Sir Peter Michael was one of the first to challenge one of the few maxims common to both the wine and restaurant worlds, that to make a small fortune in either it was necessary to start with a large one, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Initially successful in IT and then commercial radio, Sir Peter established a hugely successful eponymous winery on the border of Sonoma and the Napa Valley and in the UK has invested heavily in The Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire and the nearby Donnington Park complex. Then, perhaps most masochistically of all, he set up a wine company, also called The Vineyard, selling top, and therefore expensive but often unfamiliar to British wine lovers, California wines in the UK.
Having admired his wines for some time, we decided to head out to The Vineyard for dinner one sunny summers evening to see whether all these now essential ingredients a wealthy backer of taste, fine wines, a highly regarded chef and what should be a lovely location added up to more than the sum of its expensive parts. Sadly, they did not, although in one particular half bottle of his wine we did discover sufficient pleasure to vindicate Sir Peters vision if not the bill.
While The Vineyard boasts an enviable location, the front of the hotel is not that appealing a place for an aperitif. Cars zoom along the road outside and the gardens havent grown sufficiently even in the five years since our last visit to hide the modern, rather unattractive architecture of the hotel. But as I sat there one thought kept bothering me why with such solid financial backing is the hotel still using umbrellas that have obviously been donated by their champagne supplier?
Ordering our aperitifs revealed the first of a series of small professional mistakes that were to dog our evening. Although the wine lists (divided into Californian and International but soon to be amalgamated by the hotels new, enthusiastic Portuguese sommelier Joao Pires) are vast, the range of wines by the glass is not. And the profusion of heavier California varietals at the expense of a crisp, fresh aperitif wines is not user-friendly. Nor was my simple request for a glass of mineral water without ice or lemon fulfilled correctly. An over-sweet amuse bouche and a dessert served without a teaspoon small enough for the caramel foam in a glass were other small quibbles.
Pires soon had to show his diplomatic skills as our initial wine orders could not be fulfilled. We wanted to drink two halves of Sir Peters wines but the right Chardonnay proved elusive: the 2001 was out of stock; the 2000 we were advised was too old; and the 2002 too heavy and alcoholic. The half we were steered to, Patz & Hall 2002 chardonnay, proved to be no better than ordinary but the half of Peter Michael 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Les Pavots was quite sensational, although at £55 and £95 respectively a half, both are expensive.
The Vineyards culinary reputation rests on the shoulders and outlook of John Campbell who adopts a disciplined, scientific approach to cooking that I was particularly looking forward to. But again, sadly, we were to be disappointed.
Partly, this is a communication problem. Campbell is of a school of chefs who like to keep their menu descriptors to an intriguing minimum so none of his dishes appear on the menu to contain more than three or four tersely described ingredients and techniques. First courses read as risotto pea, lamb sweetbreads, assam foam and Anjou squab roasted, treacle, celeriac while main courses are the likes of John Dory roasted, confit pork belly, garlic soubise, jerez sauce and slow cooked beef, tatin of onion, horseradish emulsion.
That would be admirable if that was what precisely appeared on the plate but this was not the case with the dishes we ordered. The beef, while of the high quality one would expect, contained at least eight other ingredients while the John Dory was merely one of seven. Not only is this far too many to do anything other than confuse the palate but it also proved to be uneconomical with the truth. The potato mash with the beef was actually smoked potato puree, a significant change in flavour not conveyed by either the menu or the otherwise efficient maitresse d, while the John Dory appeared with three completely unspecified slices of pink grapefruit, an ingredient I am only really prepared to see on the breakfast table and then not too often.
I had by then begun to suspect what was subsequently confirmed: that Campbell was not in the kitchen but on holiday, an impression I was able to form because the dishes were coming out of the kitchen just too quickly. While obviously a much better option than waiting too long, this situation often arises when the most experienced chef is not at the helm pacing the delivery of the dishes. But here, where wine places such an important part, it did mean that there was not enough time to savour what was the hotels original distinction.
Sir Peters vision and determination to strive for the highest are admirable. But in trying to unite a predominantly California wine list with an unorthodox British chef in a restaurant that looks and feels dated and all this under a strongly hierarchical, French front of house team there is at the moment too much confusion and simply not enough to savour.
The Vineyard, 01635-528770, www.the-vineyard.co.uk
Three course dinner £60