The 4th July has taken on a new meaning in 2020. The on-trade and the vast supply chain that supports it have spent the past few weeks all gearing up for how they can re-open their doors to a new ‘normal’ of eating and drinking out. The hit during Covid-19 has been sudden and upsetting. Sadly, for some, it has been devastating and they won’t be able to join the rest of the trade in even trying to re-open. But for those who are bouncing back, what measures and protocols are being put in place to ensure they are on the right side of the ever changing government guidelines. Here Harry Crowther talks to Martin Williams, chief executive of Rare Restaurants (Gaucho and M Restaurants) to find out what he and his team have been up to behind the scenes during lockdown, and Andrew Maidment, the man who is heading up the exciting changes that have taken place to Gaucho’s new-look wine list, which were very much at the heart of its pre-lockdown re-launch and will be key to how it returns from July 4.
As a restaurant wine consultant Harry Crowther has been at the sharp end of the Covid-19 lockdown just like everyone else in the on-trade. It makes him ideally well placed to talk to Martin Williams, head of Gaucho, about how it is going to re-open.
I’m the first to hold my hand up and say, “holy sh*t, how am I going to get through this downtime”, filling the days, weeks, months has been tough. Financial and (lack of) social pressures have been hanging over many of us these past months. Mental health is real. Which is an issue Martin Williams and Rare Restaurants are on top of in any case, prior to Covid-19, and even more so during the lockdown.
“A full program of engagement for our people including voluntary mental and physical health support has been put in place,” says Williams, who has also been able to provide up to 5,000 meals for the NHS, using the kitchens in the group, at the peak of the pandemic.
So what measures has it had to introduce in order to get its restaurant ready to open again. What will happen if I turn up at Gaucho and fancy a nice bottle of Malbec and a rib eye? In short, Mindful Dining or No Contact dining options will be made available to all guests upon booking.
Williams and the team have ensured that the entire surface area of all re-opening sites will be fully sanitised through decontamination fogging, and has even gone as far as outsourcing this to the company who is responsible for sterilising NHS ambulances. Other steps include:
- Capacity in all venues is to be cut by at least 30% with appropriate distancing between tables.
- Guests can expect sanitising wipe packs upon request from their servers.
- Temperature checks for staff pre-shift
- A return to work training program for all staff
And so much more… It’s clear Williams and his team are doing everything they can to go above and beyond the governments guidelines so that they can make a big success of re-opening.
“Thirteen sites will be opening on July 4 or July 6, with the rest re-opening later in August or September. We are keeping our City of London based venues closed until offices and diners start to return to those areas,” he adds.
“We have spent two months ensuring that our venues are incredibly safe, beyond the government and UK Hospitality guidelines and recommendations. This will allow our diners to return to M and Gaucho safely and relaxed enough to enjoy heightened hospitality and the finest food and drink.”
Wines of the World
When customers do go back they will be able to enjoy and choose from a wine list that is far more ambitious than the previously Argentinian only range that helped make its name. Yes, you will still be able to get a very wide choice of the best Malbecs in the UK, but as part of taking over the group, through Rare Restaurants, Williams was keen to use wine as a way to demonstrate the new personality of the group and what it is looking to offer.
In a time (at least before the lockdown) when we were starting to see a little more consumer experimentation, lust for new wines and styles, Andrew Maidment and Williams decided to diversify Gaucho’s wine offering to offer a selection of premium wines from around the world. The range had been introduced just before lockdown, and as Maidment says, “had been really successful for us,” with average bottle sales are up as customers embraced the new ‘Wines of the World’ list.
Not that it has turned its back on Argentina. Far from it. The new Gaucho – as we have profiled before on The Buyer – is very much about celebrating the new contemporary Argentina and its wines still account for the majority of Gaucho’s sales mix.
As Maidment explains: “We are an Argentine group, but the intro of world wines has lead to some significant changes to our sales mix. Now, almost half of our white wine sales are from outside Argentina. By adding these wines it has allowed us to satisfy the gaps that Argentina can’t fill, with premium white alternatives – like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Chablis – are now available giving increased options for guests wishing to spend more.”
Here are three wines from Gaucho’s ‘Wines of the World’ section:
Alois Lagader, Pinot Blanc, 2018, Alto Adige, Italy
Considered by many to be pioneers in biodynamics in Italy. If you ever find yourself in northern Italy and have the chance to visit these guys, do it! Take a lunch and a winery tour in a setting frozen in time a few miles south of the Austrian border. PB from up to 500m above sea level. That cool ferment fruit set. Soft florals with a citrus backbone and a weighty precision. Lovely stuff.
Domaine Robert Denogent, Macon-Villages, ‘Les Sardines’, 2017, Burgundy, France
A blend of vineyards, limestone, schist and clay. The wines of Denogent are minimal intervention and employ organic practice. Natural ferments, sulphur only to be used before bottling.
A nose laced with ripe citrus fruit and fringed with stony gravel. Lots of fruit sweetness in the mouth, a tangy finish, just as a touch of sweet shortbread starts to creep in. Huge potential for a cult following- a cool name and a great label!
Domaine Lapierre, Morgon, 2018, Beaujolais, France
I had the pleasure of visiting Mathieu and Camille Lapierre back in October 2019 and I was super impressed. Their father, Marcel is a legend in the natural wine movement. Since his passing Mathieu and Camille have been at the helm and have embraced his philosophies of biodynamic, natural winemking with minimal use of sulphur. “We take every step possible not the use s02, but we will if absolutely needed” Mathieu advised me then we spoke.
18ha of vineyards in Morgon on complex granite soils. Yes, yes, yes please! Spice; liquorices, sauna stone, blood orange, black berry compote and a lick of horse saddle. Super balance, you can feel all the components etched into the palate yet they are all moving in the same direction. World class Beaujo!
The Argentina Project
But it is not just the wines of the world range that is exciting about the new wine offer from Gaucho. Its Argentine portfolio has also been given more than just a revamp, with a brave new selection of wines that have been helped pull together by working closely with the wine development team at Bibendum.
Maidment, who in his previous role as UK and European head of Wines of Argentina, was well placed to know what exciting wines were coming out of the country, and was keen to work with Williams to bring some of that “cutting edge” to Gaucho. “We wanted to develop a list that champions small, up and coming producers whilst introducing our guests to the range of varieties and styles produced,” he adds – that also takes those who want to go way and beyond the realms of Malbec.
The way they have been able to work hand in hand with Bibendum on the project is what Maidment calls “a great example of a restaurant group and agency partnership”. The aim here is to dig out some of Argentina’s new-wave stars and showcase them through Gaucho’s wine offering. Everyone’s a winner, these guys have a new, exciting route to market whilst providing Gaucho with the diversification Maidment and Williams are look for on their list.
“We have taken wines from seven new wineries [who do not have a route to market in the UK], including one where we were their first ever customer, even in Argentina!” adds Maidment.
He says they had already bedded in well with consumers pre-lockdown, particularly those seeking out wines with a greater sense of place, and a cleaner, more natural style. “A natural (zero S02) Malbec was one of our best selling reds,” before lockdown, he says. “Most of our project wines are organic, highlighting where we want to take our list in the future”.
Maidment recognises the challenge that comes with going for an organic-led wine list. Argentina isn’t the only winemaking country that has been slow to adopt fully organic and biodynamic practices and certification; this is where he can use their wines of the world offering alongside the Argentina Project to drive a vision for the future.
The three wines below are all part of the Argentina Project, new to the UK and an example of Maidment and Bibendum’s visions for the wine list at Gaucho:
Ernesto Catena, ‘Siesta’, Cabernet Franc, 2015, Vista Flores, Mendoza, Argentina (Bio)
Ernesto- son of Nicolas Catena- practices organic and biodynamic viticulture with a focus on small volumes, weighing in here with another triumphant South American Cab Franc.
Smoked blackcurrant, menthol with a dusting of animal hide. Sweet, charred berry fruit on the palate. Expected structure from a Cabernet Franc and a Bordeaux-esque vibe to this wine, well seasoned with oak and appropriate tannins. After a bit of time in the glass the nose opens up to clove, cola bottle and dried lavender. New world Cab Franc at its best. Demeter approved.
Durigutti, ‘Proyecto’, Cordisco (Montepulciano), 2019, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Hector and Pablo Durigutti are part of that new wave Argentina gang. Cordisco (Montepulciano) from an organic vineyard planted with cover crops, masal selection. Concrete egg, spontaneous fermentation, and aged for three months in the egg afterwards. There is a stone-y, gravelly roughness to this wine from top to bottom. Sour cherry drops with blood iron minerality. Vibrant and very much alive in the mouth. A chalky, dusty set of tannins, firm but fair. This is a lighter take on Montepulciano than what I was expecting, bloody good kit!
Bodega Catena Zapata, ‘La Marchigiana’, Criolla, 2018, Rivadavia, Eastern Mendoza, Argentina
Laura Catena’s foray into the natural wine movement. Fermented in Tinaja, the Argentine term for amphora, natural, no added s02. Criolla is a varietal perhaps considered inferior and glug-able, and at one point was on the brink of extinction. These vineyards are from the somewhat forgotten lands of eastern Mendoza. A lighter style of red, lively fruit with an earthy accent. Boy this is an easy drinker. Zippy with bite and a sleek finish.
It will be interesting to see what the new consumer trends are going to be as the hospitality sector gets up and running again. Maidment believes people are going to increasingly seek out wines from producers who are “focused on environmental and social awareness”.
It will be interesting to see how the Argentina Project develops. Couple that with a diversification into ‘Wines of the World’, and Gaucho’s wine offering is looking pretty strong. Moreover, Gaucho has partnered with Hatch Mansfield to install a wine on tap system that will help it meet certain sustainability goals, using keg wine to help reduce its carbon footprint, whilst not compromising on quality, delivery and service.
I wish Martin, Andrew and the entire team at Gaucho the very best as they look to bounce back with a bang.
- During lockdown Harry Crowther harry has been assisting restaurant groups with their wine training through short video tutorials of wines on their wine list. He is up to date with potential future trends of the consumer, post lockdown and the potential wins there are for those who bounce back successfully, be it through wine list curation and psychology through to even more crucial wine training leading to premiumisation.
- If you would like to get in touch with him you can at firstname.lastname@example.org and go to his consultancy website – Grapetimes – and his bespoke wine training business aimed at helping bar staff understand more about wine at graintogrape.