STOCKCROSS, Berkshire, U.K., March 9, 2015 – The Vineyard at Stockcross is Sir Peter Michael’s culinary temple to food and wine in West Berkshire, one hour west of London just outside of Newbury and the tiny village of Stockcross.
This extraordinary Relais & Chateaux property features a lovely modern design, an award-winning restaurant and a wine cellar of 30,000 bottles emphasizing the best of both French and California wines.
It takes its origins from the famous Judgment of Paris event on May 24, 1976, in which exceptionally well regarded red and white California and French wines were blind tested by a distinguished panel of French wine experts.
After the numbers were tallied, the California wines had the highest scores, leading to the international recognition of California as a serious wine-growing region.
The outrage and fallout in Paris was monumental, but the damage was done.
Peter Michael was so impressed with the result that he embarked on a quest to find and develop his own vineyard in Sonoma County in California.
Michael made his fortune in the development of Oracle software, and now Peter Michael Winery in the tranquil Knights Valley has soared to the top of the most exclusive cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc lists of wine makers.
In 2010 Robert Parker’s ratings gave 100 out of 100 points for both his Clos du Ciel and Ma Danseuse Sonoma Coast pinot noirs, an unheard of accomplishment. Sir Peter and his extended winery properties were also featured on the cover of last November’s issue of Wine Spectator.
The Vineyard at Stockcross is the London showcase for his art collection and his love for food and wine.
Great works of art adorn the walls at every turn, including “Bucollique” by the post-impressionist master Henri Martin, which had been loaned to the Louvre for several years.
The 32 suites and 17 rooms are beautifully appointed with sumptuous furnishings, split level floorings separating the bedchamber from the sitting area, and original works of art everywhere, including lovely watercolor nudes by noted artist Boris Smirnov in the bathrooms.
Originally a rural manor house, and now seamlessly expanded into a serene five-star hotel and dining room, The Vineyard at Stockcross is Sir Peter’s personal statement on the value of art, food and wine to the living of the good life.
A large mural of the Judgment of Paris adorns the wall of the brasserie, just beyond the glass-enclosed wine cellar in the lobby, where some of the most precious of the wine collection is stored.
His emphasis on the best of both California and French wine is notable among major restaurants in Europe and a tribute to the lasting effect of the Judgment of Paris.
The spacious open-air lobby gives way to a richly appointed lounge filled with museum-quality works of art and leading to the stunning multilevel dining area with soaring ceilings, wrought iron railings, cozy nooks, creamy décor and exquisite cuisine.
Chef Daniel Galmiche oversees a brilliant kitchen tasked with the purpose of creating cuisine on a par with the wine collection, and he succeeds magnificently. The signature Judgment of Paris dinner is a gastronomic adventure, with seven courses of food paired with 12 wines in a blind taste test for the diner.
With each course the diner decides which wine he believes is better and then tries to guess which wine came from California and which from France. At the end of each course expert sommelier Craig Steven takes note of the choices and reveals which wine is which.
Several times during the evening a blackened glass is presented with no information given, and the diner is encouraged to name not only the grape but also the origin of the wine.
It makes for a fascinating evening of learning and wine-tasting, and it recreates the famous Judgment of Paris over and over, table by table, glass by glass.
All of that would be a pointless exercise if the wines were not remarkable and the cuisine exceptional, which they are. Several tasting menus are offered, including a vegetarian feast, and for a couple dining and choosing different menus it can mean 12 to 14 courses of food and 12 paired wines in an evening of haute cuisine that will be savored long after the night is over.
A veloute of Paimpol coco beans and sauteed sot l’y laisse with shallots is an exceptional starter, the broth rich and creamy, the tastes leaping from the spoon.
In the easiest choice of the night, the superb L’Apres Midi 2005 Peter Michael Winery sauvignon blanc is a fantastic accompaniment, far outdistancing its French equivalent. The rest of the night will not be such an easy choice.
Guinea fowl terrine with mandarin yogurt is wonderful, as is a lovely dish of goat cheese with Jerusalem artichoke espuma and black truffle. A blind glass of Mandolin, Riesling, from Monterey, Calif., is mistaken for a Gewurztraminer, and the wine lesson is on.
Filet of cod with heirloom tomato is fabulous, but so is the vegetarian roasted Cheltenham beetroot with butternut squash. It is hard to distinguish the origins between the 2010 Chassange Montrachet 1st Cru and the Wind Gap chardonnay from the central coast of California due to the oaking of the wines.
While both are excellent, the choice made is wrong, correctly pointed out by the sommelier, and the lesson in wine continues. It is just this exercise that makes the evening not just a gastronomic journey in food and wine, but also a great deal of fun.
A brilliant south coast turbot with girolles, rocket, and chicken jus is matched with an equally fantastic heirloom tomato, fennel and semolina gnocchi. Both are paired with a choice of pinot noir, a Beaune 1st Cru Clos de Mouches from Burgundy and a Peter Michael Winery Moulin Rouge from Santa Lucia Highlands in California.
While it is easy to decide which is which, the choice is which complements the food better, and here opinions may differ between the diner and the sommelier. In either event, much is learned about the differences in style and taste, and while there may be no correct answer, the point and purpose of the exercise are clear. Individual taste trumps a correct answer, as long as the experience is indulged.
Corn-fed Tidenham duck breast is beautiful, perfectly cooked and matched with a vegetarian saffron risotto that melts in the mouth. Here a Paulliac Chateau Lynch Mousas from Bordeaux is pitted against a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet from California.
Again a difficult choice as to which is better, although it is easy to distinguish one from the other. Both are spectacular, underpinning the nature of the challenge, again, as to which complements the food better.
The sommelier reveals his preference for the Stag’s Leap, while the diner may prefer the more subtle nature of the Paulliac. There are no losers here, but the underlying nature behind the Judgment of Paris comes into stark relief.
A seasonal farmhouse cheese course is a fabulous closer, along with a blind darkened glass of sweet fortified Maury, Mas Amiel from Roussillon, France. No one at the table guesses correctly, surmising a Sauterne perhaps, and personal preferences call for more Stag’s Leap or Paulliac or something drier with a cheese course.
A final dessert of roasted figs and blueberries with a cheesecake mousse is paired with a wonderful Tattinger Nocturne, Sec, Champaigne with extra dosage, far preferential to the Schrampsberg Crement Demi Sec.
On this evening the judgment seemed equally split between France and California, but the point is and has always been that California produces fabulous wines that are on a par with and frequently exceed their French counterpoints, especially when it comes to pinot noir.
It is a point that Sir Peter Michael has embraced and brought to life with the Vineyard at Stockcross and in his exquisite wines. On a culinary pilgrimage to great centers of art, wine and grand cuisine, this would be one to make sure of, indeed to savor and indulge with wild abandon.
Standard rooms start at around $300 a night, with atrium and deluxe suites beginning around $400, luxury suites at $500 per night, and a grand suite with a four-poster bed is available starting at $800 a night.
An acclaimed full service pool and spa also offers a variety of massages and fine beauty treatments.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal