Sommelier of the Month - Christophe Richelet
- Name: Christophe Richelet
- Date of birth: 11th April 1973
- Place of birth: Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
- Eye colour: They're moody.
- Nationality: Canadian and French
2007 Graduated as sommelier from the Institut de Tourisme et d'Hotellerie du Quebec, in Montreal. Awarded two bursaries of excellence.
2007-2008 Assistant Head Sommelier at Clio Restaurant in Boston, Massachussetts, USA.
2009-2010 Assistant Head Sommelier at La Petite Maison in Mayfair, London.
2010-2011 Sommelier at OXO Tower Restaurant in Southbank, London.
A brief stint in an office...
2012-Now Head Sommelier at Viajante, Bethnal Green, London.
I love cooking; spend a fair amount of time in museums and galleries; and own 6 cameras.
About our restaurant
Viajante is Nuno Mendes' Michelin-starred restaurant. It opened three and a half years ago and serves tasting menus only. It's a small space, seating about 35 covers in one go. Guests can choose 6, 9 or 12 courses and, of course, have the option of doing a beverage pairing.
My assistant and myself choose all the wines for the pairings (we do use sakes and spirits, as well) and focus on wine service. This being said, the whole front of house team is trained in explaining all the beverages we use on the pairings.
Our wine list has about 200 bins on it. I'm quite happy with this number as I don't care much for wine lists that look like encyclopaedias. We focus on small growers and family businesses and we like to work with wines from organic and biodynamic vineyards, and made in a hands-off approach. But there's room for wines that don't fall into this definition. The name of the restaurant means 'traveller' and I take that idea at heart when working on the list. It's important that we list wines from many different and unusual places, like Serbia, Bulgaria and Hungary. I also like working with grape varieties which are not as well known but speak of the place they are from in terms of history and tradition.
The wines chosen for the pairings are chosen first and foremost because they pair well with the dish. Ideally, we want to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. I try to avoid repeating grape varieties or countries of origin on the shorter menus but it does happen once in a while. When it does, the wines are generally different enough to justify a repetition.
Current favourites of mine on the list are the 2010 white from Clos du Rouge Gorge; the 2011 Clos de la Meslerie and Celler Pasanau's 2003 Finca La Planeta.
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've always worked in hospitality so you could say that my interest grew gradually, by participation. I started getting involved in re-stocking and stock taking, just to help out, and found that I actually felt liking diving head first into wine. That's when I quit my job and went back to school.
What do you think makes a great sommelier? Assessing your client is the most important skill to have for a good sommelier. We have to forget most of what we know when we speak to our customers and focus on who we are talking to, and what sort of wine will enhance their dining experience.
Describe your typical day at work. There's always a bit of paperwork to do, tidying the cellar, orders to be placed, invoices to be authorized: a great time to put headphones on and listen to some Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Then all the chefs and FOH staff eat together before service. Finally, our guests come in and we try to give them the best possible experience.
How does pricing affect the wine advice you give diners? It does not. I treat all my customers the same way. I try as much as possible to make my customers feel comfortable about talking to 'the sommelier'. I usually ask what style of wine they are in the mood for, and then make a few suggestions at different price points.
Have customers become more knowledgeable about wine? I agree that wine has become an interest for more and more people. A lot of punters go to wine dinners or tasting sessions with names like 'Learn How to Taste like a Pro in One Hour'. I enjoy meeting customers who know about wine, chatting with them and telling them a bit about what we do here.
Who has been most influential in your career? I have a lot of admiration for my two teachers at ITHQ, back home. One is a fountain of knowledge and the other one, one of the best tasters I've met so far. They have both taught us a crucial trait to have, which is modesty. My year at Clio, in Boston, allowed me to work with two amazing managers. I've never met anybody before or after who impressed me so much with their professionalism, dedication and respect. Hats off to Christian and Alec!
Describe a good sommelier's introduction or presentation of their list at a table. We don't work quite like this at Viajante. But I think an intro should be succinct, suggesting that you are available to answer any and all questions they may have, and it should include the sommelier's 'signature', i.e. what makes this list different from others.
When pairing 'Chef's' dishes with wines, what defines the process for you? I usually first get a verbal description of the new dish and I ask questions regarding flavours and textures. This process helps narrow down the style of wine that would suit the dish. Then the kitchen will put one up for us to taste and we will try a few different wines with it, hopefully nailing it quickly. But sometimes, it takes a few retries before we find the best one. And sometimes, during briefing, I'm told 'By the way, we have this great new dish coming on the menu right now' and I just have to roll with the punch.
How often do you manage to touch base and re-taste your wines? Not a single bottle is served without being checked for faults first. Obviously, this also allows us to re-taste our wines and make mental 'updates'.
Please describe your process for sourcing new wines. There are no set rules here. Sometimes I tell my suppliers to bring something they are excited about, sometimes I give guidelines like 'winter reds'. Of course, I attend trade tastings and when I taste something I like and feel it would have a place on our list, I buy it.
Selling wines by the glass. Your thoughts please. We sell a lot of beverage pairings but all the pairing wines are available by the glass so that gives us a good range that changes slightly every time we add a new dish on the menu.
What are you really thinking when a customer sends a perfectly good wine back? That depends on whether they are telling me it is faulty, or simply that they don't like it. In the latter case, I have probably not explained the wine well enough and now it's up to me to sell it by the glass to absorb the cost. If the wine is sound and they are telling me it's faulty, I will start by saying that we are going to find something for them which they will like, and then I'll explain why this one that we just opened is the way it is. A bit of education here and there never hurts, right?
What trends have you noticed in the wine market recently? Well, the underlying trend in the whole wine industry seems to be for wines that display freshness, elegance, balance and minerality (whether you like the term or not) so the whole Wine Advocate bunch can go hang themselves. As far as regions go, Jura and Savoie are the current underdogs.
You are on that deserted island. Which two varietals do you plant? Riesling and Syrah.
What's the key to developing staff to become well-trained to sell and serve wine? The only way people can really become enthusiastic about a product is if they taste it. But knowing the back-story behind every label is a good selling point, too. I believe training sessions should be short, informal and more regular. If someone were to talk to me about astrophysics (like my brother), I couldn't keep my interest up for three hours because I don't know enough to begin with. It's the same with wine training: build their knowledge and confidence gradually.
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing? I don't. And I like it that way. I'm quite happy to work with a changing menu.
And a most unusual food and wine pairing? Cod throat and tongue served with bacalhao and garlic broth. The pairing was a very traditional sake that screamed of rice, wild mushroom and blue cheese.
How can customers get the best out of you? What should they be prepared to tell you and what questions should they ask? I fight the 'snooty sommelier' stereotype as hard as I can but some people still think sommeliers are there to force them to spend more money than they want to. My goal is to make sure customers drink something good at a price where they feel comfortable. I feel that is the only way to insure repeat custom. I do believe customers should be upfront about their wants or expectations: I can offer something reassuring (Sancerre or Chablis) or I can serve something I'm into at the moment, if they feel like trying something new and different.
Who is the one person you'd most like to share a bottle of wine with? My mother. Even though we have different tastes, she contributed greatly to the way I appreciate beauty and I just really enjoy drinking wine with her because she has a deep-rooted capacity at experiencing pleasure.
How can budding wine enthusiasts practice their tasting skills at home? Any games, tricks, or tips? As drinking wine can be an expensive past-time, tasting groups are a cool way of sharing wine and experiences. Sessions can be based on a grape variety, a region, a country. Covering up the bottles and tasting 'blind' is a great way to level the playing field and inject a bit of humility into the 'know-it-alls'.
What's the one thing you love most about your job? The opportunity to taste fantastic wines pretty much all the time. Sorry! No, not really.
Where do you see your future career path? I'd love to have my own wine bar in the not-so-distant future.