Please tell us some background about yourself. How did you first become interested in wine, and how did that interest evolve into a career?
It began with a love of fine hotels and restaurants, internationally. I thought from a young age I wanted to be part of it, therefore enrolled at Oxford Brookes University in a Hotel & Restaurant Management degree. Working during school holidays at a near by hotel to earn a little pocket money and to gain an understanding of the industry I was thrilled to gain a placement in Colorado Springs. Working in fine dining, in a rather formal environment, serving classic tableside dishes was my first real insight into wine and pairings. There was a team of Sommeliers that I was able to learn from, and the experiences made me want to learn and develop these skills back in UK. I have always enjoyed working within restaurants front of house, the fast pace, attention to detail and execution of service has always been a thrill. There came a time about 5 years ago having worked alongside a series of Sommeliers that I was offered the opportunity to focus on the wine side, naturally I jumped at the chance, and over time have worked up to Head Sommelier.
What do you think makes a great sommelier?
The ability to be adaptive. To be able to communicate to staff, to train and motivate them and to have excellent product knowledge and confidence on the floor, without arrogance. To demonstrate passion, be a good listener and patience. Perhaps most importantly to be approachable to the customer and to leave a memorable experience in their eyes.
Describe your typical day at work.
Typically the day starts around 10.30am with checking emails and sign off any deliveries, next the mise en place is done for lunch service, re stocking the fridges and wine racks. The business for the day is reviewed and cellar tastings prepared. There are usually 2 or 3 tastings booked in the tasting rooms each day between midday and 4.30pm so the enoround (if used is checked that bottles are stocked and in good working order) or if blind the set of 6 wines are prepared. The restaurant glasses, decanters and ice buckets are checked to be polished and ready for use. After tastings there is often a supplier to see so some new additions may be added to the list for now or in the near future. Next is dinner service when I am on the floor either in the Camellia where I tend to take food orders and recommend a wine to complement or the Pass when the flights commence. Service may end around midnight, then home shortly after.
How does pricing affect the wine advice you give diners?
Our customers tend to be relatively price conscious; I would be lying if I said price wasn't a factor. However customers are willing to upgrade if they are confident in the Sommelier's ability and you gain a rapour. Offering value for money and quality to a customer is the Holy Grail.
Have customers become more knowledgeable about wine?
Yes in general. The majority of customers I talk to have some relatively good wine knowledge. However many are looking to try something new and just need a little push and persuasion. Of course there are a few who think they know everything but when you delve deeper you realise this not to be the case!
Who has been most influential in your career?
The support from my parents to do what I enjoy.
Describe a good sommelier's introduction or presentation of their list at a table.
Gauging the guest is key. Many of our guests are repeat customers so I try not to be overly formal in presenting the list, rather acknowledge their food choice and suggest a few bottles which on balance will complement their meal, offering perhaps a new wine not even listed or a varietal/region new to them. With others it is best to present the list perhaps open to the Sommeliers recommendations of the week and leave them to browse, tell them I will be on hand to offer any advice, and remember to return after an adequate period of time to see if a decision has been made or a recommendation needed.
When pairing 'Chef's' dishes with wines, what defines the process for you?
The Pass (tasting menu only) allows creativity both with the ever changing menus and wine pairings. Despite the accolades the restaurant allows to showcase both wine pairings and non alcoholic infusions 'thinking outside of the box'. It is about persistence, understanding the multitude of ingredients on a single dish, experimenting with pairings with the chefs until you find a real marriage.
How often do you manage to touch base and re-taste your wines?
Almost on a daily basis, we have a state of the art Enoround Elite which holds 16 wines at dual temperatures for whites and reds, this enables any of our table wines to keep once opened for a few weeks without oxidising. This is also an excellent tool for staff training as with some unusual grape varietals and styles available staff can recommend a mini flight in the restaurant to enhance the customer experience if a bottle is simply too much.
Please describe your process for sourcing new wines.
As much as I would like to source the wines myself firsthand from source, understandably this is not always practical. I currently work with 8 suppliers for the hotels wine lists and take every opportunity to meet with all in turn throughout the month to revisit the lists, look at customer trends and seek new, interesting, quality and value for money wines to list. Frequent London tastings also helps to talk to the producers first hand and perhaps find that little gem.
Selling wines by the glass. Your thoughts please.
In essence that's what The Pass Restaurant is all about. There are a base of around 25 table and sparkling wines open at any one time. This enables the customer to have a broad range of choice of wines available to them, though selling is done via word of mouth rather than simply shown a list of names. As long as the wines are served without taint, (this is where the Enoround and verre du vin system come in) having a manageable diverse selection offered by the glass is a real positive to the customer.
What are you really thinking when a customer sends a perfectly good wine back?
I suppose your immediate reaction would be rather negative, and question what is wrong with it? However perhaps the best route to go down would be to suggest that is the style of the wine and let them choose a different wine rather than open another of the same bottle. Then put it in the Enoround!
What trends have you noticed in the wine market recently?
There are still a few who enjoy the robust, rich oaky whites, however trends are rather seasonal, so moving into August the real fliers are Austrian Gruner Veltliner, Spanish Albarino and new world dry Rieslings. Regarding reds many look to Chile and Argentina as they tend to offer quality and value for money.
You are on that deserted island. Which two varietals do you plant?
Chardonnay and Syrah. Rather than wait and hope a few cases of 2005 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru and 2003 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Cuvee Cathelin would be a welcome friend.
What's the key to developing staff to become well-trained to sell and serve wine?
Constant small steps. Keep momentum and interest; start with the basics and progress. Keep training fun and implement a small incentive prize. Everyone likes a little competition!
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing?
One I use consistently depending upon season is Cristallo Vin de Fraise from Valais, Switzerland, fermented wild strawberries made in the same method as Ice wine served with any strawberry based dessert.
And a most unusual food and wine pairing?
Akashi-Tai, Junmai Daiginjo Sake served with scallop ceviche, blueberry and horseradish ice cream.
How can customers get the best out of you? What should they be prepared to tell you and what questions should they ask?
Don't think we are unapproachable! Make the customer feel at ease and ask them a non related wine question (relevant) as an icebreaker. Once the customer is at ease they are likely to open up more, then you get a much clearer understanding of what they do and do not like.
Who is the one person you'd most like to share a bottle of wine with?
It would have been Oliver Reed, although perhaps sharing was never in his vocabulary.
How can budding wine enthusiasts practice their tasting skills at home? Any games, tricks, or tips?
Why stay at home when a wine tasting can be booked with me for £52 per couple, an informal and fun way to learn a little more, and a great way to pass a couple of hours. Alternatively why not invite a group of friends around set a budget in advance and do a blind tasting. This way even though all the wines are known within the group, they are not all known collectively. This is a fun way to try new things.
What's the one thing you love most about your job?
The satisfaction that a customer has tried something new to them and enjoyed it, travel and talking to the winemakers first hand too.
Where do you see your future career path?
Working for a large international 5 star company with the scope for travel.