UK-wide: Red Letter Day wine weekend

by Ali Downes

What do you give as a gift to the person who has everything? Someone who doesn’t need another crystal decanter or a carriage clock to go on the mantelpiece? An increasingly popular answer is an experience” – some activity it is hoped will provide a lasting, happy memory.

Red Letter Days have been supplying this market since 1989, and offer over 300 activities ranging from driving a Ferrari, to less adrenalin-pumping gourmet and pampering weekends. Vouchers, in presentation gift boxes, are available in certain high street shops, but the full range can also be purchased online at wine-pages was invited along to a recent event to experience it for ourselves, Ali Downes and his wife Ruth were despatched to check it out: x

Our “Wine Tasting Break for Two” was a package of tastings, dinner and overnight stay in a luxury hotel in Edinburgh (similar weekends are arranged across the country). Our booking confirmation arrived very promptly and included all the relevant information, including travel directions. This whetted the appetite very nicely for the weekend to come.

We assembled around 18:00 in the function suite of the four-star Menzies Belford hotel in Edinburgh, which was set out with five tables of 10 places, each with nine glasses and a tasting sheet. Francis, the host, then started the awkward task of warming up a roomful of strangers, preparing us to learn, but also have some fun in the process. The evening began with a blind tasting, though help was on hand in the form of tasting note sheets, grape descriptions, and Francis talking us through some techniques for tasting wine. A competition would run throughout, with opportunities for the five teams, and individuals, to win points and, ultimately, prizes.


Wine one was poured and we were given charts and some information on what to look for. This was all done with minimal fuss or pretension. After an initial taste of the first wine, the second wine of the pair was poured, and we were told it was from the same grape, but a different country and climate. Our Answer Sheet gave the choice of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, from either France or New Zealand. In addition we had to choose which of several written descriptions applied to wine one, and which applied to wine two.A look around the room revealed quite a wide demographic, with more young people than we had expected, and the chat round our table showed that our fellow team-members (of the “Bordeaux Barons” team) had varying knowledge of wine. x

An older couple had been given this experience by their children, and clearly had the most wine tasting experience, partly at least from holidays in France. There was a group of four friends who were there because one of them received a Red Letter Day experience of their choice as a prize for best sales results. She had chosen to share it with three pals, rather than go skydiving with only one. Their wine knowledge was more limited, though they liked wine and hoped the experience would enable them to appreciate it more. The final pair were the dark horses, who didn’t admit to knowing much, but probably knew more than they were letting on. We had to own up to having attended wine-tastings before, but made a special effort not to say too much or to sway team decisions.

So, back to the wines: the nose on wine one shouted Sauvignon Blanc, and from a very New World and warmer climate style. New Zealand was an obvious choice. Wine number two confirmed the grape, but was more subdued and mineral, which we guessed would be consistent with France. The tasting continued over two more rounds, with a pair of reds a little more difficult to identify, sparking off plenty of good-natured debate before we settled on our choices. Between each round of tasting there were bonus questions on wine-related general knowledge, with a point for the team representative who got to their feet first and answered the question correctly. There were discretionary points for funny or partially correct answers, and for giving additional information, which made for a lively session.

Once we had handed in the team sheet, Francis gave us the answers and we were trusted to mark our own individual entries. The identities of the wines were revealed, but the details weren’t laboured: the point of the game was to learn about grapes and styles, and not specific wines. I would say that the wines were all of good quality, and included some well-known names, but more importantly, they exhibited typical characteristics of their grapes.

After a five-minute break we moved on to the Food and Wine Matching or, more accurately, Cheese and Wine Matching. Each table got a very generous platter of Brie, Mature Cheddar and Stilton, and then tasting measures of Red Burgundy, Botrytised Semillon and Late Bottled Vintage Port. Our task was to taste each cheese paired with each of the wines, then rate each match from zero to four, where zero was “No! No! No!” and four was “Perfect”. We then had a chance to win more points if our rating agreed with Francis.


some of the winning team
Finally, all the scores and bonus points were totted up and the winners announced in reverse order, with much theatrical milking of the suspense. This was heightened when it became clear our team was up against the similarly initialled “Burgundy Bruisers” for first place: “And the winner is… the Bbbbbbbb (wait for it)… Bordeaux Barons!” Our team had won, and over dinner later we were happy to conclude the win had been a real team effort, demonstrating that even the “newbies” had definitely learned something.The tasting finished on time at 21:00, without it feeling at all rushed, and we moved through for what had been described in the programme as a “buffet dinner”.

In fact this turned out to be a sit down, three course, silver-service meal of decent quality. The consensus at our dinner table was that it had been a fun evening, and that people had learned more about wine that would enhance their future enjoyment.


As active wine enthusiasts and collectors we are possibly unrepresentative of the “average” customers for this weekend experience, but we thoroughly enjoyed it, even if we didn’t “learn” an awful lot ourselves. We thought the whole event had been handled very well, with a good balance between entertainment and instruction. Francis Gimblett, our host, clearly knew his subject, but was able to communicate in an engaging way that even the wine tasting newcomers didn’t find threatening or too technical. My final impression was that everyone had a very good time, and that for its target market of non-wine experts, it was well pitched and a great success.