Looming above the lobby at the new Radisson SAS Hotel, London Stansted Airport, is a wine lover's equivalent of the Ka'aba in Mecca. It's a 13m high glass shell housing nearly 4,000 bottles of wine, and instead of pilgrims you'll see hotel guests and diners making a beeline for the tower, cameras at the ready, circling it in wonder, waiting impatiently for the wine angels to appear.
Yup, wine angels. Ex-circus performers, able to distinguish between a Viognier and a Verdelho, scale the heights in leather outfits using high-speed computer-controlled winches and special harnesses to search out guests' chosen wine. And when they're not plucking wine from one of the individually temperature-controlled, custom-made, clear acrylic racks, they put on an acrobatic show. Talk about a crowd puller.
"It's become a huge attraction," says the tower's co-creator, Norbert Huemer, the hotel's executive assistant general manager. "Often guests will stop to watch before they've even put their luggage in their rooms. And they'll come down for a drink almost immediately." Just as well it's pulling them in, since the tower cost nearly £1m to build - £920,000, to be exact.
It all started when Radisson's big boss Kurt Ritter spotted a similar wine tower in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Resort. He wanted a statement for Radisson's new flagship hotel - but his tower had to be even better. "Basically, it's a huge fridge, but it has a much more advanced cooling mechanism - we can chill each rack individually," boasts Huemer, who was involved with the project right from the start.
The tower serves all four of Radisson's restaurants: the three "themed" restaurants, devised by London restaurateur Roy Ackerman - NYGB, a New York-style grill; Filini, an Italian restaurant; and TaPaell'Ya, a Spanish restaurant, plus the eating area around the tower itself, with 350 combined covers.
The global (as befits an airport hotel) wine selections currently stand at 152 in all, leaving Huemer and his team plenty of room for stock - "95% of everything we carry is in that tower," he says. Each of the themed restaurants has access to the master list, with an extra list available, grouping together selected wines from the master list (for example, TaPaell'Ya singles out 12 Spanish wines, NYGB offers 12 American wines), with the selection kept deliberately modest, and only a handful of posh wine (the most expensive is 1983 D'Yquem at £385).
"Our wine angels aren't sommeliers, though like everyone else here they get regular wine training. Most of our customers are not really wine connoisseurs - we're not offering fine dining here," explains Huemer, who justifies his decision to use just one supplier, Matthew Clark. "We've only just opened and they were very helpful, and they've got a huge range, plus they have access to any fine wines that we want to include - they can get anything for us." Not that Huemer is ruling out using other suppliers in the future. "The wine list is a live project," he says. "We'll be looking at the list again in a couple of months or so.
So how is the list organised? By country and then by price, with each producer name clearly marked and the grape variety added in brackets where known (or when there aren't too many to mention). You select a wine, the wine angels look up its grid reference, and away they go. The more popular wines are placed near the top of the tower to maximise the show.
The hotel also offers a line-up by the glass: four reds and four whites on the master list, and the same again on the themed lists. "We sell a lot by the glass here - about 60%," says Huemer. It's also worth mentioning that every wine on the master list is available in each of the 500 bedrooms, including the wines by the glass. n
Radisson SAS Hotel, Waltham Close, Stansted Airport, Stansted, Essex CM24 1PP. Tel: 01279 661012
A selection from the list
2003 Nerola, Torres, PenedŠs, Spain, £24
2002 Chardonnay Seleccion Blanco, Raimat, Costers del Segre, Spain, £23
2002 Gavi di Gavi, Cascina la Toledana, Domini Villa Lanata, Piemonte, Italy, £26
2001 Terre di Ginestra, Casa Vinicola Calatrasi, Sicily, Italy, £32
2003 Viognier, La Campagne, Languedoc-Roussillon, France, £16
2001 Tokay Pinot Gris, Cave Ribeauville, Alsace, France, £23
2003 Riesling Bin 7, Leasingham, Clare Valley, Australia, £24
2003 Torront‚s-Chardonnay, Bodegas Etchart, Salta, Argentina, £15
2002 Organic Roussanne, Lakeview Vineyard, Bonterra, Mendocino County, USA, £33
1998 Reserva Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon, Fortius, Navarra, Spain, £21
2000 Mas Borras Pinot Noir, Torres, PenedŠs, Spain, £39
2001 Allora Primitivo, Casa Vincola Calatrasi, Sicily, Italy, £26
2000 Domaine des Coteaux de Diane, Clos Poggiale, Corsica, France, £29
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, Veramonte Estate, Maule Valley, Chile, £22
2001 Old Vine Zinfandel, Ravenswood, Amador County, USA, £32
NV Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Ca'Montini, Veneto, Italy, £25
1988 Krug Brut, Champagne, France, £175