Interview with Ali Finch

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Ali aged 25, has a wealth of knowledge and experience. Previously Assistant Head Sommelier at Michelin starred Murano, she is now Assistant Beverage Manager at Cubbitt House. Her approach to wine is dynamic, warm and well informed.

When did you first begin working with wine?

I had been working part-time for various hospitality companies during my last 2 years at university and after a post-graduation jolly around Australia - with my newly awarded WSET level 2 – I managed to sneak a job as a commis sommelier at Murano.

Marc-Andrea Levy and Bastien Ferreri whipped my arse in to some kind of service shape and after 2 years I became assistant head.

Within my first couple of weeks the restaurant hosted a special dinner with Jean-Charles Abbatucci and it was my first glimpse into just how much I could learn there, if I could only put up with the Frenchmen long enough.

How would you describe your style of service?

Over-excitable.

Guests know more about food and wine than ever before thanks to all the new openings, cheaper global travel, the number of television shows etc. and will not accept being talked down to.

The easiest way to engage someone enough that they trust your recommendations is through passion - for the wine, for the producer – and a genuine desire to fulfil the guest's needs.

Please can you describe an inspired wine moment?

Drinking what was probably the last bottle in existence of the mythical Els Jelipins White 2006 (from her neighbour’s old vines that were scrubbed up the following year) at the estate with some of my closest friends. It was an incredibly special day.

What advice/knowledge would you pass on to anyone who aspires to work with wine?

Taste lots and ask as many questions as you can.

Try to trust your own palate – we can only ever attempt to understand a wine through our own perception so if you like or don't like something, that's ok.

What do you think affects the experience of a guest the most (other than the wine itself)?

Some kind of backstory. We're emotional beings and it's beneficial to have something other than a physical reaction to a wine.

Lots of wine is technically well-made, emotion helps to distinguish what you want to drink or sell on a regular basis.

If you were to champion anything, what would it be? (e.g. region, grape, style etc)

I'm a bit of a sucker for Cabernet Franc

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

Watching that light go on when a guest or member of staff tastes a wine for the first time and they form an instant connection with it.

And obviously terrorising MAL(Mark Andrea Levy)…

What would be your wine choice in the following situations…

Desert Island?

Clos Rougeard "Les Poyeaux" - though it would be drunk quickly, before I burnt to a crisp

Picnic wine?

"Le Vallon", Henri Milan - in magnum, obviously!

Relaxation?

Vincent Dancer’s Bourgogne Blanc  

Party Wine?

"Le Mont Benoit" by Emmanuel Brochet for some classy bubbles

Tell us your wine secret….

If there’s nothing good on offer, drink gin.

Interview with Fergus Muirhead

Fergus, aged 25, is the head sommelier at Aberdeen Street Social in Hong Kong. He believes in sourcing honest wines that are made with care and more importantly delicious.

When did you first begin working with wine?

I first seriously started working in wine when I moved to London - I was 21.  This is where I met the most important mentor in my career, my first head sommelier Raphael Rodriguez (who is now Head Sommelier at Fera at Claridges).

How would you describe your style of service?

Informal (possibly too much at times) and unpretentious. I’m lucky as I have only worked with unpretentious somms so I have never been corrupted.

Please can you describe an inspired wine moment?

The first wine tasting I experienced in London. Up to that point, I had only tasted conventional mass produced wines. When I met Raph we had a tasting with Kate Tahl. We tasted wines from Thierry Puzelat for the most part. Simple wines but they opened my eyes to what true wines could taste like. Since that moment I have tasted wines that were more impressive but that experience has really stayed with me.

What advice/knowledge would you pass on to anyone who aspires to work with wine?

Taste, taste, taste, take notes and taste.

If you don’t taste then there is no way you can be successful in this industry. It is the best way to improve your knowledge and palate. Also network as much as possible. All of the people I met at London helped me along my career and in essence they assisted me to attain the position I have now. It is also amazing to taste and drink with friends and to get their opinion.

What do you think affects the experience of a guest the most (other than the wine itself)?

The glassware. There was an amazing tasting conducted by Daniel Primack (at that point he ran Around Wine/Eurocave UK) and it was truly eye opening. We had the opportunity to taste the same wine in two different wine glasses - the differences were spectacular. Daniel is the best person I have met to talk to when it comes to what can affect the experience of the guest.

If you were to champion anything, what would it be? (e.g. region, grape, style etc)

I feel really excited about what is happening in the States at the moment. The way in which the scene has changed is spectacular.

But mainly I am trying to promote wines that have been made with love, soul and taste authentic. There is nothing wrong with conventional wines but I get very little pleasure from those wines

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

I meet some of the most amazing people and it has opened doors that other jobs would not have. I have managed to move half way around the world, which in something that is not always possible in other industries.

What would be your wine choice in the following situations…

Desert Island? A palette of  wine from Anton Von Klopper (Domaine Lucci/Lucy Margaux) and Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook Wines/Didi).

Picnic wine?  Riesling from Binner. Easy going, light and fresh.

Relaxation? When I need to relax - I turn to beer. The one thing I miss in Hong Kong is the craft beer that you are able to get in London, in particular the beers from Brew by Numbers.

Party Wine? Something Pet Nat - fun and easy to drink!

Tell us your wine secret….

White wine comes before red wine is bollocks.

Eastern Scene by Emily Harman

 
nagano.

As I write this, I sit on a Japanese high speed train known as Shinkansen or Bullet Train. I have spent a week eating and drinking around Tokyo and several days in Kyoto. Today I leave Kyoto to go north to Nagano to the mountains to take a few restorative days in the snow and quiet and hopefully I will catch a glimpse of a snow monkey or two, before returning back to Tokyo for another week. This trip is my second to Japan and is far from being my last.

Being a closed country for so many years means that Japan has kept hold of it’s unique identity and shows little influence of other places. Tokyo is a city with so much to give that it guarantees that you will never be bored and you will 99% of the time, eat incredibly well and often at surprisingly reasonable prices.

This years trip was organised around an incredibly special restaurant reservation. I had managed to attain a seat at one of the most elusive pop ups of recent years, Noma at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. This meant I would get to eat the food of one of my favourite restaurants, in the worlds most exciting city – to say I was exciting, was an understatement.

With the help of several foodies, sommeliers and wine writers – I have been lucky enough to acquire an eating and drinking list that could keep any serious foodie occupied for months. I have been eating bowls of Ramen and handmade cold Soba noodles for under a tenner for lunch and making my way around as much wine, martinis and sake as I can in the evenings.

I really want to use this trip to explore the wine scene here. I have learnt through my travels that everything in this marvellous country is well thought out to an incredibly high standard. Food, drink and the way in which these are served to you are considered and worked at to the point of perfection. Wine and the experiences with it seem to be no exception.

Stay tuned for more on wine in Japan….

Interview with Bastien Ferreri

Bastien aged 25, is the Head Sommelier at Hibiscus, London. The wine list reflects his passion to source unique wines from small conscientious producers.

When did you first begin working with wine?

I started to step into the madness and passion of wine in 2007, in Provence.

After three years of catering school, I studied at Sommelier school in the Languedoc for two years whilst doing my apprenticeship in a 2 Michelin restaurant in Provence.

The place was rocking, buzzy, fun, and it had a huge wine list of wine from all over France. I visited lots of winemakers, wine bars, restaurants, distilleries, breweries, meat farmers etc. I became completely addicted to all of these gastronomical pleasures and discoveries!

How would you describe your style of service?

Well, this is never easy to answer, obviously my background and workplace represent Michelin’s fine dinning standards.

However, I have always been lucky enough to work in roles that allow me to express myself freely, with a massive funky twist!

Back of house, I am very sharp and organised, this allows me to 200% freestyle on the floor. I can provide our guests with a fun experience. We change the wines as often as we want to always showcase something new and exiting.

My only goal it to make sure our guests have a great time with fantastic drinks, delicious food, with a superb friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

 Please can you describe an inspired wine moment?

Sipping some Meursault 04 Coche Dury with my good friend Ludovic Engelvin, a piece of Saint Felicien cheese, during our afternoon break when we were both working in a restaurant in Provence.

What advice/knowledge would you pass on to anyone who aspires to work with wine?

Taste, taste, taste…..and draw maps again, again, again and again.

Try to spend time with the winemakers, by visiting their places or going to wine fairs/tastings as they will always be your best source of information.

Go out, explore, read but do not forget that real life happens around you, by talking with other professionals, customers, wine buyers….

(We all talk a bit more around a nice glass of wine too!)

What do you think affects the experience of a guest the most (other than the wine itself)?

 I think the way in which you present a product is extremely important.

We're all bored of things that are too technical. For example when you read the back label of a packet whilst food shopping - you want simple and clear information. I apply the same idea when describing a dish or a wine - I try to be precise and technically perfect. I believe a sommelier is there to share his or her knowledge of the products, not to show off his knowledge.

Once again, I believe its really important to create a fun experience! And for that you need to really listen to your guests to understand their needs and wants (and more so to what they do not want!) to create a great experience.

If you were to champion anything, what would it be? (e.g. region, grape, style etc)

Good wine made by great people.

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

Every day is a different party!

I am very lucky to work in a creative environment with a regularly changing menu, that offers me the pleasure - and hard work - to change the wine selection very very often!

What would be your wine choice in the following situations…

Desert Island?

A fresh and flinty Pinot Blanc by Schueller in Alsace (in case I get my hands on some massive oysters!).

Picnic wine?

A super juicy, explosive Barbera by Cascina Tavijn.

Relaxation?

A delicately sweet Jurancon by Souch with a few years in bottle.

Party Wine?

Casot des Mailloles, Canta Mañana Rosé, this wine will make you go crazy ! We say “Le Canta ça rend Fada”

Tell us your wine secret….

Plooop (sounds when you open a bottle).

Natural Dilution by Josh Elias

Stepping outside his usual role of editor of Alquimie Magazine, Josh Elias talks candidly on his affections for ‘natural’ products.

I have a beard and I wear Oliver People’s glasses. I’m part of ‘new wave’ media and I love to drink Riesling. I used to be the stock in trade of punch pushing sommeliers and now I write. My horoscope projects a daily love of ‘natural’ wine and indeed, I love gulping the good stuff. What I’m not so fond of is the label for this category of wine. ‘Natural Wine’?

‘Natural wine’ is a movement that is very much defined by what it isn’t; no pesticides in the vineyards, no additives in the winery, no critics, no ‘winemakers’. ‘Natural wine’ is a truly democratic movement. You heard me. It is democratic. No listen to me, you aren’t listening. It is democratic. By the people, for the people. It is a new wave. A revolution and so “the beat goes on, yes the beat goes on.” – Macho Man Randy Savage

I can’t help but be repulsed by the general aura of vociferous and sycophantic ‘realism’ that has piggybacked on this particular wine category. By creation of the category, it seemingly renders all other wine ‘synthesized’? As an asthmatic, I can speak to ill-affects of excessive sulphur-dioxide levels in wine. However, does the inclusion of any additive render a product artificial? What then of dried fruit? It’s not quite grape drink vs grape juice is it? Consult Dave Chapelle on those definitions.

No doubt, the most industrialized bulk produced wine undergoes a plethora of mechanical intervention. With modern technology, almost any element of a wine can be manipulated. No doubt, this is something more consumers should be alerted to. However, I’d have thought that this distinction is amply covered by organic and biodynamic certifications without the need for a new religious sect.

I’m wary that this little rant is like sticking my hand into Rudolph Steiner’s beehive, so I’ll tread carefully on this most sacrosanct turf. I’ll draw my subtle line in the elusive continuum of the many first world wrong’s scratched into my soul. The dogma that has become the ‘natural’ wine Conga line, I believe, is it’s own worst enemy.

For all of us that read about wine, which includes you, yes you, most importantly, you, we learn to embrace the beauty of the variables; the vineyard, the vintage, the varieties, the peacefulness of the land, the fauna, the flora, the richness of agriculture and between all of us, almost anything and everything that makes wine such a true and agriculturally reflective beverage.

I contend that the moniker of ‘natural wine’ is the witness protection for wine. Once it is categorized as such, the variables that went into the production of the wine, most frequently, disappear. They are swept under the iron curtain of ‘natural’. They are marketed to the consumer as ‘wine… but… a new type of wine’. The grape varieties; unimportant. The vineyard; some place. The vibe; natural. At best, it initiates some of ‘less-initiated’. Join us. Be included. And even then, would you consider yourself one of the ‘unfortunately’ less initiated?

To borrow / mis-appropriate / steal / vandalize a quote from Kurt Vonnegut – “It was sort of ice-cream cone on fire.”

The artisans and vignerons that make this sort of wine, I’m fairly confident, largely disregard the label of ‘natural’ wine. They craft a wine that suits their expression and they largely do so, in solitude. It’s the chanting masses marching behind them, in cities far away from their vineyards, that need chiropractic re-adjustment.

Take for example two of the elder-statesmen cast under the projected moniker of natural within the Australian Wine Industry; Anton Van Klopper and Tom Shobbrook. They are two, very different men, so amazingly vibrant, richly engaging bounties of humanity. When Tom hugs you, it is a sort of warm human blanket of an embrace that shifts internal organs and bestows happiness upon the recipient. Anton on the other hand, is seasoned to the point of piquant. He’ll talk you through the night until all but his consciousness waiver. They are real people, every bit as much as Michel Rolland or Aubert de Villaine.

Their wines shine in the glass. Tom’s Didi Giallo; a golden yellow sort of Sauvignon Blanc elixir with tropical notes, herbal complexity and lip-smacking acidity - it is a delicious drink. The hedonistic fruit reflects the Australian sunshine. It speaks of with bold personality of a variety, a place and a friendliness. It’s so much more than ‘natural’. On the other hand, I enjoyed a gander at Anton’s 2014 Lucy Margaux Syrah at a wine bar recently. The wine is bristling with cherry and plum fruit, anise spice and sappy tannin. The wine is a rich, bold and an irresistible juggernaut of energy.

Anton’s wine is crafted in the Adelaide Hills and Tom’s in the Barossa Valley. The wines are expressions of those people, their place, their grapes and they evoke unique, beautiful and different reactions.

The modern wine critic champions crisp fruit, clean acidity and freshness. I too search for wines with ‘vitality’. A slogan not unlike that of an Australian supermarket chain, we are the fresh wine people. What of it? What relevance is this to the moniker of ‘natural’ wine? In fact, when ‘Natural Wine’ is pronounced in the accent of an Australian wine-judge, the phrase can infer microbial fault or oxidized juice. To this extent, natural is a prerogative term. Go figure. All of a sudden you are part of the gang. But apparently gang smells like wet Band-Aids?

I’ve watched consultant winemakers pull their hair out about certain ‘natural’ wines only to praise others. I’ve seen battle hardened wine critics do the same about bulk produced, super-market wines. Surely, producer must be our first consideration, not ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or ‘kosher’…. I jest. We all respect Kosher wine. (mood is sarcastic)

The mood is now serious.

Natural wine deserves neither special treatment nor prejudice. It should be welcomed into the fold of all the wines of the world, if that would be diluting the brand, so be it.

The wine is here to stay, the label, not.

To Father Christmas, Please may I have?

CHRISTMAS WINE WISH LIST 2014

NV Prosecco 'Sottoriva', Malibran - Veneto, Italy

This Prosecco is unfiltered so its cloudy, it is fresh and super light! It will be perfect for breakfast and lunch preparation work!

2006 Mineral Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, Agrapart - Champagne, France

Harmonious and expressive! A match made in heaven for any fish or seafood starter. This fizz really delivers and is worth every penny of its price. The wine is made from two 40 year old vineyards.

2010 Chardonnay 'Cuvee Florine', Ganevat - Jura, France

This wine is ridiculously cheaper than any Chardonnay of this quality from Burgundy, and will be perfect with my roast chicken!

2009 Nerello Mascalese 'Gibril', Guccione - Monreale, Sicily

This is the wine to bridge courses or for those who enjoy reds with fish. Its alluringly fragrant and perfumed, light but with supportive tannins that are soft. I drank my last bottle of this wine several months ago and it is out of stock with the supplier so I would love to be able to drink it again!

2006 Barolo 'Cannubi-San Lorenzo', Guiseppe Rinaldi - Piemonte, Italy

I love having roast game birds or beef at Christmas and I really could not enjoy them in the same way without some Nebbiolo! Barolo is the monarch of all Italian wine. This wine is pure perfection at the moment, I was lucky enough to enjoy a bottle alongside some white truffles recently and really cannot wait to taste it again.

2007 Pinot Gris Selection de Grains Nobles, Pierre Frick - Alsace, France

From a small estate that are producing hand crafted wines, this wine is rich and honeyed! Brilliant with Christmas Pudding, Stilton or as an alternative to a dessert! This Pinot Gris is quite rich and slightly oily but it has lovely balance so it isnt too heavy or sickly!