The promise of low mark-ups on wine is enough reason for me to visit any restaurant. Add to that a Bib Gourmand from Michelin and I'm there. The Wildebeest Arms in Norfolk has both. The gastropub, just a few miles from Norwich, has been up and running for nearly 12 years. Owner Henry Watt has another place, too - the Mad Moose in Norwich, and by the time you read this he will have just opened his third venture, Mackintosh's Canteen, also in Norwich.
Executive chef is Daniel Smith, who spent four years as sous chef under Galton Blackiston at Norfolk's acclaimed Morston Hall, and he also did time at Michel Roux Jnr's renowned Le Gavroche. His menu, just to give you a taste, includes chargrilled Scotch beef fillet, Gouda and herb leaf salad (£6.50), and thyme and chorizo roast longshore cod fillet with parsley mash and purple sprouting broccoli aïoli (£13.95).
The wine list is a collaboration between Burgundy lover Watt and assistant manager Mathew Briggs, who used to work in the wine trade. In fact, the Wildebeest was placed fifth for value in the 2006 The Top 100 UK Restaurant Wine Lists, and boasts that its mark-up on wines is nearly a quarter of that in many other comparable establishments. "In offering good wine at such excellent value as we do, we open up the possibility for customers to explore," declares Watt.
Actually, that's not quite true. The house wines, of which there are 12, all priced at £12.95 a bottle, and all available by the glass, have standard restaurant mark-ups slapped on them - between 60% and 70%. And 60% of customers will order these wines. "We've got to make our money somewhere," reasons Briggs. But the higher up the list you go, the less the mark-up.
And yes, the remainder of those customers do trade up - with a healthy take-up of wines between £20 and £30 a bottle, reports Briggs. Among the best sellers in this section are a Savigny-lès-Beaune from Simone Bizè at £22.95, a Margaret River Chardonnay from Howard Park, also at £22.95, and a 1999 Rioja Reserva from Bodegas Lan at £19.95. "People are so savvy these days and you don't want them thinking they can get something similar at Tesco's much cheaper," adds Briggs.
There are 126 bins in all at the Wildebeest, with 75 bins at the Mad Moose and 50 bins at Macintosh's Canteen. The overall best sellers are a Pinot Grigio from Distefani called Santa Stefano and an Aussie Shiraz called Firefly, both from the house wine selection. Further up the list, a South African Sauvignon Blanc from Thelema is a best seller at £24.95, while on the smarter red front a Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon from Ringbolt (£22.95) wins the day, closely followed by a Chorey-lès-Beaune from Natalie Tollot-Beaut at £23.95.
The list is split by country, with France, Italy and Spain heading up the Old World, while Australia, New Zealand and South Africa head up the New World. There's a separate section for Champagne - 1998 Dom Pérignon is on the list at a bargain £89.95. There's also a separate list called "wines for special occasions", with top wines from both New and Old World - Penfolds 1994 Bin 707 is £115. Each gets its own tasting note, with grape variety listed wherever possible.
Watt and Briggs buy the core of their list from three suppliers - H&H Bancroft, The Cellar Door in Norwich, and Everich, in Suffolk. "Plus we have a little man who lives in the village who buys our South African wine for us," explains Watt, a trained actor, who used to work for South Africa specialist Barry Phillips at the White Horse in Chilgrove, Sussex, then at Phillips's wine merchant business after he sold up. "I'm hooked on wine now, though," he adds.
- 2004 Domaine de l'Hortus, Cuvée Classique, Pic St Loup, France, £14.95
- 2002 Chablis Domaine Savary, Burgundy, France, £19.95
- 2004 Pinot Grigio, Elena Walch, Alto Adige, Italy, £16.95
- 2003 Côte de Nuits Villages, Hubert Chauvenet-Chopin, Burgundy, France £16.95
- 1999 Rioja Reserva Bodegas Lan, Spain, £19.95
- 2004 Chardonnay Howard Park, Margaret River, Australia, £22.95
- 2004 Chorey-lès-Beaune Domaine Tollot-Beaut, Côte de Beaune, France, £23.95
- 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Ringbolt, Margaret River, Australia, £22.95
- 998 Dom Pérignon, Champagne, France, £89.95
- 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos du Caillou "Quartz", Rhône, France, £47.95
The Wildebeest Arms, 82-86 Norwich Road, Stoke Holy Cross, Norfolk NR14 8QJ. Tel: 01508 494353 [map]