The sommelier team at the Vineyard hotel in Stockcross, Berkshire, is unrivalled, with five former and current team members having held the UK Sommelier of the Year title. Fiona Sims paid the hotel a visit to try and discover the magic formula
Is it Californian, or French? That is the question. The two wines sitting in front of each of us arrive unannounced. This is one of a number of pairing options available at the Vineyard hotel and spa in Stockcross, Berkshire. Named the Judgement of Paris (after the famous tasting that took place in the 1970s), it's presented blind.
It doesn't matter if we don't get it right – no one is judging us, certainly not the sommelier, who is humility personified, and it's fun. It makes you think about the wine and how it works with the food – and how California deserves its place on the top table.
The Central Coast Chardonnay trumps the Meursault, thanks to a wallop of wasabi in chef Tom Scade's elegant trout starter. As the name suggests, it's all about wine at the Vineyard, in this rather featureless corner of the Berkshire countryside just outside Newbury and almost within earshot of the M4. "We aren't in the middle of the Cotswolds or the New Forest, so we have to find a reason for people to come here – and wine is our USP," confirms managing director Andrew McKenzie.
It certainly is. Not only does the Vineyard have one of the most impressive wine lists in the country, it knows how to sell it – thanks to a crack team of six sommeliers.
Headed up by the current holder of the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year, Romain Bourger, they dance and charm their way through a busy service in the 75-seat restaurant, juggling a jaw-dropping 100 wines offered by the glass, dispensing a multitude of wine pairing options, wielding numerous ranges of Riedel glasses, and imparting knowledge in such a friendly, approachable way that most guests don't bother scanning the weighty tome of a wine list, but leave the choice up to them – such is the customers' trust, who thank them in turn with a considerable average spend of £60-£80 per bottle.
Eventually, the hotel's sommeliers will fly the nest, continuing their coveted chatty, informative approach elsewhere, rising through the ranks to head up the wine service in other top restaurants around the country and abroad, many winning awards along the way. "We've had quite a few win UK Sommelier of the Year titles," grins Bourger.
As well as Bourger, there was Mathias Camilleri, Claire Thevenot, Alan Holmes and Yohann Jousselin. Plus, there are others who went on to win European titles, among them Diego González Barbolla (now at Core by Clare Smyth), the current holder of the Spanish title, and Isa Bal, named the Best Sommelier of Europe in 2008, formerly wine director at the Fat Duck, and now going it alone at Trivet, one of London's most talked-about openings of last year.
So how do they do it? It certainly helps that the five-star, 49-bedroom hotel and spa is owned by Peter Michael. The pet project of one of Britain's leading industrialists, it's a monument to his passion for food, wine and art, and is inspired by his Sonoma winery, which he built in the 1980s and which produces highly acclaimed wines. These sit in the Vineyard's cellar, alongside many other famous Californian wines – around 600 at the last count, with the rest made up of the same number of French wines, plus other classic (and not so classic) wine-producing countries. There are 3,000 different references in all on the 100-page wine list, with some impressive vintages, among them Californian cult wine Screaming Eagle – the 2001 is yours for £3,100 a bottle.
"The sheer number of Californian wines on the list is one of the reasons why you see so many European sommeliers coming through here – and it's one of the things that attracted me to the Vineyard. And thanks to all Sir Peter's contacts, we get our hands on some very special wines, some of which we sell through our retail business, Vineyard Cellars. In fact, we are often the first people they contact – only a couple of months ago we were offered 18 bottles of 1986 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon – we took them all," grins Bourger, who hails from eastern France, and who started his sommelier career under the late Gerard Basset at Hotel du Vin in Winchester before joining the Vineyard 10 years ago.
It all started with the first Vineyard head sommelier, Edoardo Amadi, credits McKenzie, who has worked at the Vineyard since it opened 20 years ago. "He was a genius. My ideal is to find people in Edoardo's mould – superknowledgeable, unbelievably humble and not in the slightest bit snooty. As happy speaking to someone about a £20 bottle of wine as they are about a bottle of first-growth claret."
Isa Bal, who had never touched wine before starting at the Vineyard as a commis waiter, also credits Edoardo, now a wine consultant, for his success. "Working with Edoardo was an extremely lucky start for my career," he says.
"He was very good in sharing his knowledge and experience, and always encouraging. Also, the Vineyard was the ideal environment to soak up – no pun intended – knowledge about wines from all over the world. That inclusiveness shaped my approach to how I structure my wine lists today."
González Barbolla says that his year at the Vineyard was his first job in the UK and opened his mind to New World wines, and to California in particular. "We did many private tastings with these wines and shared some great times with Romain," he adds. The path to greatness It's a joint effort recruiting sommeliers at the Vineyard, explains McKenzie. "We're lucky – Romain is another Edoardo. How do we pick them? We do a lot of due diligence before we speak to anybody. You can tell their approach to humility when interviewing somebody.
OK, so we sometimes have to coach them to be a little less technical, but I always roll out my favourite mantra – know your audience. The sommelier's real skill is trying to work out customers' budgets and I think sometimes knowledge and budget can get confused. I know more about wine than I can afford and there are a lot of people like that," he laughs.
McKenzie and Bourger have also banned the word minerality. "Unless the guest says it, of course. It's like that other mysterious wine word, terroir – no one really knows what it means, yet it's a word that people throw out all the time," says McKenzie. To keep his team learning, Bourger encourages all of them to enter sommelier competitions (he won the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year after his sixth attempt). "Ideally, they should try it at least once, just to see how they do.
Obviously, it can be nerve-racking being in front of an audience of 300 – it's like a one-man show. Even just looking at the judges can be scary, as they are past winners at the top of their game, so you don't want to disappoint.
"But if you have the passion, and the right training, you can win it – that's how it worked for me. It's easy to know your strengths, but it's more difficult to accept your weaknesses, but that's how you develop, by learning from your mistakes. And competitions are great for networking – we don't get to see many other sommeliers here," he says.
It also helps to incentivise staff, suggests Bourger. For example, those who sell the most ‘icon' wine get vouchers to exchange for wine or afternoon tea and the like (the hotel offers one icon wine by the glass for cost price, and when it's gone, it's gone, which creates a lot of excitement, he reports).
Bourger also encourages his more senior team to go on producer trips and tastings, as well as offering the odd role play activity, such as the art of decanting. Says McKenzie: "We give them a free hand. Romain gets invited to lots of places, which he shares with the team and we don't stand in his way. You reap what you sow. We give the chefs a budget to eat out so they can see what's happening in the world so they can develop themselves – it's no different with the sommelier team."
So how has the role of sommelier evolved in the 10 years that Bourger has worked at the Vineyard? "We've brought a more relaxed approach, which seems to work very well. Nowadays, people expect great food, great service and great wine, but they want less hush, less whispering, and they want to engage more in conversations about wine and to try new things.
"When I started, sommeliers didn't have a great image – they were seen as trying to upsell too much and perceived as being too aloof. I say to my staff, yes we are here to sell wine, but not what we want, what they want – it's important to listen to the guest.
"It's about building up a relationship with the guest. Going back to the table to make sure they are happy with their chosen wine, and if they aren't, then change it. Offer them a taste first and, if they like it, they are happy. It shows that we care and it builds trust."
The numbers game
Again, it helps that the Vineyard offers a staggering number by the glass, which enables the sommeliers to have fun with their selections, recommending more unusual wines (such as a white from Japan), alongside the classics that they might not want to fork out a whole bottle for (thanks to Coravin). How do they do that without incurring profit-denting wastage?
McKenzie, who is big fan of by the glass, reveals that they sell many more wines this way, yet average spend hasn't dropped.
"Sommeliers are the best wine preservation system there is. We never have 100 wines open at the same time. If someone wants it, of course we open it, but the sommeliers steer people and a talented sommelier team pays for itself in that regard."
And talking of that average spend, £60-£80: "I included the upper figure as we sell more at Christmas, but yes, customers do spend a lot on wine here. That said, if someone says their budget is £80, I'd like to make sure we sell them something at £75 – that's our tack," says McKenzie, who also shares that they sell a £300-£500 bottle on a weekly basis, with that price creeping up during shooting season. Though the days when they would regularly shift a £1,000 bottle of wine have long gone.
"Instead of three times a month, it's now three times a year." In fact, McKenzie and Bourger reveal that they are about to make some radical changes to the pricing of the more expensive wines. "We want to democratise fine wine. A wine on our list at £800 probably costs us around £250, but we want to sell it for £400. At the moment it's just window dressing our list. It might make a dent in our percentages, but you don't pay bills with percentages. The wine is just sitting here. We've paid for it, now we need to turn it into cash so we can invest in more wines – different wines," reasons McKenzie.
"So, in answer to your question, how do we do it? We put wine at the front and centre of everything that we do, and Romain and his team respond to that."
An education in wine available to all
The wine list at the Vineyard is one reason that the business attracts more than its fair share of applicants to the wine team, certainly, but its wine training ethos is another reason they come. In fact, every person who works at the Vineyard – and at its sister hotel, Donnington Valley, also in Newbury, whether they are making beds or doing the washing up, is able to sit their Levels 1 and 2 WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), with senior managers able to sit Level 3. "We don't insist, but we encourage everyone to do Level 1. What's the pick-up?
Well, out of the 100 staff here at the Vineyard, it's probably 40 or so," shares McKenzie. And what of the view that there's no point training up the majority of staff because they'll move on anyway? "That's horribly short-sighted," he warns. "This is good for the industry as a whole and what goes around comes around. If you are seen as an employer who encourages training and development, who doesn't stand in the way of people moving to better themselves, then that is great for your own recruitment and they'll want to come and work for you," he reasons.
It helps that the Vineyard is an approved training provider for the WSET Award in Wines at Levels 1-3. As well as running courses for its staff, it invites members of the public to join the classes, residential stays are also available for the more advanced courses, and there are wine tastings and cellar tours, and masterclasses on a range of beverages, from cocktails to wine.
Are you the next Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year?
Entries for the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year are now open. The competition, organised by The Caterer in partnership with the Academy of Food & Wine Service, recognises the very finest talent in wine service. The Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year award is widely regarded as the premier accolade in UK wine service. Past winners number some of the industry's leading lights when it comes to wine knowledge, including the late Gerard Basset, Ronan Sayburn and Xavier Rousset.
Candidates are judged on their wine and drink expertise as well as their ability to deal efficiently and knowledgeably with customers by demonstrating exemplary front of house skills.
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