Please tell us some background about yourself. How did you first become interested in wine, and how did that interest evolve into a career?
Having no family history with wine, and growing up in an area where people would rather drink beer, I wasn't introduced to wine until I was an apprentice in hotel management at age of 21. I began selling wine, restocking fridges and tasting wines with restaurant managers. In 2005, I studied and began to take part in courses, master classes and consumer tastings.
During my time in Frankfurt, I visited wine makers and vineyards, participated in a harvest and then all of a sudden I was in charge of the wine list. Eight years and five wine lists down the line, I forgot about the goal to become F&B Manager and I stayed on to become a Sommelier.
When I was in South Africa I learned all about the production side of the wine industry. I visited young wine makers who worked all over the world and brought back their knowledge and experience to make the best wine possible in a country which has now established its place in the wine world. I have lots of good memories of South Africa and I made lots of friends too. Wine connects people.
What do you think makes a great sommelier?
A great sommelier is an individual who has found his own passion and style and follows his own values. He needs to stay trustworthy, knowledgeable and needs to be a great ambassador for each region and wine maker in the world. Every sommelier who shares this passion to every customer can become a good sommelier. In my opinion, a great sommelier should share his knowledge and be the person for others to follow him into his footsteps.
Describe your typical day at work.
As the Head Sommelier I am responsible for a huge operation at The Ritz and I have five Sommeliers to look after. I spend most of my day organising the administrative side of things. Updating the wine list, stock controlling, stock taking, assisting the Events team with wine recommendations for big parties, rotas, holidays, training, meetings with the purchasing department to discuss new listings and stock levels, checking the main cellar stock, maintaining the Bar, Room Service and Events wine list etc. If the little time allows I try to meet suppliers and do tastings with the team during the day, either food or wine. Once a week I prepare a little exam and a blind tasting for my sommeliers to keep them on their toes. I will be on the floor during lunch and dinner service to be in touch with the guests and my sommeliers; to maintain the standard at the required level and to oversee the service. All in all, I have a fulfilled day with lots of challenges and task who keep me busy all day long.
How does pricing affect the wine advice you give diners?
Some customers who have been with the Ritz for many, many years do not necessarily put so much attention on the price. The younger generation which we welcome to the Ritz are more price conscious and budget focused.
Have customers become more knowledgeable about wine?
Definitely. All those wonderful courses, tastings and master classes offered from various institutions put us as sommeliers to the test as customers indeed have more knowledge these days. It is not all about Claret and Burgundy any more, guests want to experience other regions like Santorini or wines from Bairrada.
Who has been most influential in your career?
I cannot really tell. I was never lucky enough to work under a Master Sommelier or someone who took my hand and told me that Sancerre is in fact made from Sauvignon Blanc. Most of my knowledge is self-taught. I am very grateful to the South African wine makers and friends, who took a lot of time to teach me the essentials about winemaking. Since I have been in the UK, the final touches are given by Master Sommeliers like Nigel Wilkinson who helped me to improve my blind tasting skills and other Master Sommelier.
Describe a good sommelier's introduction or presentation of their list at a table.
First of all, present the list opened. If possible, make sure you know what food they ordered. Let the guest have a browse first to gain an overview. We are always there to assist. Always recommend three wines, bottom end; mid and high end price range.
When pairing 'Chef's' dishes with wines, what defines the process for you?
Our dishes are very classic and well balanced. In a perfect world, we always aim for the perfect match of food and wine. But customer tastes and preferences are an important factor too. When customers are willing to experiment and put themselves in the hands of the Sommelier, we create a magical experience.
How often do you manage to touch base and re-taste your wines?
Our wine list is fairly big, I would like to taste the Petrus constantly but I am happy to taste our exquisite wines by the glass every day. I do a lot of blind tastings with my Sommeliers where and I often use the wines from our list which helps us to see how the wines age and how different wine can taste on a Monday than on a Friday.
Please describe your process for sourcing new wines.
We visit a lot of suppliers for tasting and a lot of suppliers visit us. My sommeliers travel regularly and bring back samples or interesting tasting notes. If we think the wine fits in our portfolio, if the price is right and we think that customers will appreciate it, we list it.
Selling wines by the glass. Your thoughts please.
I have cut down drastically on the wines by the glass. We have started to sell our wines by the glass only from magnum bottles. I believe in the freedom of the sommeliers. If a customer is not happy with what we offer by the glass, my sommeliers have the freedom to go into the cellar and open what the guest like, as long as they are willing to pay the price for it.
What are you really thinking when a customer sends a perfectly good wine back?
They did not complete the courses and master classes offered by those institutions then. We sell it by the glass and make another guest very happy.
What trends have you noticed in the wine market recently?
Everyone talks about biodynamic wines and organic wines. If everyone talks about it, it must be a trend. For me, I would rather focus on Central Europe at the moment. Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, as well Portugal and the south of Italy, South Africa and coastal Chile. Indigenous grape varieties always catch my attention and could be considered a 'trend' for me.
You are on that deserted island. Which two varietals do you plant?
If I ask my survival instinct, I'd say Shiraz and Chardonnay, those varieties grow everywhere, even in the Antarctica. If I ask my palate, I'd say Riesling and Grenache.
What's the key to developing staff to become well-trained to sell and serve wine?
To become well trained, listen to your Head Sommelier :)
To develop staff you need to have a phenomenal knowledge and motivation skills so that every staff member can come to you at any time of the day to seek advice and a get a good answer. As a sommelier, every day is a challenge and you need to have dedication and the strength to go the extra mile. Studying for another 2 hours after a 12 hour day should be normal.
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing?
Fillet Rossini with an aged Amarone.
And a most unusual food and wine pairing?
Fillet Rossini with a young Amarone.
How can customers get the best out of you? What should they be prepared to tell you and what questions should they ask?
Show interest and ask questions about the food and the wine list.
Who is the one person you'd most like to share a bottle of wine with?
That depends on the bottle...
How can budding wine enthusiasts practice their tasting skills at home? Any games, tricks, or tips?
Blind tasting is always good fun.
What's the one thing you love most about your job?
To see happy customers' faces when they sip on their first glass of wine we have recommended and to see that my sommeliers progress every day, challenge themselves and become stronger.
Where do you see your future career path?
I know only one thing for sure, the Ritz will need to endure me for a while...