REMEMBER the old days, when you’d sit down in a posh restaurant and a scary-looking French man with a handlebar moustache would sidle over to you with a book the size of the bible? Well, times have changed, and a gaggle of young studs and studettes have taken over London’s best wine lists. Well under 35, these rising stars are clever, passionate and – in general – not from here. Their mission? To make your night better. Rather than to scare you into buying a wine you’ve never heard of for a price you can’t afford, these sommeliers want to be your trusty guide through the vinous maze.
City A.M. meets five of the young guns transforming London’s wine scene.
NOT every sommelier has a degree in economics from Cornell, or leaves a job in high finance to pursue a love of wine. Yet Chicago-born Narea, 29, did just this, turning his back on a graduate position at the Chicago Board of Options Exchange for a job selling low-quality booze wholesale to liquor stores in the Chicago area. Now head sommelier at Launceston Place in Kensington, he recently won the US Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for the wine list there. He moved to London for love.
HOW DID YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH WINE?
My parents were foodies and we were always eating out. By the age of ten I was tasting wine. Later, I was sitting in a wine-tasting course at university and we tasted a 1952 Chateau Margaux. The wine blew me away. I knew then what I was going to follow for the rest of my life.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT BEING A SOMMELIER?
I love finding that one wine that just puts the exclamation point on a perfect evening. I like getting to know the individual; their more traditional preferences or their adventurous spirit. Maybe you’re introducing someone to a completely new wine region or maybe you’re bringing back an old favourite that is comforting at just the right time.
HOW ARE YOU MAKING YOUR IMPRINT ON WINE IN LONDON?
I am trying to revolutionise the idea of wine matching. Of course the wine must pair with the food but what about the atmosphere of the room, the company you’re with, and even the mood of the group? How about what music is playing in the background? I’m not just matching two elements but rather completing the entire experience with wine.
WHAT WINES ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT JUST NOW?
Rhone Valley wines, and new world versions using the same grapes. I’m loving Grenache and Mourvèdre for the reds, and Marsanne, Rousanne, and Viognier for whites – they’re so versatile with food.
GAIGNON, 29, is the quintessential French wine-man. From a family of winemakers, he followed the revered track of catering school, apprenticeships and Michelin-starred sommelier-hood. After a stint at Petrus, he is now head sommelier at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE A CAREER IN WINE?
I grew up with wine, big Sunday lunches, spending the summer in the Loire valley. From the age of 16, I never considered doing anything else.
DEFINE THE PERFECT SOMMELIER
One that creates a versatile wine list. You’ve got to cater to the customer who only wants classic French wine, as well as the one who wants to discover new things. Your wine list should change all the time, you should know your client, and you should be very flexible.
Here you can move quite quickly, learn a lot, go to a lot of tastings. There’s a huge restaurant scene. The possibilities are huge. In France it’s much harder to move up the rungs.
ONE of London’s few top-flight female sommeliers, the Swedish Laler, just 25, has made a name for herself at Michelin-starred Icelandic restaurant Texture. She was a semi-finalist at the prestigious Academy of Food and Wine’s 2010 Sommelier of the Year awards.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO WINE?
I was 18 and a friend put four wines in front of me, asking if I could smell the difference. I could. That was how my passion started.
WHAT’S YOUR USP?
I’m obsessed with small details: from glass size to how you decant. Playing around with temperature is very important. Depending on the grape, I’ll serve a white anywhere from eight to 13 degrees. Chill a big wine and it will lose its flavours. Warm it up and it will start to bloom. Doing this
correctly takes skill.
DO YOU MIND WORKING IN A MAN’S WORLD?
Sometimes people see a young blonde Swede and discount me. But more and more women are becoming sommeliers now. It’s not bad, and I’m doing well.
Saf; Pursip drinks conultancy
I HAVE never met anyone who is as enthusiastic about drinks as Joe, 29. A gin tasting with him saw no fewer than 20 bottles of niche, boutique bottles lined up on the counter at Saf, the vegan restaurant at which he oversees beverages. A recent trip to Saf involved vegetable champagne cocktails. And when it comes to organic wine, Joe knows all. Perhaps it’s his American background: a childhood in sunny California with oenophile parents and professional grounding in New York’s frenetic cocktail scene. His first job, after attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music (where he was in a glam rock band), was at a Boston wine shop.
HOW DID YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH WINE?
I remember when we were really little walking through Sonoma with my parents and picking grapes. Those sunshiny memories of driving through wine country planted the seed. And we always had good wines with dinner.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH YOUR JOB?
People should drink like they eat. The most important thing for a sommelier is to taste wine every day; it’s the only way to learn. Then you’re better equipped to do your job, which is to help guests find what they’re looking for. You’re a detective for them. I’d never recommend a wine just because I like it.
WHY ARE YOU SUCH A FAN OF ORGANIC/BIODYNAMIC WINES?
Chemicals bring nothing to the wine, they just weaken the grapes. Wine has been around for centuries, but sprayed with pesticides only since the 1980s. Biodynamic wine-growing is the pinnacle of natural harmony. It promotes more living organisms so the vineyards are literally buzzing with life, which makes for better grapes.
WINES TO WATCH?
Portugal is making some phenomenal red blends. And Moldova – around Croatia and Hungary – is also producing some really exciting wines now.
WHERE WILL YOU BE IN TEN YEARS?
On a beach sipping one of my own cocktails: a well-made daiquiry. Or the best drink in the world: vintage Clos du Mesnil Champagne.
SCALA, 32, is the wine angel of Indian food. You’d think, being from the idyllic island of Ischia in southern Italy, he’d have gravitated towards a European restaurant, with an eye for Barolos only. But no: “For me as a sommelier, Indian food is the most exciting by far. It’s a road less travelled, with its own set of rules entirely.” He’s also the kind of guy you might want to hug after your meal; quite literally the most angelic of sommeliers. He was a chartered surveyor in Italy before moving to London.
WHY DID YOU BECOME A SOMMELIER?
In Italy, food and drink is so obvious – it’s all local and it’s all good. But when I got to London I discovered whole new foods and tastes; I could honestly make love to taste, something I discovered here. There is something so special about eating out with someone and wine is a huge part of that experience. Specifically, I began my catering career at the Westbury Hotel and was inspired by two people there to become a sommelier.
WHY DO YOU LOVE MATCHING WINE TO INDIAN FOOD?
A sommelier for Indian food is far more important than with other cuisines. The margin of error can be huge; you’re pairing reds with fish and whites with meat. You’re pairing lobster with Brunello; there are no rules. It is totally exciting.
WHAT’S THE SECRET TO BEING A GOOD SOMMELIER?
You have to love people. You need to be able to predict your customers’ thoughts and needs and to guide them. We are all human beings, and a sommelier knows that we’re here to make experiences memorable; when you leave a restaurant, all you have is memories. Above all, the customer needs to be treated well from the very moment they enter the restaurant and of course I?play a role in that.
WHERE DO YOU WANT TO BE IN TEN YEARS?
A true citizen of the world. As for wine, I’ll stop when my soul tells me to.