The first time that I had control of a wine-list was back when I first started as a sommelier. I had only been working at Amaryllis for a matter of weeks, when the head sommelier left, leaving me and a barman behind to work it all out. Now fortunately, we had the amazing Ronan Sayburn at the end of a phone line to help out, and I was sent down to London for five days to do a stage with him and Alan Holmes at Petrus to give me some idea of what the Ramsay Sommeliers were expected to do. I will never forget that experience, it gave me a huge confidance boost in the fledgling stages of my career, and I often use my memories of those few services working at two of the most iconic restaurants on the London scene, to guide me onwards. But I came back from the week away and embarked on an epic extension of the wine-list. In a matter of months it grew from about 150 bin to nearly 400, as I succumbed to wine envy.
It was at that time that I started to collect wine lists, primarily as a source of ideas both for content and presentation. Over the course of my career I think i have collected nearly 300 lists, from small bistros to internationally acclaimed restaurants such as the French Laundry, El Bulli, the Herbgarden, and of course the Ramsay stable of restaurants including at that time Petrus. And as I read through those lists, I found myself becoming jealous of some of them. I saw iconic wines that I could only ever read about. Harlan Estate, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Krug, Mouton Rothschild, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Ermita, Pingus, Sassicaia, Masseto and so on. And the hype that surrounds many of these iconic wines fuels the desire to list them, to own them and be in control of them. And then reality sets in.
For the last six years I have been managing the wine list at the Chester Grosvenor and Spa, selling many of the above wines in the Michelin Starred Arkle Restaurant, now renamed Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor. Ive been fortunate enough to have served and consequently tasted many of these iconic wines that I had previously drooled over. Many will live on in my memory as living up to this elevated status that such wines achieve, most sadly dont. And here comes the business lesson. While it is great to have these wines on your wine-list, more often they will become a loadstone around your neck. Six years ago, we had a cellar holding in excess of £500,000 at cost price. But nearly more than a quarter of that was held in a matter of a few dozen bottles. And with a cost price approaching four figures, they certainly have a selling value of at least four figures, and regrettably, those kind of wines dont sell every day. Typically they will sell at a cost of sale of about 50%, making them bad for your overall bottom line as they tend to have quite a big impact on your bev cost. Slowly we have managed to move a lot of this stock, some through the restaurant, some we have sold privately, and now we have the cellar down to a much more manageable figure. We still have a superstar presence on the wine list, but nowhere near as extensive, and we have adapted our buying regime to suit the times and the direction I want to take the wine list.
I have a different kind of wine envy these days. The wines I add weekly to my wish-list rarely cost more that £10. I want to drive the lower priced category forward, adding more variety and swinging the balance of the wine list back under £50. I want to bring in exotic varieties – Grillo, Macabeo, Maturana Tinto, Mazuelo, Fiano and the list goes on and on. I want to fill our cellar with thousands of bottles of wine, but maintain a cellar value of less than £200,000. I want my list to be dynamic and seasonal, offering wines that complement the menu and the weather. Light fruity whites for the summer, pinks and vibrant reds too. Big bold reds and oaky whites for the winter. I want to be able to list 100 grape varieties, each unique, each one with a story to tell and a price to encourage experimenting. I have a feeling that Im going to have a very busy and hopefully productive year ahead of me.