One night only. No second chances

Leafing through the latest issue of Wine Spectator magazine I happened to notice that their 2015 Wine of the Year was Peter Michael ‘Au Paradis’ 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s not a wine that I’ve ever tasted, but it does stir up a lot of memories of what is probably one of my finest wine experiences.

Even now, with winemaking in the southern part of the UK developing all of the time, I’ve often lamented that I don’t live anywhere in the thick of it.  I think how wonderful it would be living in perhaps Italy or Spain and having near access to multiple world famous destinations to tour.  It feels like I would never have a weekend free!

Some years back I was reading an article on a UK wine hotel and had probably already started assuming that it wouldn’t be anywhere near me, when I realised that it was.  It was literally ten minutes away by car and, on a warm day, possibly walkable.

I’m referring to The Vineyard at Stockcross, which has been owned by Sir Peter Michael since 1996.  With over 3000 bins available it was, at the time, a multi Michelin starred establishment (Head Chef John Campbell has since departed) and was somewhere I had no excuse not to visit.  I eagerly booked a room and downloaded the extensive wine list in readiness of tasting some amazing and rare wines.  At the time (and to be fair, to this day) my main wine passion is Champagne (which readers of my blog will know rests heavily on Dom Pérignon), and so that was the focus of the night.

I pre-selected the 1966 Dom Pérignon to be ready and chilling in an ice bucket on arrival in the room, and the 1970 Dom Pérignon to be served with dinner.  These Champagnes certainly still rank amongst the highest value wines I’ve ever drunk, but having checked their current retail prices, what I paid then seems like a bargain!  The whole trip however was a calculated indulgence (I could have taken a cab home, but decided that staying there would top everything off), and these two mature vintages were chosen specifically as they were the current releases when both I and my wife were born.


Upon arrival at the hotel when giving over my personal details, I’m convinced that there was a confused glance from the receptionist.  Upon checking my details and spotting my home address was only around the corner, I think she was trying to work out why I was staying there at all.  The answer lay in my room, and what greeted me was the glorious sight of the chilled 1966 Dom on the table.  Rather than unpacking, I opened the bottle.  It is still the oldest Champagne I’ve ever tasted, and I can recall its rich herbaceous woodland tones, with baked apple and dark honey very clear on the palate.

I contacted their sommelier with a view to choosing a pre-dinner aperitif, and was suitably impressed when he invited me to look through their locked wine vault which, years later and knowing much more about the subject, I really want to do again.  I was still in the mood for celebratory bubbles so probably didn’t fully absorb their collection of impressive Bordeaux and Burgundy, or perhaps even their focus on Californian Cabernets, showcasing the owners US interests.  I switched back to a fresh vibrant Champagne and selected the 1996 Krug, which was a dream.

And so to dinner which, for a 2-star Michelin restaurant, definitely played second fiddle to the wine.  Not that the food was bad – far from it – but this was when Michelin food was characterised by adding foam to the top of every dish, and it became a little bit much.  Perhaps as a response to the money that I was spending (the exact prices I paid for each of the bottles is etched in to my memory) we were given the top table which was set away from the main dining area and overlooked the other guests.  The 1970 Dom arrived and, although having only slightly less age than the 1966, was showing a much younger profile and went well the fish dishes I’d chosen.  As a closing gesture, my sommelier was happy to gift me two Dom Pérignon branded flutes (boxed ones too, not the ones we had been using!) as a reminder of this one-off evening.  Alas the glasses are long since gone, but the memories remain.


There was one further bottle of red picked from the wine list to round off dinner, but following the excesses of the Champagne, it went mostly undrunk and I have no recollection of what it was.  I still live just around the corner from The Vineyard and I do often think about going back, however I know that it can never live up to that amazing experience.

I’d love to live that night again, but it truly was a one-off.  No second chances.

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One for the road……

As we come to the end of the festive season and peoples thoughts turn to a ‘dry’ January to counter-balance the over indulgences, it seems an apt time that the Government re-states its guidelines for what it views as responsible alcohol intake.  The full report will be published later this month, but the heavy speculation suggests that the suggested maximum acceptable levels will be reduced (of course) from previous guides, and there will be a clear recommendation to have at least 2 alcohol free days per week.  It has also been suggested that the report will state that there is in fact no safe amount of alcohol that can be drunk at all – especially for those people in middle-age.  Even the smallest intake per day/week could lead to several illnesses, including many cancers.

My article today isn’t to discuss these revised guidelines as I believe that responsible levels vs. potential risk cannot be done on anything other than a case by case basis.  Indeed there are many things that can cut short a healthy young life, whilst the heaviest of imbibers can live to the ripest of old age.  Indeed the chief medical officer doesn’t mention at all the fun that responsible (as defined by the individual) drinking can have in perhaps prolonging life, and certainly enjoying it along the way.

The link between alcohol and death does, however, lead me nicely to what I found to be one of the more obscure, but extremely interesting, wine-related stories from over the festive period, which I thought I would share with you.

Westerleigh Crematorium in the south-west of England has become the first funeral home to be granted an alcohol licence, enabling them to conduct both a funeral service and the post-service wake.  The idea was brought about due to the slightly remote location of the chapel which meant that guests would need to make onward arrangements with pubs or hotels in the wider area, and then arrange the necessary travel from one venue to another.

Westerleigh is currently in the middle of a full redevelopment which will include a full bar and a new hospitality suite capable of facilitating up to 150 guests.  There will also be the necessary segregation of areas for funeral services and celebrations of life, to ensure that service only funerals can continue to be served.

The provision of a licence has been largely welcomed by the local community, and Richard Evans, managing director at the crematorium was quoted as saying: “For many families a wake or celebration after the service is a necessary event and it is not always convenient for them to set off again to meet in a hotel or pub. The provision of a new hospitality suite will therefore cater for funeral parties who are looking for a simple, dignified event after the funeral”

This ‘one-stop-shop’ does actually seem to be a sensible idea (one of those ‘why don’t we do that already?’ moments), and something that I think will spread to other crematoriums in the not-so distant future.  Mindful of the view that it is perhaps a further commercialisation of death, and in respect of the sadness of the overall occasion, it does take a certain step out and simplify the process, which can be very welcome at a tough time.  As long as the alcohol drunk on the occasion does not increase, either due to the ease of availability, pricing (currently to be advised) or having the extra ‘one for the road’ as the focus on driving to a venue is removed, then it is a logical step and a bigger story that the mild ripples that it caused in the run up to Christmas.

It’s interesting to note that the application went unchallenged by the local authorities and was even endorsed by the local clergy.  It seems it’s only the new Government guidelines that won’t allow us a guilt-free drink to toast our recently departed loved ones.

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