The owner of Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest and co-founder of Hotel du Vin discusses wine, cheffing and his conversion into a true Brit.
You can tell very quickly when a restaurant lets a wine merchant create their list. I understand it’s easier for them if they don’t know about wine, but for the customer it is very limiting. And the restaurant misses opportunities too.
I grew up near St Etienne. It’s not a wine area itself and we generally drunk cheap wine at home. I was delivering TVs and washing machines before I came to live in England. My first job here was as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man.
We don’t do any silly discounting – like a £10 lunch – because we don’t want to be busy fools. You can find yourself employing more staff to cope, but you make no profit.
Later I went back to France to train as a chef. I wasn’t very good, but I did qualify and worked in some good places. I didn’t like the atmosphere in those kitchens: at that time it was very much 15 hours of being shouted at. I didn’t understand why it had to be like that.
One thing that drives me mad is wine in an ice bucket three metres from the table. The waiter is often too busy to refill your glass when you need it, but you can’t go and get it yourself without seeming impertinent. Sometimes it’s just about common sense.
We are not the sort of place for first-growth Bordeaux, we are about serving good wine at a reasonable price and helping people discover new wines.
When you are a sommelier, you are very specialised. Your focus is the wine and you don’t worry about anything else. As a hotelier, I had to unblock the bathroom. It was a shock, but you have to adjust quickly.
Before Hotel du Vin, people didn’t really like to eat in hotels so much. But there we had people coming in just to eat, and people staying there because of the food and wine.
Being crowned World’s Best Sommelier [in 2010] was an unbelievable experience. I had five attempts and had come second three times, so I thought it would never happen. It was wonderful for my family too, as my wife and son were with me on stage with the Union Flag on our shoulders.
When we opened Hotel du Vin in Winchester in 1994 the Rosemary West case was taking place just up the road. It brought a lot of media to the city for three months – and that kept us full during the week. It also helped us get a lot of press as we were quite a new concept: high quality but without pretentiousness.
New Zealand is a very exciting wine country. Aside from the Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, there are some very good Syrahs and Viogniers too – and lots of new producers beyond Marlborough.
At Hotel TerraVina, we wanted a modern interpretation of a mid-market boutique hotel. Hotel du Vin had a very French style, here we created a more Californian feel with an open kitchen.
We had Mr Blair and Mr Brown telling us for 10 years that the time of boom and bust had finished. I think we believed it – that the economy was solved forever! But the year after we opened in 2007 the recession hit; we didn’t expect it, but we certainly felt it.
Xavier Rousset [co-owner of Texture and 28-50] is a great example of a relatively young man who has been intelligent, innovative and successful. He is from the same town as me and wrote to ask for a job at Hotel du Vin. He worked with us there before going on to Le Manoir.
I left school at 16 without many qualifications. But doing my Master of Wine exams taught me to write essays; doing an MBA taught me about finance. So gradually I’ve acquired lots of skills.
My ultimate meal would probably be a cassoulet with a red Burgundy. But I also love Madeira – and simple, fresh, grilled plaice.
I feel very British now. When I first arrived in the UK I thought you were crazy with your Queen and all that, but now I’ve changed completely and I’m very much a monarchist.
We are working on some new projects. We should have something happening within the next six months. Watch this space.