“I’m going to the St John restaurant,” I explain to Mrs K, “to buy a box of wine.”
“What? A whole box of wine? Twelve bottles? But…”
“No, not a case. A box.“
Many moons ago, when it was new upon the scene, I used to eat at St John. I worked nearby, and its straightforward, nose-to-tail eating was a welcome change from the frou-frou fayne dayning which was fashionable elsewhere.
But…I got bored. Bored of too many plain dishes. Bored of my guests asking if there was “anything else” to a dish described as a boiled egg and a carrot. (There wasn’t.) And bored of game birds served rare enough to risk potential resuscitation, meat which appeared to have encountered a sun-bed rather than an oven.
And then I heard that they are selling their house wine to the public. At takeaway prices. And in boxes.
Think about that for a moment. Bag-in-box wines are usually low-rent affairs, mocked by drinkers like me with my oft-reTweeted comment, “Wine in a box? Is that like cigars in a bottle?”
But here is a box branded with the imprimatur of a Michelin-starred restaurant. A celebrated name is actually putting its logo where its mouth is. To echo the restaurant’s philosophy, its wine should be straightforward and no-nonsense. And for the sake of the restaurant’s reputation, it has to be decent.
Their box comes in honest-to-goodness brown cardboard, which not only smacks of the restaurant’s back-to-basics philosophy, but tones rather well with an oak dining table. “It looks lovely,” agreed Mrs K. “Couldn’t you keep the box, and put the bag from a Sainsbury’s one inside it?”
Personally I would have stuck the label on more centrally, an attention to detail which I am sure they do pursue in their food presentation. After all, it's the label which might, with its celebrated provenance, reassure my guests about being served wine from a box. Even if my father-in-law will think it's come from the butcher's.
The wine lives up to everything you might expect from St John. Almost purple in colour, it’s full of dark fruit flavour but without being too heavyweight. It’s bold, but bright, simple and honest like their cooking. It’s slightly taut, which means it’s certainly best with food – but then, it should be, shouldn’t it?
The 3-litre box works out at £7.75 a bottle, which is very good value indeed. In fact, it’s cheaper than a starter on their menu. (And out of interest, it’s sold to diners in the restaurant itself at £6 a glass, or £25 a bottle, an interesting insight into their mark-up.)
But attractive as it is, would they put a box on to a table of diners? I suspect not; aesthetics aside, practicalities kick in when it comes to serving. Can diners, at home or in a restaurant, really pass a box around the table, and hoist it singlehanded above their glassware? Or does the host (or waiter) stand behind a guest, squirting it into their glass? No, I think it has to be decanted.
And even when dining alone, it’s perhaps best to decant your meal’s-worth into a pichet. The box wine notion that you can take as little as you want soon becomes the notion that you can take as much as you want, tip-toeing back into the kitchen to top up another glass. Beware the day when you abandon glass, decorum and self-discipline altogether, and simply squirt it into your mouth.
The bartender advised me that the 3-litre box will last three weeks. It’s unclear whether this was a statement about the box’s vacuum, or an observation about my consumption. Either way, not enough time to get bored.