Sponsored by Champagne Taittinger
Andrew McKenzie has spent 22 years as managing director of the Vineyard Group, overseeing a culture of passion around wine which has resulted in a roll call of some of the UK's most exceptional sommeliers.
But while the group's flagship hotel, the five-AA-star Vineyard, near Newbury, Berkshire, had always operated at the very top of its oenological game, there is nothing elitist about McKenzie's approach. Not only has he encouraged his sommeliers to adopt a more relaxed approach to selling and serving wines, he has also ensured that a staggering number of wines on the 3,000-strong list are available by the glass.
McKenzie's attitude to wine service is highlighted in his thoughts on Edoardo Amadi, the Vineyard's first head sommelier. He told The Caterer earlier this year: "My ideal is to find people in Edoardo's mould – super-knowledgeable, 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."
Having multimillionaire businessman Sir Peter Michael as the owner of the Vineyard has undoubtedly helped the business establish the strongest wine credentials. However, it has been McKenzie who has decided to ensure that the hotel and its sister properties, including the Donnington Valley hotel and spa, has supported the creation of one of the most impressive wine lists in the country, as well as creating an environment in which young sommeliers have flourished. Indeed, five of them have gone on to hold the UK Sommelier of the Year title, including the 2019 holder and current Vineyard sommelier Romain Bourger.
The creation of so many outstanding sommeliers is the result of a wine training that is second to none, with the hotel attracting candidates from far and wide.
Additionally, members of the public, alongside every person who works at the Vineyard and Donnington Valley – whether they are a housekeeper or kitchen porter – are invited to sit Levels 1 and 2 of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams, after the hotel became the first hotel in the UK to qualify as a training venue for WSET courses.
Kevin McKee of Champagne Taittinger and one of the award's judges shared his experience of hosting his inaugural dinner as a young Champagne ambassador 20 years ago under the watchful eye of McKenzie. "Seeing the fear in my eyes, Andrew took me to one side and said: ‘Do your best lad, it's all anyone can ask.' Sage words that I have never forgotten."
For encouraging a generation of sommeliers and wine experts, for democratising the service of wine, for his leadership and for his support to industry bodies such as the Master Innholders, the Worshipful Company of Innholders and the steering committee of Relais & Châteaux, McKenzie is a most worthy winner of this year's award.
What the judges said
"Andrew is a keen promotor of innovation and product development, alongside being a strong supporter and developer of young talent." – John Croft
"Andrew is one of the big names of the hospitality industry. Training and staff development are at the core of his management philosophy." – Tim Jones
"Andrew is the embodiment of an ‘ambassador'. He has nurtured so much new talent over so many years, and the industry is richer for his commitment to it." – Sue Williams
- Rudina Arapi, Galvin at Windows, London Hilton on Park Lane
- Andrew McKenzie, the Vineyard Group, Berkshire
- Anna Sebastian, The Langham, London
- Eric Zwiebel, Summer Lodge, Dorset
- Nicolas Clerc, president, Academy of Food & Wine Service
- John Croft, hospitality project and development director
- Tim Jones, chairman, CH&Co Group
- Kevin McKee, UK director, Champagne Taittinger
- Ronan Sayburn, chief executive, the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe
- Sue Williams, general manager, Whatley Manor, Malmesbury