A California dream in Berkshire, says Jo Fernandez
For years, French wine was considered the only tipple worth drinking; the now well-considered Californian equivalents were pretty much ignored outside of the US until a pivotal moment in history.
In Paris in 1976, at a high-profile blind tasting, unknown Californian wines were chosen over some of Frances finest. Several of the judges were asked to resign while others received threats; the so-called Judgement of Paris transformed the industry.
Industrialist Sir Peter Michael, founder of a successful electronics company and Classic FM, was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable wine lover, particularly of Californian wines. Spurred on by the turn in the fortunes of Californias wine industry, he established a vineyard on a rocky volcanic ridge in the Sonoma Valley in 1982.
This, in turn, became the inspiration for the Vineyard, a five-star hotel which opened in Berkshire in 1998. The self-styled temple to Californian wine is just that. Here, among some 30,000 bins visible through the glass cellar, more than 800 Californian wines on the list include a unique collection from Sir Peters own vineyard.
Chic interiors: the Vineyard hotels bar
The spa offers grape-themed treatments, rooms are named after wines and guests can arrange their own blind tasting, mirroring the Judgement of Paris, whose 40th anniversary is next May. Sir Peter has added himself into history in a vast mural commissioned to mark the event.
Perhaps establishing such a successful vineyard in the Eighties influenced Sir Peters decision to honour that era with the flickering flames that leap up around the circular pool as we drew up, it brought to mind a Duran Duran video. However, once inside I found little else to criticise.
My partner and I arrived late one Saturday afternoon, and my mobile phone had died so I had no idea what time anything was booked in. However, the reception efficiently went through timings of meals and spa treatments. In fact, the service throughout was probably some of the best I have experienced.
Our suite, Mon Plaisir, was a restful space with a large lounge and three full-length sash windows curving across one side overlooking the grounds. Wooden furniture (country kitchen-style desks and tables) and leaf-design Lewis and Wood wallpaper keep the feel homely, as do logs in the fireplace. A knock on the door heralded two glasses of English sparkling wine.
Take it easy: the spa
Another pre-dinner glass of fizz in the new cocktail bar was topped by a sighting of celebrity baker Paul Hollywood (the sixth series of Bake Off was filmed in nearby Welford Park). Next we tried the hotels Judgement of Paris tasting menu, each of the seven courses paired with two wines (one French, one Californian) and, for a hint of drama, two wines served in black glasses.
In all honesty I could have sat eating bread and butter in our private corner of the softly lit dining room all night, especially once we spotted the back of the perfectly bobbed golden mane of Mary Berry. Soft, warm bread studded with pancetta, sweetcorn, rye, olive and lemon was just so moreish. But seven courses were on their way. So delightful was each dish that the wine was almost cast into the shadows.
The sweet onion velout with foie gras was delicate and delicious. Any guilt I felt about eating it was compounded by the earthily sweet pressed rabbit and parsley terrine with apricot and mustard, which followed (the memory of pet rabbits past are kept alive in our house as multiple passwords). I decided not to tell my daughter.