What upgrading a wine list can do


In my forthcoming book On The Menu (to be published 3 November 2016 by Unbound at £25) there is a chapter devoted to managing a wine list. 

Several experts in the field convened in the private room of London's Portland restaurant for what has made a fascinating chapter in the book. Topics covered range from peoples’ expectations of a wine list to how to manage the back-breaking work involved in carrying full cases downstairs to the storage area and then handfuls of bottles back upstairs, and generally how little of this the public is aware of. Enrico Bernardo came from Il Vino in Paris and this site’s Spanish specialist Ferran Centelles flew in from Barcelona to join Charlie Young from London’s Vinoteca, Charlotte Sager-Wilde from Sager + Wilde, and Xavier Rousset, who made his name at Texture and 28-50 wine bars and is to open his own wine-focused restaurant in Blandford Street, Marylebone.

But this conversation involved those who care passionately about wine, as presumably do virtually all those who visit this website as well as those who write about wine. But what about wine lists in those restaurants where the chef or the restaurateur is not that interested in wine, or does not have the time or inclination? In the past week I have eaten at two very different restaurants. In the first, a new, much-improved wine list has changed the appeal of the place. In the second, a move from pop-up to a permanent site has finally provided an opportunity to write a proper wine list. I have also learnt of the surprising consequences of these changes.

The first restaurant in question is Andrew Wong’s excellent Chinese restaurant, A Wong on Wilton Street, a five-minute walk from Victoria Station.

I first wrote about this place over three years ago and since then the quality of Andrew’s dim sum in particular has just got better and better. A recent lunch of Shanghai dumplings, scallop puffs, gai lan (Chinese broccoli) with a poached egg (pictured), and Hong Kong noodles with a sea-urchin butter was first class.

But until this visit we had restricted our drinking to their tea selection. The wine list, obviously the product of one large drinks company, was none too exciting. This last time, however, I saw three businessmen at the next table enjoying a bottle of Matías Riccitelli's The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree Torrontes at the very keen price of £25. This seemed an indication that things have changed.

And so it proved. The list may look none too different but the content is certainly different. The list opens with a Chenin Blanc 2015 from the Swartland Winery at £6.50 for a 125 ml glass; includes a glass of Chardonnay from Larry Cherubino in Western Australia at £8.50; and among eight reds by the glass are a Naturalys Merlot from Gérard Bertrand in the Languedoc (£7) and a Château de Valois 2010 from Pomerol (£13.50). By the bottle there is an Assyrtiko 2014 from Gaia Wines on Santorini (£36); a Koshu 2014 from Grace Winery in Yamanashi, Japan (£37); and a 2014 Yellow Seal Riesling from Schloss Johannisberg (£43). All these wines have the freshness and the acidity to accompany Wong’s cooking.

When I was joined by Andrew after lunch, I complimented him on his much-improved wine list and asked him how and why it had improved so much. He was quite honest. ‘Part of my job is to listen to my customers and I was hearing from quite a few, and not just your wife, that my wine list ought to be better. So I brought in Tim Bartley, the sales director of Hallgarten Druitt and Novum Wines and told him what we needed, the kind of wines that would match my style of food, and he has done the rest.’ He also added, rather soberly, ‘We’ve reduced our gross profit to 65% on the wines and that seems to have helped, too.’

My research on Andrew Wong for my article in the Financial Times revealed his unusual background. He had grown up in the restaurant which is now his but which in those days had belonged to his parents. They had not wanted him to follow in their professional footsteps, but after studies at Oxford and the London School of Economics, Andrew had found his vocation as a chef back in the remodelled family restaurant. A similar tortuous career path has also been followed by Jamie Berger, whose Pitt Cue restaurant has just emerged from the brickwork of Devonshire Square in the City of London.

Almost symmetrically, Berger, 48, read Chinese at Oxford and spent his year abroad there in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square riots. He then moved to Japan and subsequently to Harvard (‘shades of Cambridge’, he explained), where he first fell in love with barbecue, American style. On his return to London, he spotted what was then a gaping hole in the market.

I first encountered Berger about six years ago when I was consultant to the Southbank Centre, the arts complex on the south bank of the Thames. Berger approached us with his proposal for a Pitt Cue van. It went ahead so successfully that Pitt Cue subsequently moved into a pop up-like corner site in Soho that could seat 20 in rather cramped seating but where the barbecued meat was so appealing that it was serving over 1,000 customers a week.

Berger and his much expanded team are now serving the same number of customers a week from their 85-seater restaurant that opened in early March 2016 but is to date trading only Monday-Friday lunch and dinner. The layout is impressive: the original exposed brickwork at the front of the building; a far from original, but highly authentic and enormous grill manufactured by Grillworks in Michigan, USA, at the rear; and in between down the side is a row of fridges holding white and red wines at the most suitable temperature.

The transition from being a pop-up operator to being a bricks-and-mortar restaurateur has involved many changes, not least the fact that this expensive conversion has caused Berger and his chef/partner Tom Adams to part with a significant share of the ownership to their financial backers. But it is the ability to write a proper wine list that has given Berger and his general manager, Crispin Sugden, formerly of Goodman, particular pleasure.

This wine list will certainly give as much pleasure as the menu will give to any predominantly meat eater. There are fish specials on the blackboard that included grilled octopus with aioli and a turbot collar on my visit, but the main menu is principally meat-based, ranging from Mangalitza country ham with walnuts among the bar snacks to starters that include a blood cake and salt beef and celeriac. The printed main courses include smoked beef neck and a best end of lamb, and the side dishes are pretty hearty too: hispi cabbage and wild garlic; a mushrooms and bone marrow mash and fermented carrots with ricotta.

The wine list is just as interesting for reasons that Berger and Sugden have come to appreciate. There is a non-vintage La Pleïade II, the Marsanne/Rousanne blend from Sean Thackrey available by the glass at £10 as well as his 2012 Andromeda Pinot Noir (£12 a glass, £60 the bottle). And there are some wines for the serious white wine drinker, too: a 2009 Tête de Merger Meursault from Patrick Javillier (£100); a Chablis Montmains 2009 from Raveneau (£175); and a 2005 Silex Pouilly-Fumé from Didier Dageneau (£150).

These are wines that have already found a thirsty market. When I asked Berger what has been the biggest difference among the customers at his new place, his response is immediate. ‘It is the sheer quantity of what the customers in the City can drink. We serve beer in glasses that hold two-thirds of a pint and I like to have chilled when we open at 5.30 pm. Within a couple of hours, particularly on a Wednesday or a Thursday evening, we can have used up our entire stock of 170 such glasses.’

A Wong 70 Wilton Road, London SW1V 1DE; tel +44 (0)20 7828 8931 

Pitt Cue 1 The Avenue, Devonshire Square, London EC2M 4YP; tel +44 (0)20 7324 7770