Sunday, 18 January 2017
So the day ends at the River Cafe, on the south bank. For those unaware, this is simply one of the most acclaimed Italian restaurants in London and it has been so for the last 20 years. Ok, so I have just caught the attention of some people…
The menu is not the point however, although I must say that the food was excellent, even if we were 120 persons in a single group. How can you prepare and serve a meal in proper conditions to a group this big remains a mystery. And it all started when we arrived, early just for a change, and entered the bright clean space of the restaurant, pushed from a freezing London night outside.
There’s champagne waiting for us. English Sparkling wine to be more precise. Fresh, light, highly acidic, but quite nice. It is so early that in some minutes we’ll be witnessing the last brief being given to the staff. The manager comes and greets us: “we will take care of you tonight”. Magic words said in an impeccable British accent that make us feel great. He knows we are with the Liberty Wines group of course. The whole place has been booked by them.
Soon after 7pm the place begins to fill up. These are all people we’ve been with during the day. Part of a group of 120 wine producers from over 15 countries, from Australia to Armenia, New Zealand to Italy and France, all of them producing the best wine in the world: their own!
There’s a sitting plan and as the crowd gathers and the delicious fried artichokes and small pieces of rich cheese and tomato pizzas start circulating, the volume of noise and excitement rises.
There you have, over one hundred people that have been pouring and tasting wines the whole day and they can still get thrilled and excited with a glass of sparkling wine. As our host says: if you gather a good group, open around 7’000 bottles in one day and taste them all, no wonder that happiness is flying around.
Back to our seating plan. We have been seated at the host’s table, together with a handful of Italian producers. Conversation flows freely and wildly in Italian (what else to be expected?) and we get introduced on my left to a big bulky middle aged producer of Verdichio from Le Marche, and on my right to a short, loud and funny producer from Chianti: “I share the property with my mom”, he says, “every year she comes to me and asks: where is the money gone? and I answer, but mamma I need money to make wonderful wines, I’m like Cristiano Ronaldo, you give me money and I do what I know best”, and he bursts laughing and toasting to life and love.
Besides him, seats a young, nice looking girl. “My daughter” he introduces her to us. “She is a fashion designer at Burberry’s”. Quickly the conversation runs into fashion and “intimo” and about how one moves from fashion to wine…
The high point happens when the table realises we are the makers of Mateus Rose. Among cheers and excitement all the male Italians tell us how they all went on their first date with their girlfriends with a bottle of Mateus as a companion. We are the heroes now and when the Vinha Grande red arrives to go with the “secondo piato”, it is readily considered as the best wine of the dinner.
The high point of the evening, however, happens when our host stands up for his speech.
He mentions how he has built his business with the support of all the producers he represents. How during the last 20 years he has closed this annual event at the River Cafe, where he made his first delivery ever. How he relies on the relationship and friendship he has created with all these partners. “In a time when we witness disturbing events, when the world seems to be closing in, as opposed to opening up, and strange characters like Mr Trump raise to power and drive the agenda” he says, “it is time we tell the world there is another better way to move forward, a way where business is based on respect and relationships, where trading between nations allows people to discover and enjoy new experiences”. He gets a roaring standing applause from the cheering (and by then quite happy) crowd.
It is the climax of an intense evening and I find myself thinking that all these wine people, amongst which I am trying to pretend I belong, represent the last of a lost breed of Florentine merchants and producers, directly shipped from the renaissance period, when travelling was an affair of months and trading between nations was an exotic, trust based activity carried out by mythical brave creatures. It is a comforting feeling to be among them and somehow be one of them.
We say goodbye and I tell the Italian girl, in my best and by then flawless Italian, that she should forgive us for all our excitement and noise and that she has un bravo pappa. In return, I receive due bacci, a sweet smile and I hear her saying: “don’t worry, I know you guys were also young once…”