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The Gospel According to St John

Published:  01 September, 2009

Anyone who is anyone in the drinks or restaurant trade has been influenced by St John. But, as Terry Gulliver tells Gavin Haynes, wine is as much of a passion as food is for him and his co-founder Fergus Henderson, the men behind HG Wines.

Anyone who is anyone in the drinks or restaurant trade has been influenced by St John. But, as Terry Gulliver tells Gavin Haynes, wine is as much of a passion as food is for him and his co-founder Fergus Henderson, the men behind HG Wines.

The bar at St John is bright white and heavily sky-lit - a blaze of sunshine funnels down upon us into this box of cheery minimalism and no-nonsense cosiness. Sat round a far-corner table are Neil Irvine, the dapper, considered head of wine, and co-owner Trevor Gulliver, a flash of silver hair above the rim of his clear Perspex specs, glasses framing preternaturally canny eyes that suck data from the room and deliver it back via the mouth in a stream of wry, acerbic monologues.

St John has been a fixture of London's restaurant scene since opening its doors in October 1994 and is a particular favourite with the denizens of London's art and cultural scenes, who are lured through the doors by head chef Fergus Henderson's hard-boiled, "nose-to-tail" cooking.

What is perhaps less known, however, is that the team behind St John also have their own wine business - a venture born of frustration that they didn't have the same control over the wines they bought as they did over their food.
Gulliver explains: "I always make a point of tasting the low-end stuff. It's easy to knock out quality at a higher price - often it's just a question of how much margin you want to add to it. Anyway, I once tasted one and it was awful. But we were still boshing it out, just like everyone else."

And so rather than replace one line, Gulliver decided to build an all-French wine merchant to satiate his thirst for quality. Beginning by knocking on doors and getting lost, wet and tired as he travelled thousands of miles to find the right wines, the business - HG Wines - has nine years later become a neat, £1 million-a-year "sideline" to the restaurants.

It's not quite as eccentric as it sounds. The St John's philosophy is built on this sort of notion - the idea of growing the business organically and becoming master of your own terrain. It's the same strain of reasoning that has led them to use flour from wind-turned mills in their in-house bakery. As Gulliver puts it somewhat colourfully: "You don't know anything about animal husbandry until you've stuck your hand up a cow's arse."
In this instance, the cow's arse was France and the aim was to build up an interesting, offbeat wine list that they knew inside out - one that meant they could look at the bottle and picture the farm dog racing up the path towards them.

Allez les bleus
But why France alone? "The French are our neighbours," says Gulliver. "That proximity allows us to get to people over there, to put in the man hours, to make it happen. It's not easy. It takes a lot of time. But it allows us to develop real knowledge. If you went to a restaurant that had an international menu, you'd think twice about it, wouldn't you? If you think about it, an international wine list is trying to achieve the impossible - often, under the entries there's only one wine from each nation."

Twice a year, Gulliver, Irvine, a few staff and a handful of close customers troop out to the regions and engage and expand their curious harvest of winemakers. The favour is later returned: every November, they host a dinner for the same growers at St John, with up to 40 making the pilgrimage. It's called the Collective - an honorarium for what Gulliver describes as their "crazy extended family".

"We've got sort of kindred spirits out there," Irvine interjects. "Haphazardly, we've stumbled across growers who share a certain kind of madness, a certain kind of blinkered devotion to their work."

"Because they love what we do. I think that's what we forget," adds Gulliver. "We're often as much a shop window for them."

Combing the ground so minutely has thrown up a range of treasures. "As you travel round France, and go to these outlying villages, some people show you the most exceptional things," says Irvine. "There's one dessert wine, a late-harvest Chardonnay we found from a guy down in Provence that he doesn't sell outside his village, except to us.
"There was one producer in Rousillon who left his grapes on the vine for too long one season. So he called up his brother, who was a big important winemaker, and he gave him some advice. And he bashed out a very nice dessert wine - we took 87 bottles, our smallest-ever order as that's all he had!"

Naturally, there's also a lot of legwork in between these highs, not all of it wine and roses -"You can have an infinity of prosaic days in Beaujolais," Gulliver deadpans - but there remains the opportunity to peer right up against the coalface of French agro-life.

"We go down to the house, the grower invites everyone from the surrounding farms. They all bring their wines and we talk about politics and films. It's better than one of those shows on the telly with Monty."

Ultimately, they walk away with a list of growers they can trust, who offer solid, consistent prices, and whose stories they know inside out. "We do a lot of training, almost every day," says Irvine. "The technical side is quite dry. What tends to stay with the serving staff, and then with the customers they pass the information on to, are the narratives we can build about the vineyard and about the wines. "

Everyone's equal
The fact they don't have sommeliers acting as gatekeepers to their cellar is instructive - HG and St John are both very non-hierarchical. Ask Irvine what his title is, and he'll ponder the question like it's never crossed his mind, and mutter something about it being "probably head of wine". It means there's a real bond between customer and staff here - a sense in which their regulars have come to trust and depend upon them. In part, this has allowed HG to enter tertiary phases of its growth - extending to cellar management and off-sales, and to actively supplying other restaurants. Gulliver says there is no over-arching five-year plan, however. "Cellar management we've developed more as a service than a profit sector - we feel an obligation to pass our knowledge on to our customers," he says. "They realise that with us there'll be no sneaky prices round the back."

"With the off-sales, a lot of people will eat here on a Friday, enjoy the wine, and then we'll ask whether they want a bottle of it to take home for the weekend. So we wrap it up and charge them shop price," says Irvine.
Gulliver was advised against that tack by fellow restaurateurs. "A few colleagues said you couldn't do that - it shows margins. Well, I just don't have a problem with that."

In fact, in 2003 he even opened a second restaurant themed around just that ideal, actively emphasising off-sales. "Bread and Wine - themed around the idea that you buy your bread on the way home, so why not a bottle of wine too?" Not that HG is so smug as to operate a closed shop. "We're not so arrogant that if we didn't have a good bottle of Chablis or suchlike we wouldn't stock it. We'd go to another merchant. We're not tyrants to our own taste."
Nor are they above investigating organic production. Results, though, do vary. "We went to the French organic trade fair in January for two days," Irvine says. "And by the end we wanted to kill ourselves."

"But then we went up to some of our biodynamic producers in the hills and it was wonderful," says Gulliver. "If you're a good winemaker you'll make good wines. The trouble is that organic has, in a lot of instances, become merely a marketing tool. I think the best argument for it is that they're saving a lot of the old vineyards, preserving a way of life. There's a lot of unemployment in the regions right now. I think next year the quality of the vintage will be the least of their worries."

There is, he considers, a necessity to work with producers in the fullest sense - wherever possible, to help ease them through the hard times. "If the guy at Oddbins moves on and suddenly they lose the order for their four barrels, well, for some growers, those four barrels are the most expensive thing they've got all year. So we have to try, where possible, to take up the slack sometimes."

It's an all-in relationship, but that's to be expected. "We're not shopkeepers from East Grinstead who thought it'd be a good idea to open a wine shop. We are steeped, immersed in the industry. What we've got here are two principals who won't shoot the philosophy. We do exasperate people sometimes." Irvine shoots Gulliver a wry look, "But when you're in the field doing stuff, the staff always know what the St John way of doing it is."

As a chef walks by with a pig - the emblem of their brand - draped whole over his shoulder, Gulliver brings his musings on taking a long-term approach to summation. "Basically," he pronounces, "we still know the great-great grandparents of the beasts we eat, because we ate them too."

HG Wines Facts
Founded: 1999
Wine list: exclusively French
Clients: initially private clients and the two St John restaurants in London. Expanded into off-sales from both sites and now sells to the on-trade. Also deals in en primeur
Philosophy: "To seek out like-minded vignerons, quite often working on marginal properties, quite often a little mad but nearly always evangelical."
Sample wines: St John Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah Vin de Pays d'Oc 2006 (rrp £6.50); Cuvée Juliette Robinot Jasnières 2004 (£42.75)