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Eunuch propositions

Published:  18 January, 2007

The following matter is so trivial when compared to the pressing problems the globe faces that it will hardly send shock waves through the nation; but it might - and such is my vague hope - cause some of the editors who commission the work to either find more versatile people to do it or instruct their writers to broaden their remit.

The it' I refer to is the reviewing of restaurants.

How many food critics appear to know anything, or care, about wine? If they do, they don't much show it. One glittering, much-lauded reviewer is even a teetotaller. A teetotaller!? You might just as rationally send a eunuch to review a brothel.

Any reviewer worth his or her sel de mer would surely study the wine list of any restaurant before the menu, not afterwards (if they give it any attention at all). I was recently sent, by an energetic PR, details of a restaurant poised deliciously o'er the banks of the Thames at Richmond. A perusal of the wine list, via an e-mail attachment I had to request, instantly identified the place as not being fit to patronise.

With all this in mind, let us look at the treatment The Vineyard at Stockcross has received, vinously, at newspaper reviewers' hands. Easy to lampoon, with its arty opulence, and dependent upon much corporate guesting to survive, this country house hotel near Newbury is nevertheless a richly rewarding place to visit. Just this past month chef John Campbell knocked up for me, in a single meal, lamb sweetbread risotto, salmon with lentils and foie gras, sucking pig terrine (sublime!, and years of research went into it), an Anjou squab with celeriac, Galloway beef with an onion tart and a brule of strawberries with olives. The six wines that accompanied this remarkable dinner were no less complex, but the most toothsome was from the proprietor's vineyard in California. The Vineyard at Stockcross is owned by Peter Michael, who, among other hobbies, has Classic FM. His 2002 La Carrire Chardonnay from the Knights Valley is a nigh-perfect example of the wood-wrought style, and I rated it 19 points out of 20 with that salmon. Listed at 125 on the wine list, it can be acquired retail for 52.27 from James Hocking at

Yet can you find me one newspaper reviewer of this establishment who has done its wine list justice? Terry Durack of the Independent on Sunday did at least mention the Oregon Pinot Noir he drank, but he didn't reveal much more. Of course the Vineyard's nosh is ambitious. Chef Campbell's kitchen is enormous (even running to a chocolate room and massive slow cookers for the meat stocks), but the cellar, over 2,000 specimens strong, contains equally compelling reasons to eat there. I can find no reviewer who pointed out the 1996 Alsace Klevener (33), 1998 Walch Pinot Bianco (25), 1995 Sandalford Verdelho (25), 1989 Loville Las Cases (180), Clos Vougeot Ren Engel (98), 1996 Morey St Denis Dujac (140 for a magnum), 1988 Richebourg Jean Gros (180), 1986 Barbaresco Sori San Lorenzo Gaja (240) or the 1996 Goldwater Waiheke Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot (67). The 1982 Chteau Ptrus (8,515 for the jeroboam, a mere touch more than its international auction valuation) no reviewer saw fit to point out either. All that newspaper reviewers have managed, wine-wise, is this: Even if the wine list was not among the best in the country and was merely a standard compendium, the Vineyard would be worth patronising for its cooking,' Jonathan Meades, The Times; an impossibly hedonistic restaurant (eight courses, 350 wines on the list),' Andrew Purvis, The Observer Life; as well as a large international list there's the most comprehensive and interesting range of American wines to be found in Britain,' Charles Campion, Evening Standard; The wine list is the size of a phone directory,' Max Davidson, Daily Mail; The menus and wine list arrived less quickly,' Matthew Fort, The Guardian Weekend.

I assume motoring correspondents do drive the vehicles they review. Is it too much to ask that restaurant critics apply the same level of attention to the restaurants they eat in? Wine is not water. A diner's bill is not just taken up by the cost of the food but more than burdened by the contribution the wine has made (plus service charge on top of the VAT automatically included). It is a reviewer's duty to pay equal attention to the wine as s(he) does the food. In a good restaurant the wine list must be reviewed.

One last reviewer, the most wineless, the most witless, is also worth quoting: the cost of my two-night stay at the Vineyard was 1,300 for bed, breakfast and tea. I was perfectly happy. Make of that what you will.'

I suspect most people, my dear Michael Winner, will know exactly what to make of that.