Creating a successful wine list is a lot like looking at a painting.
“It's all about context,” says Samantha Payne, a consultant sommelier whose background in art history helps her craft wine lists for clients. Some of these include, fittingly, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cornerstone at Carriageworks and Governor’s Table at the Museum of Sydney.
“When you look at a painting to understand why it’s art, or to understand its merit, you have to consider when the painting was created, [and] what societal or contextual factors influence how you view it,” she explains. Where you are viewing the work is important, too. “Are you standing on the street or in a gallery or museum? What or who was it created for? What is it made out of? These are the same kind of questions I take into consideration when creating a wine list.”
Once answered, these questions allow sommeliers like Payne to create wine lists that have one defining quality: balance. “Balance between regions, balance between varietals, balance between price range,” she says.
Payne is one of a growing clique of wine experts who offer their services as consultants to Sydney’s bars and restaurants, compiling wine lists that are well-balanced, diverse, and importantly, perfectly matched to the food.
Another is Sarah Limacher, sommelier at Four in Hand and the owner of wine consultancy company, Revelry. Limacher approaches the task of creating a wine list in a similar fashion to Payne. “First of all, it’s about sitting down and understanding fully the venue and concept, the food, the skill of the staff and who is going to be drinking and enjoying these wines,” she says.
The “who” is crucial to the composition of a wine list. When you go to a restaurant and order a glass of wine for dinner, staff may not know your name but you’re far from an anonymous customer. The sommelier has already thought about you in depth – what you like, what you know and how much you want to spend.
Knowing your customer is essential, says James Audas, sommelier at Silvereye in the Old Clare Hotel and a consultant who has written lists for venues such as Archie Rose Distillery. Audas, a past winner of Electrolux Young Waiter of the Year, spent 12 months working at Noma in 2013–14, a challenging role that helped hone his hospitality skills. “If you can understand and read your guests you will be able to best suggest wines for them,” he says.
Once a sommelier has nailed down the customer, the cuisine and the location, answered numerous dry questions about systems and supply, and tried literally hundreds of wines, it’s time for her to write the list.
The MCA’s unique mix of customers – tourists, students, locals, and corporate customers having business lunches – is one factor Payne considered when writing the venue’s wine list. Another was the relaxed “cafe-like” dining experience. “The wine list reflects that,” says Payne. “It’s short, sharp and to the point with more of a focus on your classic Australian varietals and producers.”
The Governor’s Table called for a larger list exploring the breadth of Australia’s wine regions. “You've got classic varietals from classic regions, but we also play around with emerging varietals grown in Australia as well as lesser-known wine-growing regions.” Different again is the list Payne put together for Cornerstone, a bar that attracts a younger after-work crowd. “The list is just about tasty drops from Australia that are lots of fun and easy to smash back.”
A successful wine list offers the drinker something new, not just the classics they know well. Imbuing a list with a sense of discovery is important to Payne. “A real challenge for me [is] finding a harmonious balance between classic producers and also the new wave, emerging varietals,” she says. These lesser-known types of wine benefit from the warm climates of our wine growing regions. Varieties like sagrantino and d’Avola, “pair wonderfully with food. They’re made for our climate and made for our produce,” says Payne. “They’re really interesting and people can see similarities to some of the classic varieties they might like, but you’re taking them on this experience of trying something new, still from the foundations of grape varieties they understand.”
Trends also exert their influence on lists. “Things go in and out of fashion … the great thing about wine is that there is always something new to discover,” says Limacher. “Crazy good dry whites that are killer with summer seafood like assyrtiko, vermentino, albarino and pinot blancs” and, “chilled reds like gamay, joven-style tempranillo and lambrusco,” are among the wines we’ll be drinking this summer. On Audas’ radar is gruner veltliner, an Austrian grape varietal that he says makes for a great summer wine. “They are great value and there are some amazing Australian examples around at the moment,” he says.
All three sommeliers agree it’s impossible to take personal taste out of the equation. “Anyone who says that it doesn’t [play a role] is kidding themselves,” says Audas. “By no means is it the be all and end all, but wine is so subjective. If I like something and I think others will, then I will happily list it.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Limacher, who welcomes detecting a sommelier’s signature on a wine list. “I love reading a list where I can see the influence of the sommelier. Its like a fun little journey into their world,” she says. “Everyone has different tastes; that's what makes wine so fun.”