An edited version of this article was originally published in Issue 14 of Root + Bone Magazine.
A restaurant that has been open for 23 years must be doing something right. In the case of St John, it’s not one thing, but an unwavering ethos of doing things their own way that defines it. If it feels right to them, St John’s co-owners Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver will do it, not caring much what anyone else thinks.
How many Michelin starred restaurants sell bag in box wine, has an original Banksy on the wall and source its entire wine list directly from the winemakers? Just the one I suspect..
St John’s wine list has been 23 years in the making. While chef Fergus Henderson transformed London’s restaurant scene in the mid-1990’s with his nose-to-tail eating, Trevor Gulliver set about sourcing some wine to go with it. He decided to cut out the middle man and began knocking on doors in rural France, meeting winemakers and tasting their wines in their cellars. If he liked it he bought it directly from them and put it on the wine list at St John. In the process St John became not just a restaurant but a wine importer.
This unique approach has created long relationships with their winemakers. Trevor first met Sophie Lafourcade, winemaker at Domaine Les Luquettes in Provence, in 2004 at the Vinisud wine fair in Southern France. Sophie was only 14 at the time and was looking after her mother’s stall when Trevor happened to walk past. He tasted her mother’s wines and signed them up for St John’s wine list. Roll forward 13 years and Sophie is now the winemaker and there are three of her wines on St John’s wine list.
As people visited the restaurant and enjoyed the wines, they asked if they could buy a bottle to take home, so Trevor and Fergus added wine retailer to the list of St John’s services. The entire St John wine list is available to buy at retail prices on their website.
In 2011, Trevor stepped even closer to the source of the wine and bought a winery in the Minervois region of South-West France. The winery is called Boulevard Napoleon. Not a reference to the short French warlord, but simply the address of the winery. St John is named after the address of the first restaurant on St John Street after all.
“It was a big risk, but sometimes you have to take a risk”, says Trevor of the move into wine production.
Fergus didn’t even find out until the following year when Trevor took him to visit and taste the 2011 vintage wines. Luckily Fergus liked what he tasted. “Its all very well taking risks, but it’s nice to know about it when you are!”, suggests Fergus.
Here are three wines to try from St John’s list;
Boulevard Napolean, Grenache Gris, VdP de L’Herault, 2011 – Sherry-like on the nose then great energy and a delicious combination of nuttiness and melon flavours. Complex, nervy and long. Wonderful stuff.
Domaine Les Luquettes, Bandol, 2014 – Sophie’s brilliant Bandol is a blend of 80% Mourvedre and 20% Grenache. Really alluring, spicy nose leads to a palate of herbs, berries and frangipane sweetness. So much energy in the mouth it feels like there is a fizz on the tongue.
Olivier Pithon, Cuvee Lais, Cotes Catalanes, 2014 – A blend of Maccabeu, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc. This had flavours of aniseed, limes and straw. Definitely shades of Burgundy in evidence here. Delicious.
Oh, and if you’ve made a note to look out for the Banksy next time you’re in, you’ll struggle to find it. Banksy painted it as he left St John’s 10th birthday bash in 2004 and when Trevor saw it the following morning he immediately painted over it as it disturbed the otherwise whitewashed walls of the restaurant.
As I said at the start, Trevor and Fergus do things their own way…