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Peter McCombie MW, Consultant, Roast

Published:  23 July, 2008

How did you start devising restaurant wine lists?
Well, I was a bum for a long time and then decided I wanted to work as a buyer. When I figured out there weren't many buying jobs, I went into sales. I originally worked for David Gleave at Wine Cellars, which was then bought by Enotria. That was a great two years. I really like Remo Nardone; he's got a great business.
Other people in the trade are really sniffy about Enotria, but it has loyal staff and customers. Then I went to Bibendum, and then I started this.

Are you a replacement for the sommelier?[b/]

I don't get involved in the day-to-day management of the list, but if there's a high-profile opening, such as Roast, where everybody in town wants to have their wines in, then the last thing people at the restaurant want to do is field calls - so they'll put them on to me. That's fine; I used to be in sales so I respect people who sell. If somebody sends me samples, I don't mind if people ring up and ask me what I thought of them. In fact, it amazes me how often people don't call up if they've sent through some wines.

What if there's a sommelier on the payroll?

Well at Fifteen, for example, there was a problem with Matt Skinner's visa, so David Gleave, who knows Jamie well, told him that he had to have the list up and running before Matt arrived and that he knew just the person. Matt must have heard about me and thought, Who is this old-fart MW guy?', but we ended up getting on like a house on fire. When it was finished we looked at the list and laughed, because there was no Bordeaux anywhere - neither of us likes cheap Bordeaux.

Here at Roast, the manager, Tea Staegemann, expressed a preference for Dominique Gallois's Gevrey-Chambertin, and I went with it. Unless the wine is poison, why wouldn't I? It's easy to become anal about wine lists, but in the end they're a commercial document. And the last thing I want people to do is walk into a London restaurant and say, Oh, that looks like one of Peter McCombie's.' It's momentarily flattering, but it's not good for a place.

What have you done differently at Roast?

Groupings by variety, which is unusual for me and which some people really can't stand. The only other time I did it was for Oliver Peyton at Atlantic, and his response was, Peter, that's shit - I hate it.' So that was the end of that particular idea. One of his managers reckoned listing by style made a difference to wines languishing in the corner of the list, but Oliver couldn't abide it. So you roll over. I'm not about to have a row with someone.

The obvious thing would be to put lots of English wines in Roast since it serves British food and is located in Borough Market, but you haven't. Why not?

There's not enough quality or diversity in English wines to justify having, say, 10 listings. Two dry whites and the 2003 Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury sparkler are about right. English producers aren't really geared up for selling to restaurants. Chapel Down is the exception, but most, like winemakers in Provence, happily survive on tourists buying the wine at full price.

Do you train staff, too?

I have to. Every wine merchant talks about staff training, but it's often unstructured and just about product knowledge. There's so much more involved in dealing with customers. It's easy for a waiter to breeze up to a table and ask, Is everything all right?' Who's going to complain? But if a waiter asks, How's the wine?', it gives the customer a chance to say, It wasn't quite what I was expecting.' Quite often that

will mean the wine is faulty. Paolo de Marchi was dining out once when he spied a couple on a nearby table drinking Cepparello. He was really pleased - it was a good restaurant. But when the couple left, the bottle was still half-full. Paolo went over and smelt the bottle: it was badly corked. I wanted to chase after them and say, "That's not how my wines are meant to taste! Come back!"'

Roast has had some pretty ropy reviews, especially from Metro. Does that affect you?

Well Fay's review of Roast was tepid. Jan Moir didn't like the 2002 Grand Charrons Meursault from Michel Bouzereau, which is great value at 38. I was more annoyed by her comments when The Cinnamon Club opened. She pointed out the lack of Chablis by the glass, which was a really fatuous criticism. Is there a rule that there has to be Chablis by the glass? I had another unoaked Chardonnay listed, so I was covering this area from a flavour point of view. I want people to be able to drink by the glass. If I don't do that, I'm mad.