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The Interview: Nigel Franks, Proprietor, Darroch Learg Hotel & Restaurant

Published:  23 July, 2008

Was it a bit of a shock swapping life as an accountant in Edinburgh for that of an hotelier in Aberdeenshire?
Oddly enough it was, which surprised me because I had watched my parents doing it for 27 years and arrogantly thought that it wouldn't be that difficult. It's surprising how difficult, and how tiring, it is.

What sparked your interest in wine?

We lived quite near to Peter Green & Co in Edinburgh and I used to buy the odd bottle or two from there. It was a fun place to go into - a real browsing shop. I always had the feeling that there was a great bargain to be discovered. And no matter how much money I had in my pocket they were always happy to blether about wine. When we moved up here, we asked them to put together our first wine list.

Did you get all your wines from Peter Green & Co?

Yes. For the first ten years I kept my old job on a part-time basis, which meant that I was in Edinburgh once a week and it was relatively easy to pick up wine. That worked well, but after ten years I wasn't going down nearly as much so I took on other suppliers and got the wines delivered.

How much has the wine list changed since you took over the hotel?

In the early days the list very much reflected the market. We were a Scottish holiday hotel and people used to come and stay for two or three weeks at a time. A lot of customers were already in their 80s or even 90s. It became clear to me quite quickly that there wasn't a great future in that market! They tended to have one glass of wine on the first night and a second glass on the last night and drink water in between. Our best selling red was Mouton Cadet and our best selling white was Piesporter. The entire list was only about 25 wines or so.

Which regions are your customers most interested in now?

It's fairly traditional: French wines go well, particularly from Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhne. It's very hard to sell southern French wines though. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is popular, as are Chilean wines. Italy is a little slow, unfortunately. I also think we should sell more Australian wine - we don't sell much for some reason.

How soon did you starting working on the list?

We changed the entire list as soon as we took over. For the first few years it wasn't very long but it was nicely balanced. For the last ten years it has been much the same as it is now, although it has grown a bit. Now we are almost trying to take it back the other way now and reduce it slightly. Because of our policy of marking up by a fixed amount rather than a percentage, customers are better off drinking a slightly better wine, so we'll probably drop some of the quaffing stuff.

When did you introduce the flat cash mark up?

That was well over ten years ago. I was quite embarrassed by how much one could charge for a decent wine if it was done on a straight percentage. Now if someone wants to drink an inexpensive wine then this is probably not the place to do it, but if someone wants to drink a decent wine then it's great. I have even been hugged by a chap from Switzerland who had almost drunk us out of Nuits-St-Georges.

Has it changed the type of wines people choose?

Yes, it took a while but people did start ordering better-quality wines. We now sell more Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet than Bourgogne Blanc.

Any complaints?

One or two did comment that there was nothing cheap on the list but people are becoming more knowledgeable about wines so the reaction was more positive than negative because they could see quickly that they could drink nicer wines.

Your list starts with a section named Brief Encounters'. What's that all about?

It's a little list of the more interesting wines, for a bit of fun. For example, we've got a white Nuits-St-Georges, which is made from a mutated form of Pinot Noir and an aged Barbera from Angelo Gaja.

How many of your customers show an interest in that section?

Perhaps not as many as I would like, but lots of people do have a good read of the list and if they are doing that then they will often try those wines.

How did you feel about Neville Blech ranking your list Scotland's best (in his book The Top 100 UK Wine Lists)?

I was pretty happy! But it did make me laugh because Neville was very specific about individual wines on our list and we have a habit of running out because we don't carry a lot of stock. He was raving about our 1998 Vieux Tlgraphe but, by the time the book came out, we didn't have any left. Perhaps I've got to take that side of things a bit more seriously.

Darroch Learg Hotel & Restaurant, Braemar Road, Ballater

Aberdeenshire, AB35 5UX, Tel: 013397 55443,

Former chartered accountant Nigel Franks and his wife Fiona took over Darroch Learg from his parents in 1989, transforming the two-star holiday hotel with a simple 25-bin wine list into a luxury highland retreat with three AA rosettes and a kitchen run by Scottish Hotel Chef of the Year 2005 David Mutter. Franks' wine list was recently ranked best in Scotland by Neville Blech in his book The Top 100 UK Restaurant Wine Lists.

Suppliers: Corney & Barrow, Justerini & Brooks, Reid Wines, Forth Wines, Inverarity Vaults, Cheviot UK Wine Agencies, Wine Importers of Edinburgh, Cockburns of Leith.