“In conversation with Romain Bourger, Advanced Sommelier {UK Sommelier of the Year 2019 AFWS}”

In 1998 Sir Peter Michael opened the doors to the Vineyard. He was determined to bring the booming London dining scene to the Berkshire countryside, an hour away from the capital.

Delicious food was just one aspect of Sir Peter’s vision. Wine was to be at the heart of the venture, not only in the extensive cellar but also with the wine team, who were to be approachable and knowledgeable. Every member of the staff, no matter which department, takes a wine course.

Set amidst an extraordinary art collection, the Vineyard’s mantra of “Eat. Sleep. And drink wine.” has certainly achieved the family’s intention of being a place for people to gather over the dining table, with a world of wine to explore.

However, last March, the hotel and restaurant were required to close. Determined for the staff and guests to return to a safe environment, the Vineyard reopened less than two months later on the fourth of July, greeting guests with a glass of Californian bubbles.

As with circumstance worldwide, the team and family took creative opportunities to reimagine the dining experience with InsideOut, a name that reflects the transition of the grand indoor dining room to a new outdoor pavilion. With a freshly conceived menu and wine list, the restaurant offers guests an elevated food-and-wine experience while dining al fresco.

As restaurants work to establish new concepts, the community of sommeliers is working equally hard to provide hospitality and wine service befitting the evolving menus and dining experiences. The hotel’s advanced sommelier, Romain Bourger, shares some insights into the London dining scene, as well as how the hotel embraced change and an update on the local sommelier community.

What does the fine-dining scene look like in London at the moment?

Quiet, far too quiet. Discussing this in the normal peak summertime, we are now starting to see restaurants in London reopen but with the center still being very limited, due to people working from home and a lack of tourism. Some restaurants on the outskirts that are not quite central have worked well with the support of their local communities. The clientele has changed; the coming together of local communities has been positive to watch.

“Creating InsideOut has been quite a journey. Pete had made it very clear from the day we had to shut the hotel doors that safety was to come first, and that to him meant we had to reopen with “fresh air.”
Emily Michael

How has the pandemic affected the sommelier community in the UK?

In general, the sommelier community in England is quite close and very supportive. There have been more and more webinars happening, as well as tastings from home, which has greatly helped. The sharing of safety protocol, how to approach what’s in your cellar, and even how to present your wine list with today’s technology has been very beneficial.

What do you see happening with the fine-dining scene?

At the moment, this is difficult to predict. Due to the original closure of all hotels and restaurants, with some still not reopening in the big cities, countryside hotels/restaurants have managed well, due to the high level of “staycations.” In July and August, we have seen a spike in guests going away for a couple of days and staying with us. However, I think some restaurants will change their style by bringing a more relaxed approach. What the guest is wanting as a result of total closures is evolving. Somehow the economics need to add up, too.

The InsideOut bohemian pavilion was scheduled to close with the reopening of the indoor restaurant, but due to popularity, it remained open at the time this article was written.

What experience does InsideOut offer guests?

InsideOut is a beautifully decorated, bohemian pavilion that enabled us to safely distance twenty-eight tables in a very cozy atmosphere. We are running a more relaxed menu with individually priced items, along with our 135 bins wine list, so we can offer more choice and flexibility to our guests. These are cherry-picked from our 3,000 referenced Long List to create a fun and friendly selection.

We reduced our traditional offering of one hundred wines by the glass—still offering about fifty though. We are also only using two styles of wine glasses, white and red, to make service more seamless and smooth. The wines are classified by style as opposed to the region to make it easier to navigate, and we showcased some classic wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux . . . and, of course, California. We also have more unusual wines, such as a skin-macerated white wine from Slovenia or a delicious California Valdiguié. Presentation and safety were a challenge—with so many wines to present but with a restricted format, our wine team, at a distance, are having more conversations with guests than ever.

With regard to the food offering, our executive chef, Tom Scade, has put some special categories on the menu, such as the “From the Coast” section where he showcases fresh seafood from Cornwall, which changes daily depending on what is available. Menus today are creatively presented on easels like pieces of art.

All of this allows us to reduce the number of touching points to offer a safe environment for our guests without lowering our quality of service.