Why are we eating our own? A leading #sommelierspeaksout

Last week I posted a blog on my frustrations with a very particular type of wine list in a pretty particular type of place – if you don’t remember my estimable words please refresh your mind here.

On the following day in the slightly more august Sydney Morning Herald, veteran wine writer Huon Hooke had his say on his own pet frustrations on pretty much the same topic, although his issues were slightly different to mine. See them here.

And off went twitter. Sommeliers were aggrieved, wine writers were defensive, some people were rude, some saw a conspiracy, others wondered what all the fuss was about. Most normal people didn’t even know it was happening – such is the insular world of the wine-loving twittersphere.

Tom Hogan is an award-winning sommelier, formerly of the Lake House in Daylesford where he presided over a list that last month was awarded Australia’s Best in the 2014 Wine List of the Year competition. More recently he has set up his own excellent part wine bar/part shop in Port Melbourne called Harry & Frankie which won Best New Wine List in the same national competition. It is a wonderful joint and Huon and I both agree its wine list is of the very highest order.

Tom was a bit peeved by a few things we wrote so I have offered him the chance to put forward his personal view, and that of the profession of which he is justifiably very proud.

Take it away Tom:

Why are we eating our own?

The role of a Sommelier within restaurants and the broader wine industry has dramatically increased in importance over recent years – this has been triggered by the higher standards of professionalism within the Sommelier community and a desire from the dining public for more specialised beverage service. Sommeliers now enjoy a greater responsibility, along with winemakers and wine writers, in nurturing an ever-increasingly competitive wine industry.

Mirroring our chef colleagues’ desire to challenge and innovate, the best Sommeliers are curating wine lists championing the artisanal and the dynamic from here and abroad. I’m always excited to see an emphasis on the former rather than the latter, including boundary pushing styles that can sometimes be confronting. The best wine lists recognise the importance of synergy with the restaurant’s cuisine, service ethos and environment (both immediate and surrounding). It would be inappropriate for Attica – an innovative, dynamic, challenging food experience – to carry a list boasting producers whose heyday was in the early to mid-90s. Nor should an RSL list be dominated by alternative “amber” wines. Attica’s signature dish of ‘potato cooked in the earth it was grown’ surely demands a match more progressive than the vinous equivalent of steak, egg and chips.

It is important to recognise that a restaurant’s target audience is not necessarily the general public as a whole – successful restaurants pitch themselves succinctly to their target audience. The moment one attempts to be something to everyone, you’re not too far away from being nothing to no-one. Ultimately, the success of a wine list is shaped by market pressures – are consumers embracing the list? The financial sustainability of a wine program will help inform its future direction.

It’s indisputable that stories sell wine; it’s also true that the best stories are those you’ve experienced first-hand. Having said that, your story is only as engaging and significant as your wine is delicious. It’s with these concepts at the forefront of our mind, my colleagues and I champion producers such as;

  • Ruggabellus: Abel, Emma, Bailin & Rouille are some of my family’s closest friends having spent Christmas & Easter together
  • Jauma: James is responsible for the biggest hangover of my life and is someone I’ve known for 8 years
  • Syrahmi: Fozzie’s to blame for my ‘big break’ at Lake House & I’m to blame for setting him up on a blind date with his future wife and
  • Jamsheed: I probably learnt more from drinking with Millsy at Gerald’s in the late-2000’s than I did through my WSET Diploma

These stories might be seen as self-indulgent – and probably quite rightly – however, I’m trying to convey that these producers are not trendy in my eyes – simply, they are my friends and they are making fantastic wines that I’m proud to stock and serve.

The fact that they are found on many wine lists is further testimony to their quality.

On the single occasion I was visited by a TWE / Fosters / Southcorp representative in the past decade, I placed an order which was unable to be fulfilled because the product in question had been removed from sale in order to fulfil the minimum stock requirements for future wine shows. It’s hypocritical for big companies to bemoan the lack of local support, having neglected the local market for much of the past two decades.

Harry & Frankie is a family business. I choose to do business with families and owner operators who are producing excellent wine and with whom I have personal relationships. I don’t have a gripe with big companies – but they lack the personal connection I have with many of Australia’s artisanal producers.

The Sommelier community’s increasing relevance and influence has been met with thinly-veiled criticism from a small, yet vocal portion of traditional wine media. The role of the critic, in my mind, encompasses actively partaking in constructive discontent. Unfortunately, the Sommelier community has been on the receiving end of a disproportionate number of published works displaying an unhealthy dose of unconstructive negativity. In my mind this particular discourse might just be fuelled by a fear of irrelevance in an evolving wine landscape, a landscape that is highly influenced by the digital environment we now live in. But that might just be me having my personal grip and taking things a little too personally.

On almost every day, the wine game is an incredibly rewarding industry to be involved in. We deal in a completely unnecessary product that we indulge purely for our pleasure. However, it is a tough game. All of its major players are currently under pressure; big wine companies are reporting record losses, wine writers are seeing their column inches cut and restaurateurs are facing ever diminishing profit margins.

Some in the industry have reacted poorly and have chosen not to support one another – rather, they have chosen to adopt a seemingly cannibalistic approach to one another. In particular, I felt last week’s piece by Huon Hooke in the SMH questioned the validity and worth of my, and my colleagues’ role as sommeliers while casting aspersions on my wine making friends with the other. I took it really personally. Maybe that’s not how it was directed and I know Huon is not a malicious man, in fact he’s a great bloke, but that’s how I felt.

We do our best to encourage people to learn about and enjoy more interesting wines. We slave over our businesses and try to be hospitable, we are protective of our own. And when we feel aggrieved we feel the need to fight back and defend our turf, in a civilised way, with a great glass of wine by our side.

So Huon – what will it be? I will open any bottle you like on my list – there’s nothing that can’t be sorted out over a good bottle of wine – at least that’s something we surely agree on.

Tom Hogan
Owner & Sommelier
Harry & Frankie

 

One thought on “Why are we eating our own? A leading #sommelierspeaksout

  1. I was very impressed by the recognition of the consumer in this article, as well as the recognition that ultimately wine is an unnecessary product consumed purely for pleasure and hence that shapes how it is sold.

    I also think it is spot on that most consumers are unaware of this insular debate and that’s a good thing. Most consumers would roll their eyes in my view if they became aware of it and quickly reach for a beer.

    Thanks Tom and Stuart for sharing.

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