lIt has always amazed me that chefs who make their living making delicious food generally seem disinterested in what to drink with it. There are exceptions, of course – always have been. Mark Hix, Mitch Tonks and Rowley Leigh immediately come to mind, as does the team at St John – although that’s equally thanks to lavish co-owner Trevor Gulliver, who’s built a range of own-brand wines to suit any small merchant list, like the kitchen itself.
That said, there’s been a bit of a trend lately for chefs to release their own wines, either as an extension of their brand – who doesn’t love a little merch? – or in planting real vineyards, as Michael Caines has done in Devon and Robin Hutson (admittedly a restaurateur rather than a chef) at The Pig in the South Downs. Most are quite mainstream, although the Banks brothers in Yorkshire have made innovative use of cans, and Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein are both longstanding collaborations with Britain’s Chateau Bauduc in Bordeaux. Nuno Mendes, meanwhile, has just launched a range of wines with Portuguese producer Niepoort, and José Pizarro recently gave his name to a truly excellent cava (see today’s pick).
And with many lists now focused on natural wine, it seems crazier wines aren’t banned either. Jöro’s Luke French and his wife Stacey have bottled a Spanish wine they call F*ck 2020 (formerly known as F*ck Boris), which they sell from their new store in Sheffield, as well as online and in the restaurant. It is an exuberant natural wine that, according to French, goes with everything, including a flame-grilled Whopper.
Of course, you’ll pay more for a bottle of these chef-approved wines than for a standard bottle at Aldi or Lidl (more of which next week). For example, Caines’ recently released Trias Pinot Noir, while luxurious and delicious, has £110 on his wine list, but put that in the context of the investment involved in planting his 11-acre vineyard (about a quarter of a million pounds) and the time it takes for a bottle to even come to the table (at least three years for a still wine and five for a sparkling), you can see how they got to that figure.
With the Covid interruption, combined with recent pressures on fuel and food costs, restaurants need all the additional revenue streams they can think of right now, and customers are not unwilling, it seems, to support them. “People always ask us, ‘Where can I buy this wine?’ if they taste our combinations,” says Stacey French, who just opened the couple’s first brick and mortar store in the dining room of Cutlery Works in Sheffield. “A chef’s seal of approval works wonders in retail.”