After a long hiatus, I'm back on the floor as a sommelier. Creating a wine list for a new restaurant was a terrific opportunity, especially when given a generous budget and only a few provisos (favourite wines, preferred clients). It was like being six years old again and a favourite auntie saying I could have anything I wanted at the sweet shop.
Of course, this task posed some big questions - aside from pricing, how to present the wine list? Does one follow the traditional route and organise it by country and region? Or by flavour profiles, such as light and fruity, and big and bold? Or by the grape? What would work best with the chef's menu?
After spending hours studying wine lists and distributors' portfolios, I put everything that caught my eye onto a spreadsheet. This is what I ended up with:
Classic whites: sauvignon blanc, semillon, chenin blanc
Chardonnay: easily the world's most popular and widely grown white wine grape
Other whites: riesling, gewurztraminer, viognier, fiano, pecorino
Pinot noir: Burgundy, of course, and bottles from other places where the grape grows well
Warm reds: mostly Rhone-style grapes with a few others thrown in, such as cannonau, agiorgitiko, touriga nacional, nero d'Avola.
Bordeaux grapes I divided into several sections:
New World Bordeaux wines such as Gimblett Gravels from New Zealand; bottles from Napa and Sonoma, from California; and, from Australia, McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley
Superhero Bordeaux, this being the classified growths, going from 5th to 1st
The Italians: Super Tuscans along with the expected Amarones, Barolos and Brunellos.
A whole page is devoted to rosé, which I think is underrepresented on wine lists. I found some great varieties - Scalabrone, which is made with the first-run juice from Guado al Tasso; and Chateau Miraval, which is made by the Perrin family (from the Rhone Valley) on the Provence estate owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I can't imagine the couple harvesting their organically cultivated grapes, but have been told they're very involved in the winemaking process.
I also had some other wishes fulfilled - we're using Riedel glassware and decanters only and there is a whole wall of temperature- and climate-controlled wine fridges, which I managed to fill. A posh step stool also ended up on the shopping list, so I can reach the upper shelves of the wine fridges.
The most fun I had was while doing my "wine o'clock" sessions with the front of the house staff - it was energising to see the curiosity and enthusiasm I received.
And I had to give the staff training on a few issues:
Where does the screw cap go after you've opened the bottle and served the guests? Answer: not on the bottle! It goes in your pocket.
Why is the foil capsule best removed from the bottom ridge? Answer: cutting the foil from the top ridge may allow remnants of the foil to fall into the wine glass while the wine is poured.
How does one pour wine without dribbling it? Answer: gently turn the bottle as you finish pouring a portion of wine - it doesn't always work, so a napkin (yours not a guest's) should be on hand to catch any errant drops.
Who gets wine first and last? Answer: ladies first, of course, ending with the host (the person who ordered the wine). Should the host be a female, she is considered last, just as a gentleman would be.
Guests have been equally entertaining, and it really makes my evening when I can introduce someone to a wine that they have not tried before and see their eyes light up when they take their first sip.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.