I am not a sommelier…By James Banks

28.11.16 | Cocktails and Drinks

“I am not a sommelier” is a phrase that I have often found myself repeating to guests in our restaurant.

Surely I am not the only person who feels uncomfortable sitting in a dining room listening to the sommelier’s snobbery? I find myself worrying about my wife’s boredom whilst I struggle through a huge pretentious wine book that doesn’t even fit on the table, hoping that it won’t be awkward when I explain that I can’t afford the pricey bottle that is inevitably going to be recommended. Isn’t this whole thing supposed to be an enjoyable fun experience??

So… we decided that we wanted to radically change our wine offering, making it accessible to everyone, whilst still being interesting for wine enthusiasts.

But, in a restaurant where we grow the majority of our own ingredients and have become well-known for using produce unique to this precise location, how can this ethos be mirrored in a wine list? Unfortunately there are no vineyards in Oldstead (yet…), so we had to broaden our sights and are really pleased to have found some really brilliant English wines. We also sought out producers from all over the world with values similar to our own, working sympathetically with their surroundings to produce wines with a sense of identity.

One of the first changes that we made was to reduce the number of wines we stock by half – we still have around 100 wines available, but who really needs an option from every single Chateau on the left bank of the river Gironde in Bordeaux??

Complaints are often made about the lack of decent options by the glass – so with the help of a fancy little gadget called a Coravin, we decided to make every bottle available by the glass. White and red, from entry level to very premium – there aren’t many places that offer this!

How to format the list was the biggest decision… we wanted to do something a bit different and unique, we wanted people to be interested and hopefully make them smile!

By presenting the list in price order it should be easy for guests to easily identify options suitable for their budget. But a list in order of price doesn’t give any indication of what the wine will actually taste like…. which is pretty important for a list that generally avoids the mainstream, championing winemakers from lesser known regions, producing wines from forgotten or unusual grape varieties.

We have some amazing people with great wine knowledge working here – all of us are very keen to have a chat and help with the whole wine choosing process, but we are also very aware that we shouldn’t impose the dreaded Sommelier experience on guests who don’t want it! So we set to work devising a way of communicating the various different styles and flavours on paper so that guests can have the enjoyment of making their own choices.

After many ideas we settled on a quirky map design. Given the geographical importance we place on the growing/sourcing the food for our menu it made perfect sense.

With help from our friend Richard Kelley, we devised a system for plotting each wine onto the ‘flavour map’.

TB found some amazing 100 year old boundary maps in his attic detailing the fields around Oldstead and our family farm Oldstead Grange as well as Byland Abbey. You can see the originals on the wall in our dining room.

And in the hands of our resident artistic person, Alan, the idea was transformed into an Ordinance Survey-type folding-out affair; even printed on plastic paper just like the real thing.

As I said, I am not a sommelier… I just like drinking wine and hope that you will too!