Tell us about your background, how your love for wine blossomed and what you gained from the opportunity to travel to the US to attend the Court of Master Sommeliers?
I am Perth born and bred, growing up in the Subiaco/Shenton Park area. Started working in a bottleshop when I was 17 years old and I was stacking the wine on the shelves as wasn’t able to sell it then. I started taking bottles home and studying the labels. I liked learning about the areas and regions the wines came from. I was studying a business degree at the time and soon discovered my interest in the detail of wine outstripped my interest in Accounting and Finance. I finished up my studies and like a lot of Australian students do, I took a substantial trip overseas. I based my travels on the wine regions of the world I wanted to visit. So that was Hungary, Germany, France, Spain, South and North America and ended up in Canada. Unfortunately I missed Italy which was a real disappointment. When I was younger, I had been an exchange student in Canada so it was great to return. I started working in a very good wine bar in Toronto. The chef was very good, the sommelier was very good, the vibe was very good, it was very good. It was a real hot bed for good food and wine and really ignited a passion in me for wine. I had always liked wine and been very interested in it but I think it is here that my burning desire to work with wine was born here.
I returned to Australia and lived in Melbourne for a while where I worked at “Fifteen” in the CBD. Two years into that I hadn’t finished my WSET diploma (the Wine & Spirit Trust (WSET) was established in the UK in 1969, offering internationally recognised courses primarily for the trade but also for enthusiasts) so I went back to Toronto and finished it. Had I known of the Court of Masters Sommeliers (CMS) then I would have studied both concurrently. WSET is very different to CMS in that it is very hands on, you come out with a very solid foundation both in the practical (tasting) sense and the business (real world) sense. I had always pictured myself as being a wine importer or a spokesperson for a winery so knowing the business of wine.
A few of my friends in Toronto were engaged with the CMS and that got me interested as a lot of tasting was going on. There are two people I am aware of in Australia that are Master Sommeliers. They are Franck Moreau who runs the Merivale in Sydney & Michael Engelmann who is the head Sommelier at Rockpool Sydney. Also there is Daniel Wegener, head Sommelier at Print Hall who is going for his which is fantastic. For me, the tax on time is probably a bit too much for me at the moment so my focus is on Rockpool and its wine list.
A lot of restaurants that have been around in Perth for years appear to be very Western Australian centric when it comes to their wine lists but thankfully newcomers like Rockpool and some of the newer city bars are finally starting to break this trend and offer the Western Australian consumer a much wider selection. Do you think it is because Western Australian’s are very parochial when it comes to their wine tastes or do you think it has been more of a case of the restaurants playing it safe?
The good thing living in Western Australia is we have such amazing, world class wines. I have been at tastings in Chicago, USA where Western Australian Chardonnay will come up time and time again and is highly regarded. I think Western Australians are parochial to a fault. There are certain wines we can do very well & certain other regions of the world do very well. So we need that international choice to fulfill the spectrum. I think now is a formative time for Western Australia to come of age. We are now seeing people expecting a greater diversity on the wine lists which at Rockpool we certainly cater for. I put this down to a lot more people are travelling now and broadening their horizons as one reason.
Rockpool’s food appears to pay a lot of attention to the place of origin and how it is treated to recognise that all of these elements have a big impact on the quality of what ends up on the plate. Do you think that the same philosophy applies to wine and to what extent do you think practices like organic/biodynamic growing have an impact on the quality of what ends up in the glass?
Neil Perry has a great quote on the menu here at Rockpool. It is “The cornerstone to great cooking is to source the finest produce.” Within Sommelier circles we have a thing called “Terroir”. This refers to a sense of place, it is everything involved with the production of a grape. Factors such as the soil, a particular wind, the grapes have been growing in a particular area for centuries, where things come from for wine is super important.
“The cornerstone to great cooking is to source the finest produce.” – Neil Perry
For example Margaret River Cabernet Chardonnay is fantastic -we have to acknowledge all the factors down there in that climate make it so. So the answer really lies in where wine comes from with all factors in mind. I am not going to start buying Nebbiolo from the Swan Valley as I don’t think it is necessarily suited. At it’s core at each of the Rockpool lists, we like to stick to the classics. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barocca, all the classic wine regions. It is really important for us to have those representations of classic grapes from classic wine regions on the list as they are classic for a reason. There is still room to play, for example I like to list some esoteric wine however we are not going too far out on a limb and listing some crazy orange or beige wines yet unless they are classic of course like Sherry or Jura.
Further to this, do you believe what grows together goes together and how much attention do you pay to this when coming up with food and wine matches? Is there any local produce that you find matches surprisingly well with an international wine that you would not immediately think matches well?
I think what grows together goes together is a good foundation. I think classic dishes and regions make it easy to pair things together. The local octopus and scallops are really good however I find them easy to pair in general. For example, the octopus can be paired with a Vermintino and the scallops a really good white Burgundy. I have been doing this job for 13 years so its become second nature. Some people freak out and think there is a real crazy science required behind pairings but for me it really is just experience. There is a science behind it – there is a 300 page book written recently by a guy in Montreal named Francois Charter called “Taste Buds & Molecules” about all the chemical compounds going on. You have a few fundamental considerations- acidity, texture and aromatics. But once you have a good working knowledge of your palate, menu & wine list it is very enjoyable. The philosophy of ‘what grows together, goes together’ is a good one to have in your arsenal however do I live and die by it? No. Otherwise I’d be drinking the same wine every night and that isn’t for me.
What wine do you think is currently underrated that we should be drinking more of? What wine do you think is currently overrated that you expect we will be drinking less of in years to come?
Most underrated is most definitely Sherry. I could sit down with a bunch of friends and share a tasting plate, some crab cocktails and Sherry just goes so well. Sherry can be super refreshing, sweet, super complex, usually not too expensive but it can get very pricey these days. There is a stigma attached to Sherry I think with it being an old person’s drink with British connotations however for me it certainly is the most underrated at present.
I have a personal opinion on all these orange and beige wines that are super hot right now. I think inherently if people are making these wines in a flawed fashion that the wine is basically no good. They are really trendy however I think they are a fad and will pass.
How important is vintage and do you try to only buy wine from good producers & vintages or do you find that once you are committed to buying wine from a producer that you are bound to purchase both the good vintages and the bad?
Vintages are hugely important of course as are regions. Bordeaux is a classic example of if there is a bit of sunshine the pricing goes right up. A lot of people can make good wine from good years yet a skilled winemaker can make good wine from a not so good year. That is when skill comes to the fore. I can buy 10 vintages of a wine and of course there will be 2 exceptional years in there and 2 years that aren’t so good. But that is what makes it interesting to speak with guests, they may ask why is this wine $40 more expensive than the other? And you can explain that year there was a limited production, it was exceptional weather & these reflect in the pricing. That’s what is interesting with wine. It changes year to year, it is different each year.
What is your vision for the future of wine and the industry within Australia, and around the Globe?
Production is an issue. There is a lot of wine being made and only so many people consuming it. It is good that Asia has started consuming a lot more at a particular level – the high end- but hopefully their insatiable appetite extends down the full scale and they start buying and experiencing more moderately priced wines to help meet this over supply. I am not sure what is happening with the over production anymore although I do know there are more wines being produced than is sustainable, that is a big issue. Smaller producers are harder hit, without the marketing teams etc
The glory days of buying a winery and relaxing as it will sell and sell I think are over. It’s a much tougher environment now, a really hard slog for people. I think it is important for us to support local and smaller producers. Wine is a business, at some levels it is a commodity and those that treat it seriously like one and make the correct yet tough business decisions I’d expect to see in the future.
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