I got the last table at noon - and we were in the middle of nowhere. The Olive Branch, at Clipsham, stands in lush Rutland countryside about a 15-minute drive from the A1. There aren't too many good places to stop on this stretch if you're heading north, and this is about as good as gastropubs get, so the rather undignified dive for tables turned out to be wholly justified.
Ben Jones, Marcus Welford and Sean Hope snapped up the vacant village pub in December 1999, and it has since won a bunch of awards - the crowing glory, a Michelin star in 2002.
The same year, they opened the Red Lion Inn in Stathern, near Nottingham, creating the Rutland Inn Company, which promptly picked up a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Then there's the B&B they opened recently - presumably to put up the crowds that turn up here most days (you need to book two months ahead for dinner on a Saturday night). And there are plans for four more pubs, too, if things continue to go well for them.
People come for the food, yes, but they also come for the wine list, which is put together by Welford. There is a core list for both pubs of about 25 wines, split by style, which changes with the seasons. "The wine list has to reflect what's on the menu," he says. To give you a quick taster, dishes range from honey-roast confit duck leg with an onion and beetroot marmalade (one leg £5.95, two legs £11.95) to roast fillet of turbot with arragon mash and lobster bisque (£19.75).
There are six of these style sections in all, from dry, light and fruity whites to full, fruity and flavoursome reds, each with a short tasting note put together by Welford and his staff. "I always involve the staff in the choosing process - it makes it easier for them to sell the wine," he says. And all of the wines on the core list are less than 20 - representing 70% of overall wine sales.
There are another 50 smarter wines which can be found written up on different blackboards dotted around both pubs. There's one for the New World, another for the Old World and one for Champagne - up to 15 wines in all - and all of these wines get slightly longer tasting notes.
"The beauty of the board wines is that they change all the time," explains Welford, who used to work in the wine trade. "We get a lot of repeat customers, and this gives them something new every time.
I often buy wine on a whim, even storing stuff in the cellar for later use. We have lots of space here." He even buys the odd case from private cellars and from auctions.
The only difference between the list at the Olive Branch and the one at the Red Lion is that there are a few more New World wines on the list in the latter. "It's only 20 miles from Nottingham, so it attracts a younger, hipper crowd who tend to prefer New World styles," reasons Welford.
So what has been selling particularly well? "Lighter styles of reds - particularly Gamay, and Cabernet Franc from the Loire," he replies. "And I encourage customers to drink them slightly chilled, which they love."
So your customers are pretty adventurous then? "There is definitely more experimentation going on, and this kind of thing just builds up customer confidence even more," he says. If a customer declares a liking for Gewrztraminer, for example, then Welford will recommend a Torronts (he has a 2004 from Michel Torino at £13.95).
But, rather surprisingly, he offers only 12 wines by the glass. "I think 20 are too many. As long as you are changing the selection regularly, and you know that the wines are fresh, and that you are offering the right balance of varieties, then I think 12 wines is enough," he says.
What's on the list
2004 Neudorf Sauvignon Blanc, Nelson, New Zealand, £21.50
Lustau Puerto Fino, Jerez, Spain, £17.50 (37.5cl)
2001 Stanley Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa, Australia, £22.50
1979 Château Batailley, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France, £47.50
2003 Domaine Morey-Coffinet, Chassagne-Montrachet, France, £35
2004 Agustinos Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Chile, £16.50
2003 The Ruins Pinotage, South Africa, £13.95
2001 Viña Amezola Crianza, Rioja, Spain, £17.95
2003 Saumur d'Eternes, Cabernet Franc, Loire, France, £14.95
2003 Elysium Black Muscat, Andrew Quady, California, £4.25 (100ml)
Gulden Draak, Brasserie van Steenberge, Belgium, £3.95 (330ml)
Sheppy's Cider with honey, England, £3 (500ml)