Cornwall's St Austell Brewery sells wine wholesale, so its estate of 163 pubs has access to a pretty impressive list. Fiona Sims visits this Padstow pub with a restaurant boasting 45 wines
On a walking holiday in north Cornwall recently, I singled out a pub for lunch. A serviceable selection of wines and a crab salad - that was all I wanted.
I thought I'd found the perfect place in my pub guide, the wine glass symbol beside it boasting what should have indicated a half-decent list. Did it live up to expectation? Not exactly. "Red or white?" replied the grumpy barman when I asked what they offered by the glass. "Where do you think this is, London?" he added, with a snort.
At the top end of the pub scale there's a treasure trove of wine lists. With Michelin freely handing out accolades to gastropubs, we have never had it so good. And the wine lists stand up, mostly, with owner-operators juggling interesting suppliers with mainstream merchants, offering diners more than just a few quirky wines.
But what about the other end of the scale? Big brands and wine boxes still rule largely - and sadly - but some pub companies are trying to make a difference. The St Austell Brewery is one such company. Its estate comprises 28 managed and 135 tenanted pubs, many of them now food-led, doing their best to champion local produce.
The pubs of which it is most proud for food and wine include the Norway Inn in Perranarworthal, the Ped'n Olva in St Ives, the Pandora Inn, Restronguet - and the Old Custom House, in Padstow, where I ended up one evening.
Beer takes most of St Austell's business, but selling wine wholesale is increasingly important, with a turnover of £8m. The good thing about this is that its own pubs have access to a pretty decent list. But most of the work it does is with the free trade, supplying about 2,000 customers in the on-trade in the South-west - pubs mostly.
"God, I hope that wasn't one of our pubs," laughs Xenia Irwin, St Austell Brewery's new wine buyer, and a Master of Wine, to boot. Irwin, who used to buy wine for Balls Brothers, has big plans for St Austell's pub wine lists. One thing she is actively encouraging is wines by the glass - there's a new section in the wine list that advises publicans how best to do that - rubbishing 125ml glasses (hurrah) and stressing the importance of using a wine-preservation system.
The Old Custom House has one - not that it has a huge list, at just 16 wines, but its smart restaurant, Pescadou, has 45 wines. "I'm rather proud of that list," says Irwin.
And being Padstow, where Rick Stein has raised the game, all the wines are selling well, from De Bortoli Verdehlo (£15.55) , Domaine Cauhapé Jurançon Sec (£28) and Pazo de Barrantes Albariño (£30), to Brown Brothers' Tarrango (£14.75), Madfish Pinot Noir (£21) and Viña Ardanza Rioja Reserva (£37.50).
But what changes would she like to see over the next year? "I'd like to see France make a renaissance, and I'm about to revamp my Italian section. At the moment, everyone wants rosé, and everyone wants wines from the New World - they're easier to pronounce, for starters, which is still a real issue."
Irwin also reports that lighter styles of red wine are selling well. "We sell Viña Carmen Pinot Noir by the bucket load," she says. In fact, Chilean wines are selling well all round, she adds. "It's all about easy-drinking styles with pubs - Merlot is still huge. And people are still drinking a lot of Chardonnay. But they are beginning to experiment more with wines by the glass.
"Pubs love their brands. Blossom Hill and co is their comfort zone, and it's not dropping off as much as I want to see, which is a bit depressing. But I desperately want to move forward - the fewer brands, the better, I say. The deep discounting in supermarkets is really affecting us. The first step is to push our own brands, then try and move things up and along."
But before Irwin can do that, she has to train up more staff - the more clued up they are, the more wine they'll sell, she reckons. She is embarking on the first of four wine training sessions, which will be open to all. Red-or-white-madam pubs, your days are numbered.
What's on the list
- 2005 Stony Brook Sauvignon Blanc, Franschhoek Valley, South Africa, £14.75
- 2005 Insigne Gewürztraminer Viña Carmen, Chile, £15.50
- 2006 Vouvray Domaine de Vaufuget, Loire, France, £15.25
- 2006 Gavi Terra Rossa, Las Zerba, Piedmont, Italy, £24.50
- 2003 Mitchelton Airstrip Marsanne Roussanne Viognier, Australia, £30
- 2004 Pazo de Barrantes Albariño, Rías Baixas, Spain, £30
- 2006 Beaujolais Villages Château des Maladrets, France, £15.50
- 2005 Hamelin Bay Rampant Red Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, Australia, £28
- 1999 Viña Ardanza Reserva, Rioja, Spain, £39
- Camel Valley Brut NV, Cornwall, England, £32.50
- 2001 Elysium Black Muscat, Quady, California, USA, £19 (50ml)
The Old Custom House, South Quay, Padstow, Cornwall PL28 8BL. Tel: 01841 532359