It's been a hard slog (not), but we've finally done it - decided on a winner for the Simpson's Wine List Challenge. Let me explain. Robin Easton, general manager of this venerable London institution, was getting increasingly bored with his wine list. It was too old school (a claret fest), and there wasn't enough on it to excite the modern restaurant-goer.
OK, so the average diner at Simpson's-in-the-Strand may be a tad older (read mostly septuagenarians), but they love upfront fruit like the rest of us, and are increasingly inquisitive about wine - like the rest of us.
So here's an idea, thought Easton: why not get key staff to come up with their own lists, which they'll sell alongside the regular list? They can choose whatever they want (from 12 nominated suppliers' lists), and sell it for whatever they want, then we'll announce a winner at the end of it, with the best-selling wines from each list earning a place on the permanent wine list.
The exercise, hopefully, should have taught them a thing or two about managing a wine list, including dealing with suppliers, which they don't normally do (that's Easton's job). And they'll get involved with training, as staff members need to be acquainted with their chosen wines so they can sell them.
The project took nearly a year, as the five staff members had two months to prove themselves. These additional lists - the Sommelier's Choice - were available to diners for two months at a time. Eight wine selections were allowed, from anywhere in the world.
Sommelier Christophe Walter decided to stay true to his origins and stick with France - with a token wine from Chile (Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon).
And senior sommelier Fernando Martins liked Spanish producer Marques de Riscal's wines so much he listed three - the same reason he chose to list five from Barossa producer Thorn-Clarke. These included a screwcap Chardonnay (Terra Barossa), which was rather daring considering the venue.
But sommelier Maurizio Priolo stuck his neck out with a honeyed New Zealand Gewurztraminer (and a Kiwi Riesling), plus a Sicilian Nero d'Avola and a South African Cabernet Sauvignon. Rather interestingly, it was an Aglianico that hogged the most sales on this list, finding a match with Simpson's trademark roast beef and game.
Not to be outdone by the sommeliers, Simpson's cellarman, Sammy Yimer, wanted to have a go. Like Walter he stuck with France, but chose to pull together a list made up of French country wines. His Vins de Pays d'Oc Viognier (Les Gres XL 2002, £17/£4.25) went down a storm with diners, reports Easton, pushing sales of wines by the glass through the roof, and reinforcing his view that Simpson's should be offering more wines by the glass on its new list.
The wines went well with the food, too. The Amarone (Tommasi 2000, £75) proved a match with the perfectly hung grouse; while the AlbariÂ¤o (Condes de Albarei, £28/£7.50) cosied up nicely to the "London smoked" salmon with capers and onion.
But there had to be a winner, and that was Martins, who impressed Easton with his volume of sales and his ability to "correctly assess the clientele". Palomba came second for his "imagination", and Walter third "for being the most profitable".
Was it all worthwhile? "Absolutely," declares Easton. "It was great to see them talking to each other and dealing directly with suppliers. It was a good training exercise."
It was good for Easton, too. His 120-bin list has had a few changes of late. He's dropped two Bordeaux vintages, now offering five instead of seven (well, it is Simpson's), has added to the fine-wine list (1986 d'Yquem at £295, anyone?), and injected a fair amount from outside France, including two new Spanish whites, a couple of Portuguese reds, wines from Argentina and South Africa and a new line-up from Italy.