“My favorite restaurant would have to be Cicciolina in Melbourne. It is 20 years old, staff stay there forever and the menu rarely changes. The food is consistently fantastic, ambience great, service outstanding and they make a kick ass martini in the back bar!” Jacqueline Lewis, Sommelier at Mr Wong, Sydney
In Medieval Provençal times they were saumaliers, animal pack drivers who evolved during Middle French kingdom to become court officials charged with transportation of supplies. So what does a modern day Sommelier actually do? Well, Wikipedia outlines as such, “A sommelier or wine steward is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching. The most important work of a sommelier is in the areas of wine procurement, wine storage, wine cellar rotation, and expert service to wine consumers.”
A reasonably accurate job description although perhaps a little parched as our new-age sommelier has evolved to a higher learning with a wine Jedi cognizance and a seventh sense that can psychoanalyse a diner, marry the person, the dish and the wine in seconds. They are now the gateway to wine discovery equipped with clairvoyance in food and wine trends, inspiring thirst around the world.
Feared by winemakers, loathed by wine distributors as the arbiters’ of wine lists, the restaurant patron should embrace their knowledge, skills and talent as they are hopelessly and passionately obsessed with wine and will take you on journey of gastronomic enlightenment. And our new-age sommelier is no longer confined to fine dining and can be found in casual eateries, wine bars, gastro-pubs, winery restaurants, wine stores and you’ll even bump into an air-sommelier at 30,000ft these days. Some have hung up their waiters-friend and metamorphosed to the wine trade as brand ambassadors, distributors or consultants, but once a sommelier, always a sommelier.
This column explores the gustatory and olfactory manifestations of sommeliers all over this planet. We take a cross section of the sommelier’s stomach and intestines to reveal what and where they eat. And we dissect their taste buds and dopamine receptors as they relent to the Wandering Palate narcosynthesis and confess to their personal vinous pleasures and closely-held secrets – this is The Sommelier’s Palate.
Jacqueline Lewis, Australia
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I have just returned back to Australia after 7 years overseas, working as a Head Sommelier in France in Mauritius for Alain Ducasse, and for Zuma in Dubai. I am currently both consulting and working for Mr Wong in Sydney where I am re-discovering and falling back in love with Australian wine.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
As I have only recently returned to Australia, I am trying to re-discover the food and wine scene here. A couple of weeks ago I went to a new establishment in Sydney called Nomad. I was so impressed with what they are doing here – handmade butter and cheese, a large glass smoking room – and all produce is Australian, including the wine. Highlighting the best of what your country has to offer and supporting great local produce in a modern and conceptual driven way is no easy feat, but one that Nomad has pulled off in superb fashion. Flavour packed, well-presented dishes, friendly knowledgeable and experienced staff and a great local list – Nomad really ticked all the boxes!
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
I am a bit of an Italian Wine-o-phile; I visit every year around Vinitaly time and love discovering all the small but high quality producers all over the country. I am, as a result, a bit hard to impress with Italian wine but have discovered a little gem in Sydney called Fratelli Paradiso. What a great representation of quality Italian boutique producers! There is a whole section of Frank Cornelissen wines that I’ve not seen anywhere outside of Italy. There was no Sommelier as such, but the owner was on the floor which I love to see and the staff were super knowledgeable on the whole list. This is the kind of place where you can brief the waiter and he/she will take you on a great adventure. Bliss.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
The most memorable restaurant meal I have ever had was my first time in Vinitaly. My friend and fellow Sommelier took me to a trattoria in Verona called Pompiere – we had a pile of the most incredible handmade pasta with butter and artichoke and the most memorable Amarone risotto I’m ever likely to experience. I have been to this trattoria every year since!
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
My favorite restaurant would have to be Cicciolina in Melbourne. It is 20 years old, staff stay there forever and the menu rarely changes. The food is consistently fantastic, ambience great, service outstanding and they make a kick ass martini in the back bar!
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
Whenever I get the chance, I love to cook at home. Thanks to an Italian friend of mine, I have recently perfected a genuine Italian Carbonara – it has been quite life changing!
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
I have been too far too many wine bars all over the world to have a favorite – I love the discovery of wine bars and the people behind them. On a trip to NYC last year, I was wandering along the ingenious Highline walkway when I stumbled across a Riesling bar… Right there on the Highline walk! Terroir is a Riesling concept bar, well executed and what a fabulous location outdoors overlooking the Hudson! A raft of great Rieslings by the glass, knowledgeable staff and cute bits to eat.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
Lea & Sandeman in London. Sadly, Patrick Sandeman died while skydiving in 2013, and the loss to the industry was great. His company is based on love, passion and knowledge rather than on ego, and they have a fantastic selection of wines that reflect this.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
I’m in the middle of a re-discovery of grenache!
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
When working in France, I was inspired by Kermit Lynch “Adventures on the Wine Route” to visit Domaine Tempier in Bandol. Their rouge floored me. This wine was singing! Literally it was like drinking music from a glass. Aromas and flavours so complex and well integrated it was almost impossible to distinguish one from the other… They all flowed together into a single stunning story.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
I’m in a bit of a Bierzo phase at the moment – this North Western Spanish wine region is starting to produce some great wines. Juice, spice and just the right amount of tannin!
Tell us what is your ultimate wine bargain discovery in terms of price/quality rapport? (i.e. does not have to be cheap but over-delivers in quality for the price)
Canonica Barolo. Giovanni Canonica produces just 5000 bottles of his Barolo, so it can be hard to find but it is well worth the hunt. All winemaking is very traditional, from foot pressing to huge wooden vats. The result is an incredibly transparent, vibrant Barolo with astounding clarity that is half the price of big brand producers but streets ahead in quality.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Sake and Cheese!
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
Without a doubt, South Africa. The scenery here is truly dramatic; a wildness that is rarely seen so close to a major city (Cape Town). The coast is untamed, the ocean wild and the mountains stunning. Producers here are improving at a rapid rate, they were only really thrown amongst the world’s producers post-apartheid and are coming along in leaps and bounds. Producers such as Eben Sadie are true quality pioneers in this part of the world. The cuisine is delicious and inexpensive, from the vineyards to Cape Town kitchens, all are producing quality dishes with locally sourced products at very reasonable prices. Visiting here you get the strong impression you are witnessing a country proudly discovering its potential.
Select a six pack of wines that you think are absolutely outstanding and inspirational, and that will set people on a journey of vinous discovery and enlightenment.
Any Egon Muller Riesling
Georges Vernay Condrieu
Henschke Hill of Grace 2001
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne
Domaine Tempier Rose