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The Interview: John Hoskins MW

Published:  23 July, 2008

How did you come to own a hotel and three pubs?
It was a family business, which I joined after university. I had no intention of going into the trade, but my uncle asked me to help out because he had a ropy old list full of spelling mistakes and bad wine. That's all gone now, although we're different from, say, the Hotel du Vin, where a sommelier chooses each list at every place. I've always been scared of the person with grapes on the lapel, and I think customers are as well. Because our lists are full of comments and laid out by style, it's amazing how little we get asked for advice.

Perhaps it might be better if you were put on the spot more.

Possibly, but people are happy to make their own choices if the wine list has enough information. The problem with lists that are laid out in the classic way - by country or region - is that most people don't know what a white Rhne tastes like. Whereas, if I said to you, This is a crisp dry wine', then you are, without question, thinking more Italian white or Sauvignon Blanc than you are Chardonnay or Gewrztraminer.

In London there's snobbery about wine lists arranged by style. It's thought of as a bit naff and not very smart - too American, perhaps.

But a sommelier can bring a bond with the customer - and more money.

That's what puts me off the most, in fact: when you have the impression that the sommelier wants you to spend more than you can afford. And I can't stand the way, especially in France, you order the food and say, I'll have 24,' and they say, The sommelier will be over in a minute,' and then there's this tragic delay while the sommelier doesn't come over because he's busy chatting up a table in the corner. Finally he arrives, and you ask, Can I have a bottle of 24?' And then you have to go through the bit about, Well, actually, I recommend 29 because it's better,' and you say, No, actually, it's 24 that I want.' Then he's the only one who's allowed to open and pour the wine - and he's annoyed. Our staff do a bit of everything, so at any one time there are three to four people opening the wine.

You're renowned for your list here at the Old Bridge, nonetheless.

Well, we're in the country, and there aren't that many people who take wine seriously out here. I was pretty clueless when I started, but you learn fast if you're bothered. Wine is obviously interesting to anyone with a mouth and a brain. I was quite academic, so it wasn't difficult sitting the exams.

Did you find the MW exams fairly straightforward?

No, becoming a Master of Wine is hard, but one of the reasons not many people pass is because you've got to be able to use English in a vaguely intellectual manner, which comes easier to those who have studied a bit, and it's amazing how many people in the wine trade haven't. I'm now an MW examiner, so I set one of the exams and mark it every year. People struggle to communicate or organise their thoughts. They've often tasted quite well but can't express it.

Was the MW exam good preparation for building a wine list?

As a buyer it's easy now, because there's so much good wine out there. When I started there were a few - like Griersons, Grants of St James's, Hallgarten and H Parrot - distributing Veuve Clicquot. Some specialists were beginning to emerge, like Tony Keys' Victor & Ross. But it seems to be going the other way now, after years of seeing ever more specialists, and we could end up with a few big companies dominating again. Restaurants are such bad payers that only the big people can cope. Most are well funded, but they seem to think they can get away with paying late. It's obviously a cash-flow issue, but in the end if you're going to sell your business you have to cover that debt at some point. It's a bad tradition in the restaurant industry.

Listing Coche-Dury 1990 Meursault 1er Cru Perrires at 195 can't help - when Berry Bros have sold it at 650.

I bought this from Lay & Wheeler after going to visit Coche in 1993, so I paid around 40. Even 195 is a stupid amount for a bottle of wine. Only rich people can afford to pay such a price, and one of the sad things about fine wine is that the top stuff is only drunk by people with tons of money. Although there is plenty in the Exceptional and Rare' list that I'm really proud of, it's irrelevant to what I'm doing most of the time, which is making sure that the wines up to 40 are really spot-on examples of their type.

The Old Bridge Hotel, 1 High Street, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE29 3TQ, Tel: 01480 424 300

In the 1980s, John Hoskins MW started work at the family business that included The Old George Hotel; he went on to buy three pubs plus the hotel from the company in 1994, with the help of a loan. He became an MW in the same year. The company he formed, Huntsbridge, owns The Old George, formerly run by Trusthouse Forte and, before that, a bank; as well as The Falcon, near Peterborough; The Pheasant, near Huntingdon; and The Three Horseshoes, in Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

Hoskins is supplied by, among others, Liberty, Noel Young, Morris & Verdin, Amps Fine Wines (based in Arundel), Lay & Wheeler, Justerini & Brooks, Farr Vintners, Christie's and Richards Walford.