The Sommelier’s Palate – Peter Healy

(pronounced suh-mal-‘yAy)

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.

Peter Healey

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.

Name: Peter Healey – Nationality: Australian

Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?

I operate a consulting business “A Wine Mind For Business”, 26 years of experience in hospitality the bulk of which has been as Sommelier and restaurant manager. The last decade I have been more and more focusing on passing on this knowledge through my business – as a consultant and mentor, most importantly in a very hands-on manner so rarely found in our industry (strangely?). I also have published a ‘children’s book’ on the wine making process called “George the clever Grape” first written for my children 12 years ago to explain where their father had disappeared to for two months and what ‘a vintage was and entailed’. Now I include it as a hand out/homework in the wine appreciation courses I run!


I advise people on stocking their private cellars, again from a very unique place that combines tasting, wine appreciation training and general ongoing mentoring for them to better understand their palate and therefore their purchasing decisions. I am a speaker at corporate events with original and fun themes on wine, weaved throughout the evening to encourage everyone going home with a little more than just a bellyful of food and wine at these types of events. I write fun/poetic and simplified wine tasting notes for small wineries wanting to better connect with the new generation of wine drinker. And much, much more…. Most recently I am involved with an eight week ‘Summer Fling’ in Brunswick East in Melbourne- we have opened a Bia Hoi and are selling fresh beer and 5 authentic Vietnamese street dishes two nights a week till March 24th.


Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?

Loam Restaurant, Bellarine, Victoria, Australia

I LOVE originality! In a world where so many choose to just copy others it always excites me when you see someone take a concept somewhere different. Here when you sit down you are given a page that lists all the ingredients that the kitchen is currently using many of which are on display on a long table in the middle of the room and you simply let them know if there are any you don’t like and or some that you may particularly really like. The degustation menu is then built around those choices. Being open to original/different things also occasionally leads to shock and surprise (isn’t that exciting!?) so it was with wonder at the end of the menu that I had been treated to both the most challenging dish I have ever eaten (Taleggio cheese on KimChi- not to my liking but hey very brave!) and the most intense and long lasting on my palate ever! (Sea Urchin with mandarin) in-between an array of textures, subtlety and sublime to make it a true definition of a gastronomic ride!


Where have you dined (restaurant) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?

Unfortunately it recently changed hands so I can’t vouch for the new owners; however Lochiel House at the foot of the Blue Mountains out shone all the so called greats! On a trip to Sydney two years ago which included 2 three hat restaurants, 2 two hat restaurants (one of them Lochiel House) and a one hat, it’s a story still well worth telling. In a Restaurant landscape where wine lists at the top end are being stacked with millionaires’ private collections and far too often becoming exercises in wine encyclopaedia ‘it is’ a small well thought out list is a rare treasure! Proving that it is possible to still have depth, variety and wines that make sense to your food and business, the previous couple Anthony Milroy and Monique Maul were a breath of fresh air in an Australian dining landscape too often full of itself. Glass always topped up (what is it about the places that have brigades of staff and yet can’t do these simple things?) only talked about the food and wine when asked or indeed necessary and although Monique who ran the floor knew her stuff, didn’t need to feel like she had to prove that to us!  The list ran to two pages plus that age old wonderful touch of a dozen or so wines she had tucked away (in her head) giving a few more options when required.  Because the list was small she had recently tried ALL of the wines and therefore knew where they were at in their life cycle. She was driving the business and not her ego and so there was very little of that new age fashion amongst Sommeliers of ‘what THEY are excited about’ instead, only wines that made sense to the food and the type of diners whom frequent the restaurant.  Wow! Imagine that. I dine out a lot and it is a sad and unfortunate thing at the moment throughout Australia that this is the exception, however when I see it again I’ll let you know!


Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?

Alinea in Chicago, I was very surprised, I had already quite a list that I assumed would be very hard to beat from all over the world and then along came this place in Chicago and suddenly I had found a new level. This even includes that the wine matching (as I found in all the so called top restaurants across the US- French Laundry, WD50, Eleven Madison etc) was appalling for the level they were aiming for in everything else. I put this down to the fact that the Sommeliers in the US (and unfortunately Australia now as well) are so ‘bookish’ in their pursuit of Master Sommelier status, and in such that group (the Court of Master Sommeliers) has not built into their qualification enough practical knowledge that represents a broad spectrum of the ‘real world’. However, even taking this lack lustre approach into account it still landed on top of my dining mountain (the wine list itself was great and so we just opened a few yum bottles to drink alongside the woeful wine matches). 28 little courses of wow, yum and a lot of fun!


Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?

The Commoner – Johnston Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne,

Husband and wife team (both Chef’s) the food is what I call- European farmhouse yum and again (a bit of a pattern here) a small well thought out list. They have the rarity (in a world where the ‘P’ word is way over used) of a ‘passion’ for BOTH great food and service! Always make me feel at home (but better fed!).


Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?

Very rarely, I live alone and I prefer to cook for others so it’s mainly when I have guests. If I am alone and wanting an old favourite its spaghetti puttanesca (just because it has most of my favourite things in it) and if I have a gang of hungry people coming over it’s usually 4 or 5 hours in the kitchen and an Indian banquet washed down by gin and Riesling!


Do you have a favourite wine bar?

Gertrude Street Enoteca, Melbourne a rarity of a true wine bar- it’s so sad, since returning to Melbourne after seven years away all the wine bars have disappeared! Or if not disappeared they are now trying to be restaurants.  My old favourite, Luxe in St Kilda long gone… the simple concept of wines by the glass, 2x beers, gin, cheese and olives where have they all gone?


Do you have a favourite wine merchant?

Not Professional to do that! I have friends that import and sell wine and they get in line just like everyone else. They do respect that in me though (mostly).


What wine are you drinking at the moment?

La Goya ‘XL’ Manzanilla En Rama from Delgado Zuleta – a couple of bottles still left over from my ‘Sherry Christmas’.


Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue your wine obsession?

About 19 years ago at the (then) famous Universal wine bar in Adelaide a 1928 bottle of Burgundy, Chambolle Musigny that was a revelation of perfume and dance, for exactly 14 minutes! It really showed the staying power of great wine but at the same time the whole live in the moment philosophy as at 15 minutes it was expensive salad dressing. Also a line up of 12 Gruner Veltliners that the Sommelier of Steirereck Restaurant in Vienna opened off his wine list for me. It was 2000 and I had been doing vintage in Burgundland. I introduced myself and said that I wasn’t going to get a chance to get over to white wine territory and could they teach me a little about Gruner please. He lined them all up at once and talked me through the styles, textures, regions and producers. I was sold! The rest of the Restaurant spent the next few hours wondering who the hell the lone diner with the semicircle of glasses and a note book was!

What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?

A sherry made from Nebbiolo called ‘Sabia’ made by Tom Shobrook in South Australia and from Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo…A really interesting take on an Amontillado style.


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)

Rockford winery in the Barossa Valley, they make a Shiraz/ Grenache/Mouvedre blend called ‘Moppa Springs’ and its usually released with some age on it. I think 2009 is the current release.  The winery sells it for about $25 a bottle.


Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that you have experienced recently.

There is a new Vermouth on the market in Australia called ‘Maidenii’ a great collaboration between winemaker Gilles Lapalus and bartender Shaun Byrne to showcase native specimens like strawberry gum and wattle seed as well as foraged more traditional spices and fruits in the blend. I matched the sweet version of that on ice with candied oranges and ten year old British farmhouse cheddar over Christmas.


What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?

This is hard, too many options! Sitting in la Mora, eating wild boar and fresh truffles and drinking Nebbiolo…tied for first with looking down on the breathtaking Douro river at Quinta do Crasto drinking Vintage Port and eating pastries as the morning sun danced on the river below.


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.

Six!! That’s so unfair…here goes then…

1/. The Mencia grape from the amazing Ricardo of Descendientes Palacios in Bierzo, Spain. The Petalos is the cheap and cheerful wine to cut your teeth on after that the prices go up steeper than the local topography (and that’s saying something!)


2/. Gruner Veltliner from Brundlmayer in Kamptal, Austria- his Loiser Berg especially.


3/. Riesling from Georg Breuer – the Berg Roseneck shows the amazing mineral style and balance that the often forgotten Rheingau region of Germany can do so well.


4/. Bass Phillip ‘Crown Prince’ Pinot Noir affordable amongst his many, many levels of Pinot and also the most early-drinking of his styles. Just a pity he uses those silly corks that look like they have been covered in glad wrap for this wine, but if you drink rather than cellar you will get the best of both worlds.


5/. Georges Reynaud Crozes Hermitage- his entry wine ‘Les Bruyeres’ gives you all the clay, green peppercorn and perfume of this classic style and at a great price! Through Liberty Wines – click here


6/. Almost as rare as a ‘drop bear’ an Australian Merlot! Long ignored down under and those who have tried most often spend so much time making it look like Barossa Shiraz that you wouldn’t guess it’s a Merlot anyway. Finally one worthy of the grape and our time/money!! Hillcrest Merlot from the Yarra valley in Victoria Australia- their Pinot is pretty amazing as well!











You might also like:

The Sommelier’s Palate – Chris McPherson, An Australian Sommelier in New York
TarraWarra Estate and Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 – Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia
The Sommelier’s Palate – Andrea Briccarello – Galvin Restaurants Group
The Wonderful World of Wine Dogs
The Wandering Palate Cookbook of the Year – More than French – Philippe Mouchel with Rita Erlich forward by Paul

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