Review by Fiona Duncan, published 18th March 2007.
It's opera night at The Vineyard. Guests have paid £125 each to watch a group of fine singers, including principals from the ENO, perform Rigoletto, and to continue with dinner in the Michelin-starred restaurant. All proceeds go to the Pelican cancer foundation, a charity supported by The Vineyard's owner, Sir Peter Michael.
Like, one suspects, most things to which Sir Peter turns his hand, the opera evening is a resounding success. We meet engaging people at dinner: an Oxford chemistry don and a county court judge and their wives, who had stayed here before, and would, they tell us, happily come again, for the food, the wine, and the comfort.
Every hotel I visit has a human story behind it, and in the case of this five-star "food and wine destination" the story is that of Sir Peter. To describe the Vineyard as his plaything would be wrong, but for a man who made a fortune in electronics it's certainly a pet project, and a personal reflection of his passions: wine, food, music (he was a founder of Classic FM), art and sculpture.
His other leisure-oriented interests, from his winery in California to golf and private fishing are grouped together as the Peter Michael Collection "created and cared for by the family of Sir Peter Michael".
The Vineyard, whose obvious drawbacks are undistinguished buildings that are too close to the road, and no grounds, is filled with Sir Peter's paintings and sculpture, which are not to our taste, but that's subjective, and with his wine, which is.
An incredible 23,000 bottles in the cellar, to be precise. Sir Michael's first love may be Californian wines (his own ambrosial Les Pavots was described by Robert Parker as the fourth greatest wine in the world) but the rest of the world is by no means neglected.
The drink, which had my husband purring for days, is matched by the cooking of John Campbell, who combines an inventive, scientific approach with a proper regard for tradition and seasonal produce, and has recently been rewarded with his second Michelin star. Our dinner, including his signature slow-cooked beef with smoked mash and pickled beetroot, was sublime.
As for the 49 bedrooms, some contemporary, some traditional, they are the last word in luxury - of the standardised variety. The Vineyard, to me a killer combination of pretentious and dull, has been accurately described as resembling Southfork on the A4 (for those who remember Dallas).
Impressive Southfork-style flames may shoot from the surface of the circular pool in front of the hotel, but that doesn't compensate for sitting rooms that feel bland and impersonal, a spa that feels bland and impersonal and bedrooms - with no touches such as fresh flowers or current magazines - that feel bland and impersonal.
In Rigoletto's most famous aria, the duke cynically sings that "women are fickle" and that's true of me when it comes to this hotel. The opera evening was sheer pleasure, the food and wine were special treats and our night was one of spoiling comfort. But five star or not, I won't be there when the don and the judge return.
Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire (01635 528770; www.the-vineyard.co.uk). Doubles from £270 to £525; breakfast £18.50.