Restaurant wine lists – expensive but increasingly extensive

Chez Bruce lunch service

Why wine in UK restaurants costs so much more today than it used to. Above, home of one of the UK's best wine lists.

Three weeks ago an unusual lunch took place in the private dining room of Portland restaurant.

Round the table were 11 people who had all become friends from having worked together at L’Escargot restaurant when I owned it in the 1980s. There was head chef Martin Lam with two of his chefs; two successive general managers, Nick Smallwood, who went on to run Kensington Place and Launceston Place, and Grahame Edwards; my PA; receptionist Sian Cox who went on to run the Oxo Tower restaurants; a waitress; the ‘philosopher’ Bryan Symons in charge of the servery; Stephen Chamberlain, who had made our ground floor brasserie so popular in the evenings; and myself.

There were two pieces of paper which harked back to that era as well. The first, pinned to the door, was a photograph of Martin Lam in his chef’s whites seated by a table groaning with food next to me in a suit, shirt and tie. What was most conspicuous, however, was that this photo proved that we both once had long, thick hair.

The other piece of paper, which Martin brought, produced in me at least, several shocks. It was the outer pages of L’Escargot’s wine list from spring 1982, 40 years ago. It was not the original wine list, which in June 1981 had been entirely American, but our first rewrite of the original to which we made several changes. Principally, this had been due to public demand for crisp, white wines, a style of wine that California in those days could not produce, wines such as Sancerre and Muscadet, which in the early 1980s were extremely popular. (There had also been the incident of the table of six Frenchmen who, having ordered their food, asked for the then all-American wine list and promptly walked out, an experience which I did not want to repeat).

The shocks fell into two distinct categories. The first, which I had accepted from the outset via Jancis’s pleading, was the need to explain the wines and their flavours. The wines of America were then, as they mainly are today, known by their grape variety rather than their place of origin. Although varietal wines are now far more common, it was not so 40 years ago. So the list opens with a breakdown of grape varieties, red and white, their flavour profiles and where in Europe they were mainly grown. But did we really need to explain what went into a kir or a spritzer? Apparently in those days, we did.

The bigger shock, however, was at the prices: 85p for a glass of house wine. £11.95 for a bottle of L’Escargot champagne; £16.95 for a bottle of Bruno Paillard 1973 champagne (I had bought 50 cases for our wedding in October 1981 and there were a few cases left over); and a mere £4.75 for a half-bottle of Domaine de Thalabert 1979 Crozes-Hermitage from Paul Jaboulet. Even better value was the small range of magnums: £28.50 for the Chablis 1978 from Louis Michel and £29.50 for the 1970 Thalabert. (This was in the heyday of Jaboulet importer OW Loeb.) Then there were a couple of unmissable dessert wines from Hugel, a 1976 Tokay Vendange Tardive and a Gewurztraminer Séléction de Grains Nobles, which would set you back £21 and £29.50 respectively. Per bottle!

What has changed so much to make the prices on many of today’s wine lists appear so very much more expensive?

The answer lies not so much in the taxes as in the currency. The duty on a litre of wine in 1982 was £1.86 or roughly £1.40 per 75-cl bottle. Today, it is £2.23 per bottle, a rise of 83p per bottle that has been readily absorbed, and accepted, over the ensuing 40 years.

The far more fundamental change has been the massive decline in the value of the pound, the currency that we Brits have to use to pay for everything we import except those relatively few wines produced in the UK. In blunt terms, this devaluation has been extraordinary.

In black and white, the pound has lost 76% of its value over the past 40 years: a devaluation that means that it takes £417.11 of today’s pounds to buy £100 of 1982 pounds. Foreign exchange rates have to be borne in mind by every wine merchant, who will also have to keep one eye on the future. I remember in the early 1980s everybody was optimistic about the dollar/pound exchange rate because of the recent discovery of North Sea oil. In June 1982 the dollar was 1.76 to the pound. We would all have settled for that: as I write it is 1.18.

Plus, of course, there are numerous hidden costs which invariably are denominated in strong dollars: the fuel, for example, that powers all modes of transport to bring wine into the UK. Plus, as David Gleave of Liberty Wines was explaining to me recently, there is the £300 cost for the paperwork that today, post Brexit, has to accompany every shipment of wine. To compensate for all these changes, many restaurateurs today look to increase the gross profit on wine from the 60% that was the norm in my day to more like 70% today.

An interesting, but unanswerable, question that often crosses my mind is what would have happened to L’Escargot’s wine list had I not sold my restaurant in 1988 owing to ill health? There would obviously have been fewer American wines but how quickly would I have been able to change it, to list wines from countries which in those days were virtually unknown: to include wines from Greece, Portugal and South Africa, for example, and today’s range of indigenous grape varieties? Perhaps, the competition would have forced me to adapt. Or perhaps it would have taken just one visit to Chez Bruce in Wandsworth.

This restaurant has its origins in Burgundy. It was while driving through Burgundy in 1987 that Nigel Platts-Martin, one of its owners, stopped and over lunch was stunned by a bottle of Les Marconnets Premier Cru Savigny-lès-Beaune 1979, from Simon Bize. It led him to forsake a career in merchant banking for that of a restaurateur. Harvey’s (now closed), The Square (sold), The Ledbury and La Trompette followed before, in 1995, he joined forces with chef and wine lover Bruce Poole to open Chez Bruce.

For many years, they wrote the wine list together but today it is compiled by Victor Barré, the English-born head sommelier. The list is long, comprising 33 closely typed pages containing over 800 bins and it manages to incorporate almost everything from anywhere. It includes over 20 white wines from South Africa, a particular Barré favourite.

The large selection of South African wines is all my doing’, he explained to me recently. ‘It is something that I feel Bruce wouldn’t necessarily wish to have, however he is happy for the list to reflect my passions, interests and choices, so long as I don’t neglect the classics and his most loved wines!

‘I'm very passionate about the new-wave producers of South Africa, having worked closely with certain key importers (namely Swig and Dreyfus Ashby). They introduced me in person to the small producers and winemakers on multiple occasions while I was working at The Ledbury. I didn’t just find their wines to be exciting and delicious, but the winemakers themselves were so down to earth, calmly confident and very articulate. By the time I visited South Africa in 2019 and saw the winemakers in their vineyards, cellars and homes, my love for them and their wines was affirmed, and I can’t imagine that changing!’

Barré manages an international team of four: himself (Anglo-French), an Italian assistant, together with colleagues from Portugal and Barbados. Together, he believes, they are making a difference.

I do think our customers are becoming more clued-up about wine. They often understand what they like, and are more open to trying something new. They don’t just stick to their usual choices and want to branch out and discover new things and understand that the world of wine is still growing. 

‘The most surprisingly exciting wine I've tried recently was a 2018 Morgon, Cuvée Corcelette, Jean Foillard. I had never tried this cuvée and currently list the Côte du Py, which I know is a wonderful wine. I was delighted with how pure and fragrant the Cuvée Corcelette was, and yet surprised by the spice and hedonistic quality it had. My head felt like it was spinning while I was drinking this with a few friends who aren’t that into wine. I couldn’t keep my nose out of the glass!’

From this I draw two conclusions. The first is that every wine list from every new, aspiring restaurant should be digitally recorded and preserved for the future. And that sommeliers and restaurateurs should never forget the quote from Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, ‘I often wonder what the vintners buy one half so precious as the goods they sell’.

Chez Bruce 2 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17 7EG; tel: +44 (0)20 8672 0114