7 Oct 2017

Good Wine Habits

Ben on wine and wearing many hats.

Owning and running restaurants means needing to know quite a lot about quite a diverse set of subjects not always readily associated with the selling of food and drink. Accountancy, HR, plumbing, electrics, social work and IT support roles are all regularly required before lunch service even begins. Managing any small business means being the wearer of many hats.

Once upon a time it was mainly just the Waiter hat. With occasional outings for the Cleaner hat and the Chef’s hat. These days, with Joseph Benjamin busier than ever and two branches of our tapas bar Porta very much up and running, that waiter hat (one of my favourites) gets less use than I’d like, and it’s the droopy Admin Assistant hat, the itchy HR Manager’s hat and the stiff Accountant’s hat that are all too often found up top.

But beyond those appropriate to office admin and drain unblocking there is one piece of headwear that I really love to come back to as often as possible; the perky Panama of the Wine Buyer. That one fits well. Very comfortable.

I often try to make this role sound like real work (especially to my grafting chef-brother Joe); it is undoubtedly crucial to a successful restaurant but let’s be honest; it’s also great fun. Ten years of wine tasting, occasional hard drinking (spanning perhaps more than ten years), a genuine fascination with the subject and a reasonable degree of study means I’ve learnt a lot about what I like in wine (I even sometimes know why I like it) and crucially quite a lot about what our customers like.

Along the way, I’ve also got to know some fantastic people in the wine world - from importers and local wine company representatives to wine makers from around the globe. I’ve visited the vineyards, picked the grapes and tasted the wine from the barrel. I’m guilty of engineering vineyard visits in to family holidays, stag parties and honeymoons (singular, actually, just the one) and every time I come away from these tours understanding something about the geography, the soil and the climate of a region that helps me ‘get’ the wine. See the hills of Barolo laid out in front of you from the terrace - glass in hand, map on table - and it all starts to make sense. Run your hands through the soil and feel the little Nebbiolo grapes between your fingers, talk to the family preparing for harvest and you realise what it’s all about - the magical, ethereal nature of wine.

By which I mean of course wine made by real people. Passionate people. With soul and a connection to the land. Not your gloopy, supermarket, lowest-common-denominator, alcoholic Ribena. That stuff is made by a robot called Mr J Creek (circa 78 million bottles a year) and his mates. We should all try not to buy that stuff.

I love drinking wine and talking about wine and am lucky enough to have a management team here in Emily and Richard who share the habit. They bring along their own preferences and opinions and between us we make selections for the Joseph Benjamin wine list.

We try to maintain a balance of interesting, less-well-known wines alongside popular, traditional styles; it’s important we remember that, like a restaurant food menu, the wine list is for you, dear guest, and not a vehicle for us to show off our quirkiness (real or imagined) – it is a business after all and the wine is there to sell. However, it’s also important that we’re drawn by wines that excite us; wines that we find stimulating. Interesting wines tend to have a story behind them and are very often produced in a way that reflects our own ethos and style of operation. Generally, wines that attract us are produced in small quantities in a more artisanal way – perhaps farmed organically, perhaps vinified with little ‘intervention’ or chemical stabilisation. Either way, there’s an honesty and integrity required.

I think it’s our job to find these wines and get them on the wine list for you at a good price. Reflecting the rationale of eating out as opposed to staying in with a supermarket ready-meal, drinking out needs to be interesting and rewarding and - while clearly not the cheapest route to intoxication - still good value.

Two years ago, we were awarded an ‘Outstanding Wine List’ alongside our entry in the Good Food Guide which was extremely gratifying and totally unexpected recognition. The latest edition of the guide was recently released and, once I’d reassured myself with our general inclusion (all three restaurants, boom, high-five, cheers), I was doubly pleased to see this particular accolade maintained.

Over the coming months we’ll be shining the spotlight on some of our favourite bottles from the cellar both on social media and on here in short blog posts. These might be examples of our long term ‘go-to’ wines or new, exciting, perhaps even funky or ‘natural’ wines (more about that in a future post), but we’ll try to tell you - in our own way – why we like them and something of their story.

In the meantime – do pick our brains if you’re in the restaurant and looking at the wine list; we really do like talking about it and don’t want to keep it under our hats.