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Published:  23 July, 2008

Gordon Minnis opened Calistoga, Edinburgh's first Californian restaurant, in August 2004. He operates a strict non-smoking policy, in accordance with California state law, and has an all-California wine list, with the exception of a couple of wines that feature as foreign wines of the week'. The list has a flat 5 mark-up and includes many wines from his private collection that are no longer available in the UK. Minnis started his career at the Mount Royal Hotel on Princes Street and was restaurant manager at Haldanes restaurant (where he received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for the wine list) and at Jacksons restaurant, until it closed following a fire in June 2003. He also works part-time at Henderson Wines in Morningside. Chef Seann Doherty recently returned from a year travelling in the Pacific Northwest and was head chef at Cuba Norte in Edinburgh for several years. Key suppliers: Henderson Wines, Morris & Verdin Ltd, The Vineyard Cellars, Enotria Winecellars Ltd, Stratford's Wine Agencies

Why a Californian restaurant?

I started getting interested in California wines while working as restaurant manager at Haldanes restaurant (in Edinburgh's New Town district), because a lot of the American tourists ordered them. I always wanted to set up my own restaurant, and I just kept coming back to the California idea because I love the wines so much.

Have you had any complaints about the 100% California wine list?

No so far. I do also have a blackboard offering a selection of foreign wines of the week', and I sell a couple of bottles from that each week, but I always tut at the customer to show my disapproval! People are generally very interested in trying new things, and it's not too difficult to sell California wines here - basically because customers don't have much choice! However, there is a general perception that they are expensive and high in alcohol.

Why did you decide on a cash mark-up?

The idea was to give customers a good deal. I was also conscious that I might have created an empty restaurant by listing California wines at a normal mark-up. In the past five years customers have become a lot more knowledgeable about how much wine costs, so I am hoping we will get a good reputation for our well-priced wines.

How do you source the wines?

I get a lot of them through Henderson Wines, where I work part-time, and that gives me access to a large range of wines at wholesale prices. I also get quite a few wines from The Vineyard Cellars. But a lot of them, especially the rarer bottles and older vintages, come out of my own cellar. I have Beringer's Nightingale dessert wine on the list, and I'm probably the only person to sell it in Scotland.

Is it not heart-wrenching when you sell a rare wine from your private collection?

Yes, it is! But watching other people enjoy it is good too.

Is it difficult sourcing California wines?

Yes, there does seem to be a great amount of flux when it comes to California wine importers. They are always changing, and it's difficult to keep track of where to get the wines. Also, most of them are not interested in dealing with a small restaurant in the backwaters of Edinburgh. I contacted one recently, looking for a specific wine, and they told me I could only buy it through a certain wholesaler in Scotland, but that wholesaler didn't even stock that wine. It's a bit frustrating! Also, a lot of California wines don't have Scottish agents, so if I didn't have the contact at Henderson Wines it would be impossible for me to get hold of them at all as I don't have the storage space at the restaurant for the minimum 10-case drops.

Do you sell a lot of Zinfandel?

I certainly sell some. There are some customers who can't believe Zinfandel can be red: they think it has to be pink. I do stock a white Zinfandel, because it's expected, but also plenty of top-quality red Zinfandels. However, most people play safe and stick to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and I organise the list by grape variety to make it easier for them to choose.

You have some quirky wine descriptions on your list. What's that all about?

I hate the traditional taste descriptions that you tend to get on wine lists, because they are so personal and don't really tell you much. They are also difficult to write because it's almost impossible to sum up a wine in a few words. I am trying to capture the customers' attention and get them interested in the wines.

What is your most popular wine?

Merlot has been the most popular variety, and we have a De Loach Merlot at 19, which has sold well. Some of the higher-priced Pinot Noirs have also been very popular.

What are your personal wine passions?

I am not really into big, bold Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, probably because, as a canny Scot, I am aware that you can't really get good value for money at $70-80! Pinot Noir is one of my favourites, and they really know what they are doing with it in Santa Barbara. I also picked up a bin end of 1998 Lazy Creek Pinot Noir from Vineyard Cellars, which is superb.

What has been the reaction to your strict non-smoking policy?

It has been 99.5% positive. There was one table that asked to smoke because they were the last in the restaurant one evening, but I said no, because I don't actually have any ashtrays! Even the chef is not allowed to smoke, and has to nip out the back. This is a small room, and the non-smoking policy keeps the air clean. I think it's actually a bit of a shame that smoking will probably be banned in Scotland from 2006, because the new law will take away our advantage. We get people who come here because of our non-smoking policy.

Calistoga Restaurant 93 St Leonards Street Edinburgh EH8 9QY Tel: 0131 668 4207