It's amazing what a few old bottles of wine can do for your reputation. The Gore hotel in London's Kensington discovered a cache of wine hidden behind a brick wall when it was renovating its cellar. Among the 300 or so wines still identifiable were a 55-year-old Rioja and a 1964 Barolo.
Many, though, had damaged labels, so what did owners Douglas Blain and Peter McKay do with them? They sold them off in a lucky dip in the hotel's restaurant for £30 a pop - launching it during British Heart Week in June, with all proceeds donated to the British Heart Foundation.
The press - and the public - loved it. Canny McKay kicked off the proceedings with an invitation to wine heavyweight Jancis Robinson, who couldn't believe her luck. "This is indeed a rare collection of wines which you would be hard-pressed to find on a restaurant list," she claimed.
So what did she find? "A classic, mature 1964 Barolo Riserva and a lively, full-blooded absolute pure Pomerol, a Gazin 1989, which I would score at 18 out of 20 for taste," she says.
Once the word had got out (thanks to Robinson in the Financial Times), the hotel saw restaurant bookings soar. "We had people calling us saying that they wanted to buy 20 bottles," says Caroline Conaty, the Gore's commercial director. "We did that only once - we were worried that people might try and sell the wines on Ebay. In the end, we had to limit it to one bottle per person."
She reckoned that lunchtime drinking took off during June, thanks to the newly discovered bottles. The hotel also came up with a popular package off the back of the find - £240 for two guests for an overnight stay and three-course meal in the Gore's 190 restaurant, with a bottle of wine from the hidden cellar.
Did I try the lucky dip? Of course. When I got to it, there were 150 wines left. Each entry came with a number; some had the wines' details (where the labels were legible), while others were left blank.
I chose lot number 652 - it was half of Caterer's phone number, so it had to be a sign, don't you think? Perhaps not. I landed a corked bottle of 1996 Beau Rivage, although if the wine is spoiled - and McKay says that one-third of the bottles have been spoiled so far - the deal is that you get another go for free.
For my next attempt I chose number 666, left ominously untouched when all the numbers around it were taken - another sign, surely? But it was a youthful Fleurie. (How did that get in there?) Oh, well. At least it didn't blow off my chosen dishes of salad of yellow beans, capocolo, parsley and lemon, followed by rump of new-season lamb with tomato, mozzarella and basil agnolotti.
And this hasn't been at all bad for new head chef Malcolm Starmer. Last seen at the English Garden, having spent three years with Richard Corrigan at London's Lindsay House, Starmer started at the Gore three months ago. "Well, I thought it was about time I did my own thing," he says. His recent Tuscan sojourn - a few months cooking for a former (and wealthy) Lindsay House regular - is evident in his bright, zesty menu.
You're buff For those of you who are serious about wine, check out a new bimonthly wine magazine called The World of Fine Wine. Headed by Hugh Johnson, with Andrew Jefford as contributing editor and Harper's Neil Beckett as editor, it is about as serious as wine gets.
Wine buffs can read about sherry from expert Julian Jeffs, about port from Richard Mayson, with the likes of Nicolas Belfrage on Barolo, plus tasting reports and equally erudite features outside the world of wine. For more information, hit www.finewinemag.com.
Cult Kiwi Pinot The owners of cult New Zealand Pinot label Ata Rangi were in London recently to show off their latest releases.
Clive and Phyll Paton brought with them a line-up of wines, kicking off with a delicious 1996 Pinot Noir - there aren't many New Zealand Pinots that can go for eight years and still hold it together. "It's the clone we use - it doesn't go wonky or anything," explains Phyll.
UK distributor Liberty Wines (020 7720 5350) currently has stocks of the gorgeously fruity 2001 at about £25.95 a bottle, with the 2002 available from December, sealed under Stelvin screwcap. "We are confident the wines will age well in this closure," says Clive, "and relieved that they will always present as they should - alive and full of flavour."
Head for hops This year's Beauty of Hops competition, sponsored by the National Hop Association of England and East Malling Research, awarded gold medals to Harvey's of Lewes for its Armada Ale in the Dual Varietal category and for its Copper Wheat in the "Assertively hopped wheat beers" category, while Brighton's Dark Star Brewery picked up a gold for its eponymous India Pale Ale.