in a fun, almost characature-esque way, but the salient fact shines through: Californian wine was on the map and could go toe-to-toe with the big boys.
The wine collection at the hotel is absolutely what you’d expect. Overseen (until recently) by Wine Director of the Vineyard Cellars (the retail arm of the hotel) James Hocking, it comprises the great and the good of French and Californian wines, along with individual picks from the rest of the world. It can’t help but keep reminding you of 1976. Not in a competitive way, but more in a “France makes great wines, California makes great wines, come enjoy them both” sort of way.
The dinner I enjoyed there that night used that ethos to give me one of the most fun wine-o experiences I’ve had for a long, long time. You’re basically doing your very own (mini) “Judgement”. Each course comes with a blind tasting of two different wines. You sit round the table enjoying the food, and nattering away with whoever’s at the table with you about the ups and downs and lefts and rights of what you reckon about the two wines. What’s the grape? Where’s it from? How old is it? And, most importantly, which one is French and which one is American?
Once you’ve polished off the dish and the glasses are drained, over trots the sommelier and reveals all. And there were some crackers. Bear in mind not everything is designed to be nearly identical. A 2015 Meursault is paired with a 1998 Cali Chardonnay. So obviously one is aged, but that still leaves plenty to investigate. There are, of course, the headline acts like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon, but a 2015 Jurançon paired against a 2010 Cali Roussanne had me completely flumuxed.
Now I’m not going to lie, I’m a competitive bugger, so was (worringly) desperate to get them right, but for a wine geek this is absolute gold. Pushing you in a very good way to really think about the wines in front of you. Despite the nerves of getting it all right, I absolutely loved it.
Even if you couldn’t ‘give a monkeys’ about wine “to the nth degree” like that, you’re still eating great food, drinking nice wines, and sat in a lovely hotel restaurant. So you’ll have a laugh regardless. But you’d think picking the “Judgement of Paris” menu at a place called the Vineyard Hotel might give you a clue that it’s tailor-made for wine-os.
I should say for a start that in the last few years of losing my mind completely, leaving a relatively well paid job, and going freelance in the world of wine and getting paid absolutely shit all, I no longer get out all that much. So if there are now hundreds of restaurants that do this, then I apologise for telling you all something you already know. But I doubt it.
To the sommeliers out there that work somewhere that don’t offer this kind of experience, have a good long think about bringing it up with the boss. You’ll love coming up with the menu, your punters will love the challenge, and you’ll get so much back and forth with your guests that will have you best mates by the end of the night and them all coming back for more.
Really neat way of doing things.