The Vineyard Hotel’s marking its 20th birthday this June with a glittering line-up of wine events, guest chefs and bacchanalian feasting. Lydia Manch visits the Michelin-starred wine hotel for a crash course in their greatest hits, and why this is an occasion worth celebrating…
The garden our suite overlooks is dark green, wet with the spitting rain. Raindrops trickle down the Grecian statue buttocks tilted towards our window, slide along the curves of the double magnum bottle, standing on the pedestal at the hotel’s entrance.
Temptation to stick at the hotel’s strong, not least because there’s a staggering array of wines and a five-star spa inside and some extremely British April weather happening outside. But we’ve carried wellies all the way from London, so this is happening – though soggily and with as much time spent nursing an ale in a romantic alcove of The Red House as actually squelching across fields.
There’s maybe a sense, as well, that we have to earn this dinner. Not earn the calories; we’ve seen a sample menu, that’s a doomed endeavour. Just… prepare ourselves, somehow, be in a cleansed state of mind. Have all the London wind-swept out of us, and be ready for Paris.
The Judgement of Paris, specifically, one of The Vineyard’s permanent offerings. 2018’s brought the hotel’s 20th birthday, and a host of celebrating with it – special occasional menus, guest chef gigs and wine tasting upon wine tasting. But they’re still playing their greatest hits, and the Judgement of Paris is surely that: an homage to the 1976 dinner in France that inspired the hotel’s founding.
The original dinner’s commemorated in a long fresco, hung across one wall of the hotel’s reception areas. Eleven wine industry experts, along with press, sit in a Last Supper-esque arrangement, glasses from their blind taste testing of French vs Californian wines strewn across the table. They’re, unknowingly, minutes away from declaring Californian wines the outright winner, in a move that shook loose a lot of the wine industry’s ingrained snobbery about New World bottles. In the corner of the painting, with some hefty artistic licence, stands Sir Peter Michael, The Vineyard’s founder – the hotel and his California vineyards still just a gleam in his eye.
And in a glorious, crowd-pleasing tribute, The Vineyard’s created a seven-course tasting menu named in honour of that evening, with a wine matching of epic scale. Each course pits a French wine against a Californian, and after every dish the wines are revealed, to cartoonish surprise from diners.
The food itself… the food brings to mind a writer we know of who came for a weekend visit to the Vineyard while pregnant. Could we do it? Could we come spend long, opulent evenings among all of this wine and not drink? Emily and I have given it some serious thought on the journey from London, and have come to a firm Maybe? Probably? If we had to.
That Maybe’s been edging nearer to a Yes all evening – just slowly inching there after seeing the suite and the spa massage menu and the statue-scattered greenness of the gardens – but dinner tips it into Hell Yes territory. Courses are gorgeously lavish things, big, generous flavours strapped into precise architecture. It might be nothing beats some of the earlier courses – the wasabi ice-cream with caviar, or the shellfish ravioli with grapefruit – but balsamic lamb and cauliflower cod aren’t far off in bright, punchy richness.
For the purposes of secrecy, The Arb won’t reveal the line-up of our wines. We realise that risks courting suspicion – Great Secrecy is often proxy for Can’t Remember, Please Don’t Ask Me. Made extra suspicious here from the sheer number of wine glasses stacking up around us. But these particular wines, we remember. Honest. Partly thanks to the wines themselves, most memorably good, some memorably surprising – a good handful of them both.
And partly thanks to the theatre of it all, the flourish of mystery and scattering of hints the sommelier delivers with each new pair of glasses, the obsidian-black glasses of the blind taste test wines. And because we receive little cards after every course with each glass with all the details, to stack up in a French vs Californian pile throughout the dinner.
The tasting itself adds momentum to the evening, an un-solemn procession of glasses and guessing and reveals. Depending on your temperament, that might come with a frisson of competition or the camaraderie of a joint challenge. Ours, extremely the latter; Emily buoys me along in her wake, generously pretending her guesses were a team effort.
We fling around adjectives with more enthusiasm than skill, not all of them entirely legit – petrichorish, ammoniac, sooty – grateful for the way our sommelier stays staunchly encouraging throughout, as we trample across the vocab of her profession like puppies at a picnic. She comes back regularly to pad out our knowledge/wild stabs in the dark with more tangible stuff on provenance and terroir, difficult vines and pliable ones.
Emily’s enchanted. Of course she is, this is her language they’re speaking. She and our sommelier get poetic about vintages and varietals.
More surprising: I’m enchanted too. As a general rule, more interested in drinking wine than talking about it, and with only the faintest skim of an understanding about most of the wine knowledge being delivered, I’m still caught up in the ceremony of it all – the languorous parade of wines and the clear, unjargony descriptions, and the let-it-speak-directly-to-your-tongue approach to wine.
But maybe it’s not surprising, that inclusivity. It’s at the heart of the Judgement of Paris narrative, the idea that the measure of good wine is the enjoyment it delivers, not the pedigree it comes with. And – though the hotel’s two decades old this year – there’s still enough jargon and snobbery, reverence and ceremony out there in the industry – that The Vineyard’s take on what makes for a good wine experience feels thoroughly modern.
Happy 20th birthday, The Vineyard. You’ve aged well.
The Vineyard Hotel’s 20th birthday celebrations reach their height this summer, with the Back to the Vine series of dinners. The hotel’s headline event for this year features a week of guest chefs, all of whom worked at the Vineyard earlier in its history, and every night will feature a menu designed by a different chef. The Back to the Vine dinner events will run from 25 June to 1 July.
The Judgment of Paris dinners are available every evening, with seven courses for £89 and £95 for a wine journey of 6 French and 6 Californian wines. Find more details and make a reservation here.
The Vineyard Hotel, Stockcross, Newbury RG20 8JU. Website.