Until very recently, the title “sommelier” was given to whoever happened to be in charge of a venue’s wine list. In Australia, not much thought was given to the actual knowledge that came with the title, while on the other side of the globe, European restaurants considered the sommelier as important as a head chef or restaurant manager. The past 15 years have seen a growing Australian appreciation for the true nature of a sommelier’s role.
It’s not just the industry: customers are keeping pace. Many of us heading out for dinner or a drink are genuinely curious to learn which wine-producing region our pinot noir comes from, or why this riesling’s acidity will help bring out the flavours in that Thai curry. Waiters aren’t expected to know the ins and outs of every wine offered on a venue’s wine list, but there is an expectation that someone will be on hand to answer all wine-related questions, be they in depth or basic. Enter the sommelier; the person to help you approach daunting wine lists, get something enjoyable out of them and hopefully, learn a thing or two in the process.
It’s a hugely exciting time for wine in our city. Niche drinking spots that cater for specific wine trends, such as Luxembourg or Clever Polly’s, are becoming more common. In restaurants, consumers are better understanding the marriage of flavours between wine and food, and how a successful pairing can deliver a hugely satisfying experience.
Talented people, such as sibling duo Paul and Jessica Ghaie of Blackhearts & Sparrows wine stores, and Campbell Burton of Builder’s Arms Hotel are changing the conversation around wine in Melbourne. But without doubt, these five from the next generation are “somms” and wine authorities to watch. They curate some of the most progressive and interesting wine lists in Melbourne, and it’s through these wine-attentive souls you’re likely to find your next vinous revelation.
Tom Brushfield, The Melbourne Supper Club
Brushfield is fresh from receiving first prize in this year’s Lorenzo Galli Wine Scholarship (kind of a like being the Year 12 national dux – only the subject here is Italian wine). He’s also the man in charge of delivering the very best wine experience to anyone fortunate enough to stumble into one of the best late-night wine bars in the city (with one of the biggest wine lists too).
Broadsheet: What’s part of the sommelier role that people don’t see?
Tom Brushfield: A lot of unglamorous unpacking of boxes, counting stock and checking glassware. I’m sure most people think we just stand around talking about wine all day, but the hours required to be ready for every scenario means you may have to sacrifice elements of your week in order to study. We also need to be able to work as a waiter/ bartender/barista depending on the day: nothing is ever above or below the sommelier.
BS: What drinking trends are you picking up on?
TB: Customers are asking more about natural wines, or about the very best small-batch production wines from boutique producers. I see the future being consumers ordering with more a w areness and connection to the grower or producer. Similar to “farm-to-table”- type thinking. Sustainability is going to be so important, more so than any new alternative grape variety from some obscure region. It’s more about finding what grows well here and what makes delicious wine.
BS: What are some types of drinks you’d like to see gain more traction?
TB: Drinks that complete the dining experience: perhaps a vermouth as an aperitif, or an amaro to finish a night off. Fortified styles are also something sadly under appreciated. They remain so delicious and such a bargain. Here at Supper Club, I try to always suggest them and often I will pair them with desserts or cigars.
Sarah Ward, Rockpool Bar & Grill
Sarah Ward is responsible for one of Melbourne’s biggest and more respected restaurant wine lists, which has just about every accolade worth receiving. On top of that, she finished in the top three at this year’s annual Best Sommelier of Australia competition, and has worked the floor in some of the city’s most important dining establishments.
BS: Has the role of a sommelier become more important for today’s dining public than in the past? What are the misconceptions around the job?
Sarah Ward: Diners are certainly becoming more informed, and the community of Melbourne sommeliers is becoming more educated. I feel like the bar keeps getting raised for us, and then in turn our role becomes more important. Common misconceptions may be that the sommelier is just trying to sell you the more expensive wine, but this is not the case. It used to be a misconception that your sommelier would be a man, but this is changing so quickly. People often also get confused about how to say “sommelier”; I have been called a “sommiay”, a “semillon” and a “Somalian”.
BS: What are some of the current drinking trends you’re noticing from customers?
SW: Italy seems to be on the rise. People are happy to explore Italy a little more and try more wines from regions such as Friuli and Sicily (wines with fantastic minerality and sense of place). They are great wines to match with food as well.
BS: What varieties or styles would you like to see gain more popularity?
SW: There are many aromatic, dry and off-dry whites that I would like people to consider: there are simply so many more options when choosing a white but many people are stuck in the “sauv-blanc rut”. We chose not to pour a sauvignon blanc so that people have an opportunity to try something different and delicious. Wines such as Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Arneis, and Semillon are all great options.
Mark Nelson, Milton Wine Bar
Having cut his teeth in some of the city’s most well-known wine venues (City Wine Shop, Builder’s Arms Hotel, Neighbourhood Wine, Mark Nelsen now heads up this new, relaxed wine-shop-and-bar hybrid that more suburbs are crying out for.
BS: What kind of wines would you like to see more people drinking? How are you driving this at Milton?
Mark Nelson: We look for wines that are reflective of vintage and place: these are the wines that excite us and I think they excite drinkers too. If there is clear evidence that a wine tastes the way it does because of these factors, then everyone accepts why it is unique rather than being intimidated by its difference. I would like to see a move away from wine- maker affected wines. I think wine should taste like what its made of, not how it’s made.
BS: Was there any solid advice given to you when you were starting out that you might be able to offer young, potential sommeliers?
MN: Listen to what the customer wants, they are not there to drink what you want, you have to help them find what they want. There is no point pushing them towards something they just don’t want to drink, even if you think you know better.
Michael Underwood, La Vita Buona
Remaining one of the CBD’s best spots to grab a casual glass (or bottle) of vino day or night, La Vita Buona has always made wine accessible to even the most non-savvy drinker, particularly with its excellent, ever-changing, by-the-glass selection. Here it’s wine first, food second. Besides having a sharp palate, Michael Underwood possesses another vital trait for a sommelier: a personable and empathic nature.
BS: Looking back, is the role of a sommelier everything you thought it would be?
MU: There’s a lot more back-of-house tasks which I don’t think people give much consideration: stocktakes, orders, meetings, budgets. They can get a little tedious, but at least they provide balance outside recommending wine to people all day.
BS: What aspects of wine do you still find most challenging to communicate?
MU: I find it challenging when people get ideas into their heads about a certain grape or wine, and you have to convince them that not all Chardonnays are overly oaky, and not all Rieslings sweet, for example. I’m noticing a lot more people want to move away from big brands you can find in the supermarkets, and towards smaller producers, which I think is great. There are so many great producers out there who often get overshadowed by bigger names, but their presence is definitely on the rise.
BS: What questions do you get asked about your job?
MU: I think a common misconception is that you need to be part of some sort of elite club, or that we only drink obscure or expensive wines. Not the case at all! I get a lot of, “So what, you just sit around and drink wine all day?” Yeah, not so. Also, I have a lot of people ask me if the wine they’ve chosen is “any good?” I’d like to think that I don’t choose bad wines for the venue!
Lou Chalmer, Clever Polly’s
Pitching itself as one of Melbourne’s first real “natural” wine bars, Clever Polly’s is the ambitious brain child of a sommelier completely convinced that the public is on the verge of discovering its “wild” wine-side (that is: amber, made with grape-skin contact, biodynamic: whichever wine-terminology you prefer to use for the current “natural” wine trend).
BS: In terms of selling “natural” wines, why is a sommelier’s role important?
LC: Sommeliers are the connection point between the producer and the consumer. It’s the whole point of why I wanted to work in wine in the way that I am: to engage consumers in the experience they are having. Sommeliers play such an important role in this. As we are moving increasingly towards industrialised, standardised agricultural systems, they are one of the few points of contact for consumers looking to have a more meaningful experience with their wine.
BS: What do people misunderstand about natural wine?
LC: A lot of people tend to think they will be really dirty, or taste like vinegar, or just be full of faults. But I don’t think that that’s the case. We definitely do have some wines with (what is technically considered) “faults” but they remain to be delicious nonetheless and it’s still definitely very possible to get natural wines without any faults. We’ve even had people who have refused to try natural wines come in, without knowing that our wines are natural, and then enjoy it so much they are now regular customers.
BS: In order to help promote the natural wine trend, how do you communicate the message behind these wines?
LC: “Terroir” (the notion that the vineyard’s natural surroundings affect the wine that’s produced from it) is a very subjective term to many people, so we don’t like to throw it around very much. We like to keep our language about wine reasonably simple and understandable. We do promote terroir-driven wines by giving consumers information about them, but by also giving them context – we want to see more wines that have personality and represent their origins, but are also delicious to drink.
For more on the job, see The Sommelier Explained: A rough guide to those curious about the job.
Cam O'Keefe is currently a sommelier at Harry & Frankie's and is also a finalist in the 2014 Vin de Champagne Awards.