Please tell us some background about yourself. How did you first become interested in wine, and how did that interest evolve into a career?
I went to a monastic boarding school run by Benedictine monks on the South banks of Loch Ness, and my housemaster was a keen chess player, as was I. He also had the keys to the wine cellar, and St Benedict recommended drinking a pint of red wine a day, for health reasons apparently. Fr Aelred showed me some good Bordeaux, over some appalling thrashings at chess, which I remember finding too heavy for me at the time (I must have been 14 or 15), and some lovely red burgundy. My interest was suitably piqued. I have no idea how it ended up being my career, I was just in the right place at the right time, and given the right support and opportunities I guess.
What do you think makes a great sommelier?
Someone who is completely objective about wine, who understands the word "service", who recognises that the customer knows a heck of a lot more about what they like than I do, someone who listens well and communicates well, and works hard to build a portfolio of tasting notes. Lastly, someone who realises that eating and drinking are not only fundamental to existence, but are also about beauty, balance and pleasure.
Describe your typical day at work.
My role changes in each new job that I'm in. Generally though, I start around 10am. Morning is all about mise en place, or getting ready for service. I check in all deliveries, alter the list if necessary, and check the restaurant floor to make sure all glassware is as it should be. In service, I take as many beverage orders I can, but also help out with running food and clearing tables - I believe that the customer is paying to be served, so I'm not going to walk past a table that needs cleared. After Lunch, I would normally work on the list or do some paperwork or system work. A bite to eat around 5pm, and then into dinner service, normally finishing anytime between 11.30pm and 1am - although there have been times when I've still been working at 4am. If I'm needed, I'll stay - not through any heroic tendency, but just if a customer is there spending on wine but needs information that only I have, then, once again, I believe that is what my job is.
How does pricing affect the wine advice you give diners?
Not at all. I tend to down sell if I don't think a wine is suitable for the food or what I believe the guest is looking for, or if I want to take the customer out of their comfort zone. I talk as honestly, openly and unpretentiously as I possibly can about all the wines on the list. Wine, after all, is just a generally great product. Sure, there are some inflated prices, especially in Bordeaux and some of the super Tuscan wines, but I don't tend to list them.
Have customers become more knowledgeable about wine?
Certainly. And much better at expressing what they like or want.
Who has been most influential in your career?
Probably, subconsciously, Fr Aelred Grugan, who gave me my first taste of premium wine, and described why it was so good. Conciously, Matthieu Longuere MS of La Trompette in Chiswick - he made me want to learn, which I am still doing!
Describe a good sommelier's introduction or presentation of their list at a table.
Personally, I normally just put the list on the table and let diners know that I'm there if they have any questions. Sometimes people will know what they want, other times they will not want to be intimidated by having to deal with a sommelier. So it's kind of a "There you go, there's the list, I'm around if you need any help." If the list is good enough, theoretically they can't go wrong!
When pairing 'Chef's' dishes with wines, what defines the process for you?
Firstly I think of the wine that will provide perfect balance with the food. Then I ask the customer what sort of wines they like to drink. We meet somewhere in the middle. If it's a recommendation to go on a dish on a menu, I look at wine like a condiment to the food - if its rich, I'll try and lighten it, like Valpolicella ripasso with hearty Lamb dishes. If its all about luxury, I'll try and mirror the flavours, and if its all pizzazz and bright flavours, like pacific rim cooking, I'll look for a crisp and lively wine, like a Gruner Veltliner or Verdejo or the like. Generally, when recommending on menus, it's all about making the food taste as good as possible.
How often do you manage to touch base and re-taste your wines?
Please describe your process for sourcing new wines.
Generally, I look to fill holes in the list first and foremost. Then I hassle the multitude of wine reps I know to get the right region/country/style/colour/grape that I'm looking for, get the options down to three or so from three different suppliers, and let them all haggle for price. When I go to taste, I ignore how much it costs, and try and price it in my head. If it costs less than I think it tastes at, then that is a good restaurant wine for me.
Selling wines by the glass. Your thoughts please.
Great, as long as they are tasted every day, and kept in good condition. It gives the customers a chance to try different wines without committing to a bottle, and experience is the only true master if you ask me.
What are you really thinking when a customer sends a perfectly good wine back?
A) I wonder what they didn't like about it...
B) Great! Something to drink after work.
Very rarely, if the customer has been rude about it, or rude to staff, I'll go over and tell them there is nothing wrong with it.
What trends have you noticed in the wine market recently?
People are ordering a lot of Spanish wines recently, and Albarino in particular. Gruner Veltliner seems to be on a downward curve, but I'm sure it will come back up. Customers seem to prefer less oaky wines.
You are on that deserted island. Which two varietals do you plant?
hmm, depends on the soil and aspect I guess - I expect Pinot noir and Petit Manseng.
What's the key to developing staff to become well-trained to sell and serve wine?
Make it fun, and speak on terms they will understand. Implement initiatives!
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing?
Not one, but dozens... Txakoli di Getaria and oysters with cucumber & mint jelly would be up there.
And a most unusual food and wine pairing?
Umm, not sure. White Maury from Mas Amiel (vin doux naturel made from Grenache gris) with Marmalade steamed pudding, or lobster thermidor with Leon Barral's Vin de pays de L'Herault Blanc, a crazy blend of Terret Gris and blanc, Roussanne and Viognier, with malolactic fermentation in new and used oak barrels. Incredible.
How can customers get the best out of you? What should they be prepared to tell you and what questions should they ask?
Just be open and honest. Try and describe what you like in simple terms, or tell me the last bottle of wine you really enjoyed - I should be able to do the rest.
Who is the one person you'd most like to share a bottle of wine with?
How can budding wine enthusiasts practice their tasting skills at home? Any games, tricks, or tips?
Always make a tasting note, ideally one which is legible for further study. Try lots of different wines, and ideally try two of the same varietal together. See which you prefer, and why.
What's the one thing you love most about your job?
The wine, and the satisfactory feeling that I'm giving something to someone, in the sense of imparting knowledge about wines.
Where do you see your future career path?
Wherever my heart and feet take me.