Would you agree that the role of the sommelier has changed over the last few years?
I started in an old-school regime of hospitality where being a sommelier was a very male-dominated and French-led area. There was a certain arrogance that came with that role.
That has completely changed in the last 10 years. I’ve worked with some fantastic female sommeliers. The first was a French lady called Catherine in Sydney and she was amazing. She was very giving with her time and knowledge. Also guests’ knowledge of wine has increased. People aren’t just going for the safe choices of a dry white wine or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, they’re really happy to try new wines from regions that wouldn’t be seen as fine wine regions 10 years ago, like Portugal or Argentina.
The role of the sommelier has also changed in that you can't just be knowledgeable about wine any more. The pairings we do at Restaurant Story include wine, craft beers and bottle-aged cocktails we have in-house. Guests are really enjoying that we’re not just limiting ourselves to merely a wine pairing.
What do you think is the best approach to serving wine?
Being a sommelier is about reading people. You need to be able to make judgement calls within seconds as to what they’re looking to spend and not make them feel like they’re being judged in any way. Here we have a pairing menu that we think showcases what we do best here, but if guests don't want to go down that route, we have to find out what they're looking for that night, so we ask lots of questions and their responses will lead our choices.
How do you deal with challenging customers, or similarly those who are nervous about trying something new?
The response comes in your body language and your enthusiasm and passion about the product. Working in Hong Kong was a great learning tool for me because in Chinese culture there’s a concept called 'face' and it’s almost like pride. You never want to lose face. It was a great way to experience ways to make people feel at ease and never let them lose face. I’m quite strict about the products I’ve brought in and those I promote to ensure they’re exciting, are great quality and match well with the food. As a sommelier you’ve created a list of great products, so it's your job to reassure customers that any choice they make is a great choice.
What does your wine list look like?
I was lucky enough to take over a list that had a good range of things from craft beer to small range spirits to a good wine collection and I’ve just built upon that. You need to have a range of prices, but also a range of textures and flavours so I’ve got wines that range from £25 a bottle to £600 plus. I think to have that depth in your wine list is essential. Ours is quite tight – about 300 bins. It’s good to have economic offers within all offers of your wines.
It's also important to note that it doesn't have to just be a wine list. I’m lucky to have worked in all different parts of the beverage industry. I started as a barista when I was 14, then I went to be a bartender and a bar manager, then I moved into wine. Now, when I take on assistants I need them to understand it’s not just about wine, you need to be able to cater for all different tastes.
Would you agree with wine writer Jancis Robinson that the sommelier is 'on the rise'?
Hospitality is very fashionable at the moment and people see it as an exciting place to work, but a lot of people are also unaware of the hard work involved. The sommelier is quite a privileged role in front-of-house. You spend a lot of time with the guests and the fringe benefits are being invited to vineyards and special dinners but it does come off the back of 18 hour days and you’re sometimes unpacking cases and cleaning floors. I’ve seen a rise in the number of people wanting to be sommeliers – and many are passionate about it, but also a rise in the number of people who are unprepared for the sheer hard graft it entails.
What qualities make a good sommelier?
It’s having a general passion for the industry and beverage. You can teach anyone the mechanics of service, but you can’t teach people to want something. The hardest part of management is motivation, so people need to have a general want and interest in the whole concept of dining. You need to be hospitable and like people. You don’t need to be an extrovert, but you do need to be passionate about what you’re doing.
Today, being a sommelier is not just about being passionate about wine, it can be about spirits, or even coffee has now evolved. Here at Restaurant Story we’re about to be changing from a traditional espresso machine to drip filtered coffee so we can offer cold or hot brew. We’re working with a local roaster sourcing beans from single estates and that’s really exciting.