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

 

Yet another gripe about wine lists… #predictablestu

I write this column from atop my high horse. I’ve been riding this particular steed for quite a while and intend never to get off till I get my way. And trust me people I’m a hefty bloke with some pretty serious saddle sores right now, so for god’s sake please pay attention.

Australian wine does not have nearly enough representation on the better wine lists of Sydney and Melbourne. And it pisses me off. And it has done so for more than a decade. And I thought it might be improving, but it’s not.

Last month I was invited for the fifth year, to be a panel member judging the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Wine Lists of the Year. Big lists, short lists and regional lists and the winners will be announced on September 1. There are some terrific lists, cleverly constructed that understand that bigger is not always better, that empathy with the food is essential and that supporting local “producers” includes the wine grower as well as the pig farmer.

And then there are the “others”. The ones that think they are “on trend” by being deliberately obscure; ignoring local wines that might simply be too easily understood and accessible.

And then . . ., ooh baby, then  . . . . there’s my particular bete noir; the hypocritical locavore.

The bloke (and it’s ALWAYS a bloke) who forages the weeds from his median strip and  blends them with the whey from the cow he keeps in his yard and the salt he pans from the Alexandria canal . . . oh god, it’s all so painfully LOCAL and ON TREND, it might just make you grow a beard.

But when I see his drinks list, I really want to hurt a hipster because, yep no surprises here, 90% of his wine list has travelled halfway round the world, in big clumsy, heavy bottles with stupid waxy tops and contents that look like the urine sample of a man with just one functioning kidney.

I’m sorry but I call a big, fat, BULLSHIT on that sort of behaviour.

For mine it shows that the person in charge of this restaurant is a chef, not a restaurateur, and that’s bad for business.

I could understand this dire situation prevailing if we lived in, say Wales or Kenya or even Thailand but we don’t. We reside in one of the most clever, brilliant, diverse and exciting wine producing nations in the world and we are getting too widely ignored on our own shores.

If I was in government (and you can be glad I’m not) I would be bloody legislating against this sort of behaviour. I’d be banging on louder than Senator Crazypants from Queensland – and making a hell of a lot more sense.

I have nothing against wines from all over the world; I love them and drink them all the time, but I reckon an outstanding wine list should offer diners the best of both worlds – wacky wines and drinkable wines and an opportunity to discover something they didn’t know they had, possibly right here on their own doorstep.

So think local, eat local and drink local.  It will make you a better human.

We Aussies are no gold medallists in the Grog Olympics

There are certain things in life that if we are told often enough we simply believe to be true.

Recently we’ve been told, endlessly, that Australia has a “booze-soaked culture”, that we have an “alcohol abuse epidemic”.

And guess what? It’s JUST NOT TRUE.

On Australia Day I was at a party like most of you and I asked pretty much everyone I ran into where they would rank Aussies on a global table of booze hounds.

Most had us in the top five – and every single person had us in the Top 10. Why wouldn’t they?

And I was the same. Until I checked the stats.

I swear to god if drinking booze was an Olympic sport we’d be in the middle of a Royal Commission right now because our place on the global pecking order beggars belief.

According to the World Health Organisation figures published in 2011 we are 44th in the developed world on overall per capita consumption of all alcohol. Sure we are number 21 in beer and number 25 in wine but we are ranked 92nd in the consumption of spirits (which frankly I wish I had known before creating my own gin brand last year ).

I’m not in any way suggesting we should be shooting for a higher spot on the table, I’m just craving a little bit of balance – I just wish some politicians and commentators would put on their sensible hats and get out of the sun.

More Australians these days are drinking less but better and that is evidenced by the multitude of small bars and expensive craft drinks. We are taxed and policed more than any drinking culture in the world. And as for the policing, well we deserve it and tolerate it so we can try to avoid the tragedies of recent months.

But we are not global booze hounds, we are NOT, on the whole, serial alcohol abusers. We most definitely have issues with binge drinking, alcohol and drug related violence and sometimes handing out licences to people who probably ought not have the privilege.

If you want the booze gold medallists then take yourself to Moldova (overall), Czech Republic (beer), Luxembourg (wine) or South Korea (spirits) to see cultures soaked in booze.

We have our social problems just like everyone else and we should continue to make sensible and reasoned decisions to better our society. Half baked, knee jerk policy on the run is not the way to make our city or state a better place to live.

Stuart Gregor runs marketing firm Liquid Ideas and owns a gin business and a small winery.

A love letter to Adelaide and Wine

I love Australian wine. That ought to come as no surprise.

I have been kicking tyres around the fringe of the Australian wine industry for almost 20 years and I just bloody love it – the people, the countryside, the drinking and the friendships. But mainly it’s the drinking.

There was much drinking of Australian wine last week in Adelaide. There always is, I hear you cry, but last week there was a little more; it was “fierce” drinking, speed tasting if you like. There was a lot more swallowed than spat and for some of us it has taken pretty close to a week to recover. It was an event called Savour Australia 2013, that brought hundreds of people from around the world to Adelaide to learn more about Aussie wine. It was presented and organised by Wine Australia and Liquid Ideas helped run the show. It was brilliant.

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