The art and science of the wine list


This article was also published in the Financial Times.

For the past 30 years, John Hutton has led a professional double life at the heart of the London restaurant scene. As we met at Mark Hix's Chop House in Smithfield, London, he revealed the secret side of his career for the very first time.

Tall, full of enthusiasm for wine, which has been his passion since his initial career in banking, but diffident in manner, Hutton looks every inch the schoolteacher. He combines, however, two roles which many would envy: he is not only the well-known managing director of Berry Bros' on-trade arm Fields, Morris & Verdin, which supplies 130 restaurants across London [and organised last week's star-studded tasting] but also the unacknowledged compiler of wine lists for a spectrum of restaurants that includes The Ivy, Scott's, Defune Japanese restaurant as well as the Chinese Good Earth Group.

In true British fashion, Hutton, 58, was quick to play down his own importance in this process. 'I hate to say that I write a restaurant's wine list, it's all about the initial relationship with the restaurateur, and wine lists definitely turn out for the best when they subsequently have the full co-operation of the management and the sommeliers.'

But as we sat down and he looked across at the blackboard with a variety of drinks on offer, Hutton smiled, as it revealed the distinctive role he plays teaching chefs about wine. 'You see that drink that's listed over there as a Sophia Sling, well it came about because I took some chefs including Mark Hix to Portugal a few weeks ago. We were at Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro early one evening and the owner Sophia Bergqvist served us a glass of white port and tonic. Everybody loved it but they all realised that they would have to call it something more exotic if it was going to sell at all. And here it is.'

Hutton is not alone in this field. There's a handful of individuals who advise restaurateurs on their wine lists and there are individuals in rival wine companies who offer a similar service, but no one can rival Hutton in terms of the quality of his clientele. Nor, it transpired, on the lucky break that set him off.

'It was 1980 and I was a young wine salesman despatched on a fruitless mission to sell wine to The Ritz hotel. I came away, somewhat forlorn, via the staff entrance on to Arlington Street and saw a sign that said "Restaurant Site Acquired"', he said. 'I asked the building foreman who was in charge and he pointed me towards a tall, bearded young man who turned out to be Jeremy King, then planning the opening of Le Caprice. In those days the main wine suppliers were large companies often owned by the brewers. He wanted a more personal service and that is how my second career began.'

Hutton had, I had decided, to sing for his supper so while I held on to the menus I handed him the wine list and asked him to choose a bottle that epitomised not just what obviously makes his job so much fun but also incorporates the tastes and flavours today's restaurant goers are looking for.

He promptly asked the waiter for a bottle of Les Obriers de la Peira 2006 from the Languedoc in south-west France (£31.75 a bottle, also sold by the glass and the carafe) but before elaborating on its particular charms he gave his views on why restaurant wine lists have never been better.

The most important factor, Hutton believes, is that restaurants can now print their wine lists in-house so there is very little risk of the customer being misled by a change in the vintage. Then there is the growing tendency among chefs to simplify their dishes, to allow no more than the three or four different ingredients on the plate to be enjoyed to the full, a process that has the same consequences for the wine, particularly for larger tables. Hutton's definition of an excellent meal in a restaurant is, not surprisingly, astute – if not a threat to me professionally: can you remember precisely what you ate and drank 24 hours afterwards?

The qualities that a wine must exhibit to meet Hutton's criteria for possible inclusion include soft tannins and juicy fruit that do not fight the food as well as an elegant feel in the mouth that encompasses a range of flavours including savoury, salty and tangy. And, most importantly, in his opinion the wines must have good, natural acidity. Producers from the south-west and the Rhône in France, from Spain, Portugal and Italy are currently among his strongest recommendations. This is a large, diverse area of course, but one that combines a significant influx of outside, cosmopolitan investors with a younger generation of winemakers who eat out far more regularly than their parents and who are genuinely excited by what they see going on in London when Hutton brings them over to eat in his customers' restaurants.

While this aspect is obviously hugely enjoyable – Hutton confessed that his company's entire marketing budget is spent in restaurants – the growing challenge is how to pare down so many potentially good wines to fit into restaurants with increasingly limited cellar space. The new list at Scott's encompasses 150 wines, down from a final tasting of over 300, having gone through 15 different drafts. Mark Hix, on the other hand, had dictated that his wine list had to fit on just one sheet of recycled paper.

The Languedoc red coped admirably with our deep-fried sand eels with tartare sauce, a hanger steak with bone marrow and a mildly spicy curry of Herdwick lamb while Hutton explained its history. 'It comes from a property bought by Robert Dougan, an engaging Australian whose initial career was composing the music for The Matrix, and I was initially tipped off to it by a call from Andrew Jefford, the wine writer. 2006 was their first vintage but it is beginning to be very well reviewed now in the US, which can only mean, sadly, that the price will go up.'

As I paid the bill, Hutton's wine judgement was reinforced by a most unlikely source but one that gave him a great deal of pleasure. The attractive waitress, at least 35 years his junior, looked at the empty bottle on our table and said, 'That's my favourite. I order it whenever we eat here.'

Fields, Morris, Verdin,

Hix Oyster & Chop House,