Douglas Blyde says: “Co-founder of St. John, Trevor Gulliver, uses the term “fidelity” when talking of wine suppliers such as Sichel who supplied the St. John Claret for 20 years, and Mentzendorff, whose Bollinger family chose the iconic restaurant for this year’s La Grande Année 2012 launch.
“There’s an honesty with which we can speak to producers,” he says. “If you’re a good buyer, you’re always polite because you know farmers can have problems.”
While never deliberately being about trends, St. John has aptly brought in bottles not often before seen by UK drinkers, and in perhaps unusual formats.
“We’re the only Michelin starred restaurant to have BIB (bag in box) on the list,” says Gulliver. He is assisted by head of wine, Victoria Sharples, whom he first met at the masterclass she hosted at The Capital Hotel.
“Trevor came late on his scooter,” she recalls. Despite describing herself as “never a St. John groupie”, she moved to London from Australia “specifically” for this role. Previously the holder a PhD in environmental policy (Melbourne’s Monash University), “which drove me to drink”, she ran The Wine Station, importing wine to Australia.
With “98% of wines imported direct, the strictly two-page list draws entirely from L’Hexagone, including an acclaimed Cinsault and Grenache Gris from St. John’s own winery, Boulevard Napoleon, La Livinière. Providing customers “a sense of trust”, Sharples, resplendent in Emin & Paul tailoring and a Vintage Tissot watch, oversees in total 12 own-labels, including the Gamay-pepped, screw-capped Mâcon Rouge – “the cheap seats of Burgundy!”
Of the dining experience, with paper tablecloths in a monochrome scheme, Sharples says: “Some restaurants can make you feel squashed with the service or abandoned; here, there’s a wonderful comfort level about effortlessness and ease, with no music and no flowers.”
Via events such as the annual Vignerons lunch, the “particularly particular” Sharples memorably showcases the 50 wine producers under the St. John parapluie. “People think of us as a little restaurant, but we also sell to the trade and have online customers.”
St. John isn’t about wine pairing, with the stripped-back dishes realised by Canadian chef, Steve Dareau, which may include bone marrow and toast, and lamb’s brain, in addition to near unbelievably good bread and butter. Hence, bold swirler Sharples is able to position pink wines as perennial. “Rosé is the mission,” she says. Four incarnations ran even in winter months, bringing prettiness to the puritanical, monochrome dining room.
Although Gulliver recalls how onlookers thought he and Fergus Henderson were “mad” to open in the rough, sodium lit, environs of a former bacon smokehouse back in 1994, “when the idea of ‘midtown Holborn’ didn’t exist among the ghosts of carcasses with headless horsemen going past,” Sharples relishes St. John’s location.
She says: “We’re not in Mayfair thank goodness, where I would find it hard to find a balanced wine which makes me happy in the £40s. Wine has a hard-enough image of being in the upper echelons.””