The 16-bedroom Overton Grange hotel had a fully-booked Christmas, although December occupancy still reached only 38%. The hotel is open, but working with reduced staffing for the middle two weeks of January.
Exhausted by the busy holiday season, head chef Adrian Jones has taken two weeks off, leaving sous chef John Whelan and demi chef Rob Brown to cope in the kitchen. And waiter José Daniel has gone to Spain for a break, so proprietor Igi Gonzalez is left at the hotel to oversee the refurbishment of rooms 11, 14 and 15 and plan a dinner dance for St Valentine's Day.
"Martin Owen, the organist at Christmas, was such a hit we asked him to come back for Valentine's Day," says Gonzalez.
Reflecting on the Christmas/New Year period, Gonzalez is happy with the results. The revenue from that period alone was £13,329.25, and the hotel was completely full on 23-27 December. There were 74 covers at Jones's five-course Christmas lunch, which kept both the kitchen and the waiting team on their toes.
Gonzalez had hoped that New Year's Eve would pick up as the date drew near, and indeed 70 people booked to come. But the horrendous weather meant that 12 were forced to cancel. However, there was a silver lining, as a few guests could not leave as planned on New Year's Day, and stayed for an extra night.
Surveying the snowy fields of Shropshire, Gonzalez may wish that he, like Daniel, was heading to Spain for a break. The wine alone would be enough to draw him there. Wine is Gonzalez's love, and Spanish wines are his passion. In fact, his office at Overton Grange is not in the room provided for such a purpose, but in the wine cellar.
There he is surrounded by a neat arrangement of wine racks, holding 360-400 bins. The stock value is about £5,000, which he readily admits is £2,000 over budget.
"I am being too ambitious," he says. "I want to impress and I love wine - that is where my knowledge is." The wine list at Overton Grange contains 13 whites and 16 reds from Spain alone. "This is pretty extensive. I probably have more than most Spanish restaurants in London," he says.
Gonzalez altered his original list in September, and it was then that the multitude of Spanish wines were placed on the listing. He originally had only five. "I changed it as my knowledge has grown," he says, "and I can sell Spanish wines very well."
But because many Spanish wines, such as those from the Basque and Galicia areas, are still relatively unknown in the UK, Gonzalez must keep his prices down.
He will keep the list the same until March, when he will look carefully at costs and establish what is selling and what is languishing in the cellar.
The marrying of food and wine is important to Gonzalez, and he and Jones have tasting sessions to determine what wine will go with Jones's creations.
"If you are serving excellent food like Adrian's, you must have good wines," Gonzalez stresses. "I am really disappointed that diners in general spend £20-£25 on a three-course meal but dislike the fact that they must spend £10 on wine."
Gonzalez criticises the mark-up on wine in many establishments, which he says can be 100-150%. He believes there should be some recognition of good value for money by those assessing establishments, such as the various guides. At Overton Grange, the mark-up is only 60% on average, and 38% for really expensive wines. "This is ludicrously low," says Gonzalez, "but I realised that you must have these bottles to dress up your wine list and give it depth. People will not pay £300 for a Château Cheval Blanc at Overton Grange, but it's there."
By contrast, the house wines are £10 a bottle, and, not suprisingly, they are Spanish. In terms of best value, Gonzalez says the 1995 Albariño Valdamor at £18.75 is very good, as is the 1983 Pata Negra Valdepeñas at £13.50.
The hotel's list is extensive, with wines from South Africa, Chile, Australia, France, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand, the USA, Italy, Lebanon and even an English wine. This lone white, a Huxelrebe/Müller-thurgau from the Coombe Hay winery in Kent, sells for £12.
Gonzalez is supportive of the English wine industry and says it should get more support from the drinking public, especially the English themselves. Those ordering the Coombe Hay wine at Overton Grange tend to be foreigners, he says: "There are some great little vineyards and maybe they can't produce the same quantities as the big houses but, on occasions, they do produce great table wines."
The wide geographical coverage of wines is necessary, as the drinking public has been made more aware of wines from previously obscure wine-producing countries by supermarkets having these wines in stock.
Gonzalez believes some things are necessary to have a good wine list at a restaurant. The first, not surprisingly, is a Champagne - he includes an expensive variety plus a good house Champagne. Gonzalez also says that reasonably priced, drinkable house wines are required.
High-quality wines should be open to serve by the glass, at pro rata prices of, say, £15-£20. This is done in the US, says Gonzalez, and gives customers the chance to sample varietals, which they would not normally be able to afford or choose.
Good geographical coverage is necessary, and a knowledgeable wine waiter who can guide diners to a choice that will complement their food is an absolute must.
Next visit to Overton Grange: 20 February