Bonhams New Bond Street will open a restaurant this autumn with a remarkable wine list. Matthew Wilcox watches Richard Harvey select it
“I am not having any pinot grigio on my list,” says Richard Harvey, Bonhams Head of Wine. It’s ten o’clock in the morning and we are deep inside Bonhams New Bond Street headquarters, in what will be the 2,400-bottle cellar of its new restaurant.
Our simple, but thorough, plan is to taste our way through an assortment of 54 Italian wines. At the end of this talent show, the winners will be invited back for the next round. After a number of further tastings, the end result will be a small, but carefully, curated list. As Harvey explains, “there are some restaurants with wonderful lists that have a huge amount of wine – Rekondo in San Sebastian, or L’Etranger in London – but I feel that bigger isn’t necessarily better. What we want firstly to have is a solid core of best-in-class wines that everyone would expect to see, such as Sancerre, Chablis or Mâcon. And then a second tier of really interesting bottles, perhaps the sort of wine that you would discover only with the help of a good sommelier.”
Many of the Italian wines come from little-known villages and even more obscure grape types. (Nothing so commonplace as pinot grigio.) An expert sommelier is indispensable for this sort of information, although I have shamelessly bluffed my way through the field for years. Fortunately, the Bonhams cellar is being assembled by two Masters of Wine – Harvey and his colleague Anthony Barne, who has just judged 15,000 entries at the Decanter World Wine Awards. They have the help of the restaurant’s manager and crack sommelier, Rebecca Russell, who previously managed the legendary Willi’s wine bar in Paris.
As Harvey says, “Aside from the expertise of the team, the advantage of our restaurant is that, being based in an auction house, it will have access to the thousands of cases of wine pouring through Bonhams every year, allowing the list to constantly evolve and change.”
Since the premises has two enomatic machines – high-tech, temperature-controlled dispensers that keep wines in perfect condition – Bonhams clients and the public will have the chance to sample rare wines, such as Mouton-Rothschild, Romanée-Conti or Screaming Eagle by the glass. Without those machines, drinkers would have to stump up the cost of an entire bottle just to take a single sip of a vintage. “We want people to come because the wine is interesting and fairly priced. Our ambition is that our prices will be more in line with retail than restaurants, especially for the rarer or more valuable wines. A number of producers have offered us allocations of incredibly rare and hard to get hold of wines, so our customers can look forward to some really exciting bottles.”
After one and half hours of tasting, four whites and nine reds out of the 54 entrants are selected to go through to the next round. “When we have finished all the tastings we will look at what the wine list looks like,” says Harvey. “We’ll look at the shape of the list, obvious omissions, and then re-adjust it for balance.” Indeed, the process is rather like blending a wine.
However, discord breaks out over a bottle labeled Timorasso. “I had one of these in an Italian wine bar in South Ken,” says Russell. “The man there told me it was the name of the grape. And he was Italian. So he should know.” Anthony Barne stands his ground. “No, I’m sure it’s the name of the village. You can’t believe everything that men in wine bars tell you.” Sage advice – at least speaking from personal experience.
Matthew Wilcox is Assistant Editor of Bonhams Magazine