George Sallis hunts for wine, meets David Nicholson and they discuss why it’s so important to do what you love…
Father’s day in Winchester; having unsuccessfully spent all morning and the better part of the afternoon attempting to convince my 3 year old daughter of the virtues and magnitude of this momentous occasion, I eventually threw in the towel, devoured a large roast and took solace in a light bottle of Fleurie that seemed to evaporate extremely quickly. Worse still, my imaginary wine cellar was now barren, my taste buds were indicating strongly that I needed more and my rapidly expanding waistline was begging me to get out and about. I also needed to decide on the theme of my inaugural piece for the all-new Winchester Guide. My day and night revolves around an all-encompassing theatre in London, so I was not keen for it to be theatrically-based. A quick call to our newly appointed editor to ask his opinion resulted in a simple assignment: ‘Write about something you love in Winchester,’ to which I responded, ‘Excellent. I love wine.’ Surely, I mused, there must be a plentiful supply in this city even relatively late on a Sunday afternoon.
If I wanted to take the easy option and replenish the aforementioned cellar, I might be lucky enough to catch Majestic Wines, the wholesalers on Andover Road. This would require a purchase of at least 6 bottles though, which I was doubtful I could justify to myself or more importantly to the ladies of the house, even on father’s day.
Kingsgate Wines and Provisions, opposite the Wykeham was closed, I had also just missed Wine Utopia, a new merchant on St Thomas St that I was particularly interested in as my previous visit had been when they had only just opened in August last year.
As I walked along the river and up past the Bishop on the Bridge it hit me like a thunderbolt: The Black Bottle on Bridge St would definitely be open. Increasing my pace, I made a bee-line for it.
It’s a lovely, characterful old building, which dates back to the 1800’s and used to be a greengrocers and a women’s refuge. A keen member of staff asked how she could be of assistance. I informed her that it was imperative that I get a glass of wine as quickly as possible. ‘We have 32 wines that you can sample and a choice of 140 wines by the bottle’. This completely stumped me, so much choice, I didn’t know what I wanted now, ‘surprise me I said’. As the lady poured me a glass of Morgon 2011, I introduced myself as one of the contributors of the all new @Win_Guide and asked if it was possible to interview someone. She told me that the person I really should be speaking to was a chap called David Nicholson and if I was lucky I might be able to find him at The Black Boy. A quick meander around the premises glass in hand not only refreshed my taste buds but also my memory. The building is a mini-maze of rustic charm, special wine sampling machines are on-hand in each room where you can buy credits on a card and sample away small, medium or large measures to you heart’s content. This needed closer inspection and definitely more time, for now though it was time to head to The Black Boy.
A quick walk up Chesil Street, brought me to The Black Rat, the Michelin star restaurant on the corner of Wharf Hill where the Grade 2 listed Black Boy resides. I caught a glimpse of an advanced development on the opposite side of the road and made a mental note to find out more about it. I asked the bar tender in The Black Boy if David was available for a quick interview, took a seat in the eclectic surroundings of the garden and then as if by magic David appeared.
Apologising for the impromptu nature of my visit, I was met with a warm handshake. As we were exchanging pleasantries I was taken aback by his deep authoritative voice and presence, the theatre part of my brain kicked in and I wondered what kind of role I would cast for him in a play, a young Orson Wells came to mind. David and his team have been running The Black Boy since 1995. The Black Rat followed on some 10 years later, after which came The Black Bottle in 2011.
Why Wine? I asked him, ‘because I want to dispel the myth behind it, wine should be for everyone and I love it’ he responded. ‘The Black Bottle is all about the experience’ he went on to say, ‘we are not wine merchants, I want it to be a place where people can come, relax and sample an array of good quality well-priced wines, in a lovely old building. They can buy a bottle of their favourite with a 10% discount and take it home.’ Neat idea I thought and what a great ethos. ‘The three key principles behind a good wine are the maker, the region and the vintage, as well as offering a range across the spectrum’.
We briefly discussed the wine choices at The Black Rat, a restaurant favourited by a host of high profile people, some of whom I know well from the theatrical world and speak very highly of it indeed. I made another mental note to eat there soon. He informed me that if it’s a weekend, they are booking three weeks in advance. This reminded me of my other mental note, ‘do you know anything about the development at the top of the hill’ I asked, ‘that’s going to be a B&B with ten en-suite double rooms, we are going to call it The Black Hole and its opening in August.’
The Black Boy, The Black Rat, The Black Bottle and now The Black Hole, I resisted the overwhelming number of gags that immediately sprung to mind as to what would be his next venture as I was certain he had probably heard them all.
Thanking David, I headed back down to The Black Bottle for one last look around. Kevin Conac the knowledgable French manager was there to greet me this time and presented me with a wonderful glass of old Madeira wine. ‘It’s currently Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir month, we change the wines every month as we like to feature something new from across the various regions and climates around the world, whether it be South African or Californian, French or Australian, all of which can be complemented with a cheese of the month (supplied by the Cheese Stall in the high street market) and a selection of cold meats. We also had our first Prosseco evening for ladies on Saturday whilst the football was on, it went down very well indeed’
We finished our conversation as I polished off the ten-year old Madeira. What a lovely father’s day I thought to myself, certainly no need to whine in Winchester and isn’t it just wonderful to do what you love.
George Sallis is Artistic Director of The Lion & Unicorn Theatre in London, Giant Olive Theatre Company and the GOlive Dance and Performance Festival. @GeorgeSallis