The food and beverage manager at Whatley Manor in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, on wines from China, his passion for training and why he still likes a bag in a box
What makes a good sommelier?
A good sommelier needs to be a bit of a historian, a storyteller, know a few things about meteorology and geology, as well as some basic accounting and chemistry. But to be a great sommelier, you should be able to share that knowledge with excitement and enthusiasm, making the guest see the wine in another light.
What are you favourite food and wine pairings?
A German Grosse Lage Riesling with sashimi is pretty hard to beat, but a nice steak with a big Barolo also does the trick.
What was your best recent wine find?
A Chinese wine from the Ningxia province called Pretty Pony. I'm not really sure about the name, but don't judge a book by its cover. It's a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominating blend with a bit of age (currently 2013) that is drinking exceptionally well at the moment.
The wine is still very youthful in style with plenty of structure, which says a lot about the quality and potential. But I also like that it has its own personality and character and doesn't try to imitate other regions, such as Bordeaux or Napa. We currently have it on one of our wine flights in the Dining Room, paired with Wagyu beef, which is a perfect combination.
Which wine can't you do without on your list?
None really. I really enjoy discovering new bottles, keeping it alive and exciting.
What's your guiltiest wine pleasure?
Bag in a box! Sometimes it's just practical and more often than not the wine is actually pretty good.
How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
Just to maintain the knowledge takes quite a lot of work, to be honest, but to develop and continue learning, I read a lot of magazines like Decanter and Wine Spectator. I find it helpful when trying to keep up to date with what's happening around the world. It's a mix of everything, from watching videos on YouTube to posts on Instagram and keeping in touch with other sommeliers who talk about what they are doing or have seen or heard.
Who is your biggest inspiration and what did you learn from them?
Laurent Richet MS was my mentor and head sommelier when I worked at Restaurant Sat Bains. I was doing my Advanced Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) qualification at the time and I still can't believe how much time and effort he put into teaching me, while being incredibly patient and humble. That's one of the key skills I've learned from him – to go the extra mile with my team.
Which sommeliers do you admire?
Ronan Sayburn. His knowledge and ability to share with others is second to none. His enthusiasm is contagious. When he speaks, you listen and you learn.
Who would be on your ideal sommelier team?
Easy – Léo Mahé, my current head sommelier at Whatley Manor, and Valentín Checa, who used to be my assistant at Flemings – two of the greatest guys in the world. Doesn't matter if it's 50 covers or 500, the three of us would make it work.
How has the role of the sommelier changed in the past five years?
For me, it's the same today as it was five years ago. Trends and diversity in the wine world have changed and will continue to change, but the fundamental role of the sommelier hasn't.
What advice would you give a front of house team member considering training to be a sommelier?
First of all, find a great mentor. Hopefully, you have a good head sommelier who is keen to teach you – if not, change your workplace. Second, buy the Level 3 Wine & Spirit Education Trust book. It's without a doubt the best book for beginners – incredibly well-written and so easy to understand.
What new skills have you developed this year?
I wouldn't say I developed any new skills, but I have definitely become stronger in my knowledge. Since starting as food and beverage manager at Whatley Manor last summer I have found the role incredibly rewarding. Initially I found it quite challenging since I had to hone my mentoring and leadership skills. Developing a beverage team is completely different to managing a foodservice team, so it has been a great learning curve.
What's your goal for 2020?
I'm training five people in my team for their Certified CMS exam and my head sommelier towards his Advanced CMS. As for myself, I'm working towards the Master of Culinary Arts exam in 2021.
Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year 2020
Entries are now open for the 2020 Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year, the awards that recognise the very finest talent in wine service. Organised by The Caterer, in partnership with the Academy of Food & Wine Service, the competition is open to professional sommeliers and waiting staff working in the UK. Candidates are judged on their wine and drink expertise as well as their ability to deal efficiently and knowledgeably with customers by demonstrating exemplary front of house skills.
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