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Mason's Arms: A wine list of character

20 April 2006

When Mark and Sarah Dodson launched their restaurant, the Mason's Arms, in Knowstone last June, they were very clear what they wanted for their wine list. Individual wines with character or ones, to use Mark's words, that were "not just run-of-the-mill".

The other rule that they gave themselves was to make sure that there was a good representation of wines across the price levels. Being an inn as well as a restaurant, the Mason's Arms needs to please every pocket. "People come in wanting anything from two soups and a pint of beer, to three courses plus cheese with a bottle of Krug Champagne," says Mark (and, yes, they have just started listing a Krug).

He continues: "There's no average day here - but people get happy on simple things, and it's important for us to have all those things on offer so that we please whoever walks through the door."

The wine list that the Dodsons offered when they first opened for business was 20-strong, and over the past 10 months they have upped it to 37 bins, an increase of roughly two-thirds. Some of the newer listings have come out of suggestions by their three wine suppliers - Amphora Wines, Lay & Wheeler, and Coad Wines - and some from customer demand, the Krug being a prime example.

"We've got a Reynier as our house Champagne, and a Taittinger and Louis Roederer, but a few people asked if we had anything bigger - like Krug. So we've got a Krug Grande Cuvée (£125) now. It's been on a month and we've sold two. If I sell one a fortnight, I'll be very happy."

One of the things that Mark and Sarah actively sought to do with the Mason's list was to include an informed choice of New World options. Mark's own knowledge is rooted in French wine, the result of more than a decade spent as head chef at Michel Roux's Waterside Inn in Bray. "Down here, you can't get away with too much French wine on the list, and I've enjoyed broadening my knowledge," admits Mark, "especially about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc."

In fact, one the best-selling wines at the moment is a 2004 Stone Creek, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (£28.50). It's weighty enough to stand up to the new-season lamb that's currently coming on the market, while also being a good match for fish.

Another New World white that has scored well with customers is a Tin Hat Sémillon/Chardonnay from south-east Australia (£15.50). "That's brilliant. You can drink that for fun," is Mark's verdict. Among the reds, a 2001 Sebastiani Zinfandel from Sonoma (£22) has gone down well.

In total there are six New World wines on the list. The other 30 (including five house wines priced between £14.50 and £16.50) hail from the Old World, with representatives from France, Italy and Spain - a 2001 Rioja "Vina Amezola" Crianza, Amezola de la Mora (£26.50) and a 2004 Chablis, Domaine Sainte Claire,
Jean-Marc Brocard (£25) proving to be the most popular.

Strangely enough, offering five or six wines by the glass hasn't so far been as much of a winner as the couple anticipated. Between eight and 12 glasses are sold over an average week at the moment, but that could change as the summer gets under way and the Mason's Arms opens up its patio area for dining. Part of the problem is that people who are not eating in the restaurant opt for a more traditional pint of beer, ale or cider in the inn's bar.

"They go, ‘What a lovely pub, what have you got on draught?'" says Mark. And the answer to that question is that, as with the wine list, the Dodsons have opted to stock draughts of character: Cotleigh Tawny Bitter, from just across the border in Somerset, at £2.30 a pint - "what I'd call a session beer; it'll keep you going all evening without disastrous effect" - and Poundhouse Cider (£2.50) from Winkleigh in Devon.

As with the wine list, the Dodsons are always happy to react to customer demand as far as stocking the bar is concerned. They are thinking, for instance, of broadening their whisky range - the biggest seller currently among the 10 malts on show is Lagavulin at £3.80 a shot. And on the list, reacting to a drop in demand for big Burgundies linked to the dropping of butch winter game and beef dishes from the menu, a Fleurie is set to shunt a 2003 Gigondas Les Pallières, Brunier Fils into the sidings.

"So many businesses go wrong when the chef thinks he knows better than the customers. What suits the guests, suits us," reaffirms Mark.

The story so far

  • The property: Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon
  • Bought: 21 June 2005
  • Owners: Mark and Sarah Dodson
  • Purchase price: "close to" £695,000
  • What is it? 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge, 18-seat restaurant
  • Accolades: one Michelin star January 2006; Egon Ronay Restaurant and Gastropub Guide, one star; rave review by Jan Moir in Daily Telegraph, 30 June 2005
  • March turnover: £22,000 gross
  • Target annual turnover: £275,000 gross
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