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The Interview - Joo Pires, Head sommelier and fine dining manager, The Vineyard at Stockcross

Published:  23 July, 2008

Why did you become a sommelier?

I actually studied hotel management at university. I began my career as a bartender and was subsequently invited to open a bar in Lisbon. However, it was at the Hotel Crillon in Paris in 1996 that I really learnt so much about wine, and started to enter the sommelier competitions.

It's a welcome coincidence that you share the name of a wine brand, and the second name of the varietal, Ferno Pires.

Yes! And as it happens my family does have an interest in wine. My grandfather used to produce wine in the Douro, close to the Spanish border. I used to help him when I was very little. My grandmother was from Alsace. However, my father was in the army, so I was born in Mozambique, and I spent my childhood years between Mozambique, Portugal and Angola.

Are you introducing any Portuguese wines to the list?

Yes. However, most of our guests are not familiar with Portuguese wines, so I have started with just 11 reds and one white (Esporo Reserva). There are eight from the Douro, including Chryseia and Quinto do Crasto wines; and three from the Alentejo, from Esporo and Cortes de Cima. I've had them on the list for a month and they've been very successful.

What changes have you made since you arrived at The Vineyard?

Apart from gradually increasing the range of wines, a key one has been the actual wine list. We used to have two large-format books, but I noticed that people were overwhelmed by them. Now we have just one. However, the question is, how do you make 1,700 bins easy to follow? I have had to work hard to make it clear and logical. I know that our customers like to look for wines by variety. So I have divided California into regions, then by colour and then by variety. The list opens with a page of my Sommelier Recommendations. These change every month and I aim to give contrasting styles and prices. It's proving very effective. For example, our two recommended whites are currently 2000 Peter Michael Mon Plaisir Chardonnay, Sonoma County (115), and 2004 Terrazas Reserva Chardonnay, Mendoza (40); and our two dessert wines are 2001 Babcock Gewurztraminer, Santa Barbara (7/7cl glass) and 2002 Molino Real Muscat, Malaga (9.50/7cl glass). This page gives diners an opportunity to try something new. This is particularly true of the dessert wines, because at the moment most people usually choose a French wine, especially Sauternes.

What are your plans for the list?

Our existing strength is California, of course, plus France and Italy; we are 40% New World. However, as well as Portuguese wines, I am also keen to find some cheaper wines. These are especially important for family lunches and for weddings, which are very popular (couples can hire out the 49-room hotel for a weekend). I have created two pages of wines priced from 1220, divided into New World and Old World sections. I am currently also looking at wines from Toro, Bulgaria and Southern France.

How many wines do you have by the glass?

At present, 16, though my goal is to have 25. When I arrived there were only two; now we have six white, four red, two sparkling, two dessert and two ros.

How do you organise the cellar?

We have 1,700 bins, 20,000 bottles, and a stock value of around 600,000. We actually have three cellars, one on the third floor for red wines, Champagnes, dessert wines and magnums; one in the basement, for white wines; plus a smaller collection by the restaurant, for easy access. Twice a day we go 'shopping', running up and down stairs to move sufficient wines to the restaurant cellar for the next meal. It keeps us fit!

How many staff do you have?

I have seven sommeliers, in addition to the 17 or 18 chefs, and 15 to 20 waiters, for 60 covers, plus 40 private dining. I am very committed to training. In the third floor cellar we have a small room where I can run tastings. Suppliers also do tastings for us here.

What do you recommend with my bruled strawberries with caramelized black olives and jelly?

I would recommend Graham's 40-year-old tawny. Delicious!

The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire, RG20 8JU

Tel: 01635 528 770

In December 2004, Joo Pires was appointed wine director at The Vineyard at Stockcross, Sir Peter Michael's luxury hotel where John Campbell is chef. He came from Lisbon's Ritz Four Seasons Hotel, where he moved up from sommelier to head sommelier and fine dining manager. He has also worked in France, Canada and China. In 2004, he was named Sommelier of the Year by the Portuguese Gastronomy Academy and International Sommelier of the Year by its international body in Paris.

Key suppliers: Corney & Barrow, Enotria, Hallgarten, HBJ, Lay & Wheeler, Ruinart, The Vineyard Cellars.

During the first week of August the hotel is running a gastronomic week, with guest chefs Heston Blumenthal, Philip Howard, Nigel Haworth and Alain Roux. Plasma screens in the dining room will enable diners to watch the chefs at work. Dinner will cost 120, including Champagne and wines.