When we launched St John, I was spending a lot of time in France. When I had The Fire Station, we thought we should have ten reds, ten whites and no one would be able to understand the label. That might sound counter-intuitive, but that’s how it’d always been. When it came to doing St John, it was a much bigger offering. Around this time, there were inklings of new young folk in the wine world who wanted to import bottles you couldn't buy in. Back then, wine was dominated by big business in the same way breweries are now, alongside the ebb and flow of small operations. It’s the same with cider. At the restaurants, we only serve true cider – I will go on my visit and if I can see the tree, then I'll drink the cider. But the top five brands in this country are owned by the top four international breweries. We wanted to run the risk of doing something outside the comfort zone.
On my first foray over to France to buy wine, I got lost in the dark and bitten by dogs in the middle of nowhere. Now, on our wine list, I know every single winemaker personally – some for over 30 years. From the start, we’ve sourced directly. There’s no middleman and that's important because that means they can get to market, because otherwise, international trade is dominated by big guys. We can be quite evangelical in that regard, and I might spend one month a year just meeting people. Nowadays, a lot of our sourcing is by recommendation and there are probably 60 to 100 active producers we work with.
We make our own St John wines as well. That’s because you used to find companies selling the same wine under two labels for two different levels of restaurants – that went on everywhere. I said to Fergus one day, this is ridiculous. It took time to develop our own wines back in 1996, but we knew we needed to improve our wine list so we weren’t competing with everybody else out there – and because we wanted to be true to what we set out to do.
We started making our house claret with the Sichel family – a famous dynasty in Bordeaux – over 25 years ago. I did it is because we wanted something that suited the way we cook and something that wasn’t just good ordinary claret. Equally, we wanted to be part of the process, so we would know exactly where it came from and that it would be good quality and consistent. It’s the same thing with our bread at St John. We knew all the farmers who supplied us and a few weeks into launching, we started baking our own bread. These days you might see our loaves in Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, but they’re still all made by our own hands. Major supermarkets have asked to stock our bread, but we said no as we haven’t got the capacity to make them ourselves, by hand.
Since 2008, we've also been making our Boulevard Napoleon wines. We work 'parcellaire' with vignerons, working on the viticulture and the harvest, we then vinify at our winery in La Liviniere. We have a Fête du Vin in the village every year, which is fun. That’s how St John works. There isn't a plan, but we're always doing something and then things evolve. Claret was our bestselling wine for years and I would never serve or buy crémant in France or anywhere on the planet, as it just wasn't good enough – we’d just drink champagne. Just before lockdown, I placed our first order and now our St John crémant has outstripped our claret. Recently one of our industry friends said, “See, Trevor – you are influential” and I said, “Why’s that?” and he replied, “Everyone’s serving crémant now.” It’s the same with the bag-in-a-box thing – I started doing it 20 years ago and we’re still the only Michelin-starred restaurant that does it. But I did it for the right reasons, not because it became zeitgeisty. Now, it’s all about packaging and saving the planet – but we’ve always done that.
We don't use words like ‘natural’ or ‘biodynamic’ when we talk about our own wines. We could do because most of our suppliers fit all those bills (and they’re nice wines too – not all natural wines have to taste like exhaust dust with a cabbage thrown in). But for us it’s about purpose, working in the vineyards and husbandry. What we've done is tough and not recommended, but it’s hard to name any other restaurant that has a wine operation like ours. All sorts of things can go wrong – if the wrong thing shows up or the crop goes – it needs all sorts of expertise. Working in wine is basically all about logistics now, whether you buy, sell or distribute. It was a really long learning curve, but it was fun and we made a lot of friends along the way.