Thursday, March 31, 2011

A shining light to family, friends and community (The Kerryman (North Kerry), 30 Mar 2011, Page 28)

A shining light to family, friends and community

The Kerryman (North Kerry)
30 Mar 2011

The late Joan O’Sullivan (Eugene) 1922 – 2011 Think where one’s glory Most begins and ends And say my glory was I had such friends These few lines by Yeats were never more evident than at the recent removal and burial of Joan O’Sullivan (Eugene), more...

Monday, August 16, 2010

The sommelier’s apprentice

Ordering wine in a restaurant is enough to turn some people to drink. But wine waiters want to help, not intimidate

by Luke Leitch

It is barely 11am, I am dressed up like the Milk Tray man and drinking my fifth glass of wine of the morning. Sitting opposite me, across a table strewn with spent bottles, is Gerard Basset, the man who is overseeing my helter-skelter initiation into the world of the sommelier. This is a privilege: Gerard is a legend in the business. The master sommelier who put the “Vin” into Hotel du Vin (his cut was £2.5 million when he and his co-founder, Robin Hutson, sold out five years ago) is probably the greatest wine mastermind in the British Isles.
Twice winner of sommelier of the year, an MBA in wine, three times runner-up in the world sommelier championships and various other oenophile awards — he proved his credentials to me the night before, when he plied me with a tangy, buttercup Gewürztraminer and a deep, almost milky viognier (there was also a pinot noir and a nectary dessert wine, but I recall those less clearly).
Distractingly, though, he also has the Frenchest accent imaginable, a moustache that has earned him the nickname La Tache in one wine industry magazine, and the mien of Gorden Kaye as René Artois in ’Allo ’Allo. This, combined with the wine, inevitably leads to thoughts of Van Clomp’s Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies. Yet there is no time for such distractions — the next bottle is being uncorked. What a moaning.
Britain may rank only thirteenth in the table of most prodigious per capita wine drinkers, but we import more wine than any other nation — a very respectable 1.6 billion bottles annually. As our recycling bins attest, much of that is little more than plonk glugged comfortably chez nous as an all-purpose bourgeois life-anaesthetic.
Yet, in the public arena of a half-decent restaurant, wine drinking can be an uncomfortable experience for the ignorant imbiber. A comprehensive wine list is problematic taken on its own; combined with a haughty, patronising sommelier it’s enough to drive you to lager. Or as Gerard says: “Asking for advice can be an intimidating experience if the customer does not have so much knowledge of the wine. The sommelier is there to help, but sometimes it does not seem that way.”
I was invited to Hotel TerraVina, Gerard’s 17-room boutique hideaway on the edge of the New Forest, to experience service from the other side of the coin. The plan was to shadow Laura Rhys, the hotel’s 27-year-old head sommelier and the latest in a long line of Gerard’s protégées who, this week, won the Academy of Food and Wine’s sommelier of the year competition. “It is about psychology, salesmanship and knowledge of the wine,” Gerard says. “Laura is very good, very dedicated.”
Laura arrives at 9am, bespectacled, in her all-black work uniform, hair tied back in a businesslike bun. The first job of the day is the “mise en place, which means setting up the bar. As we check that the fridges are fully stocked, dish up nuts, cut fruit and polish glasses I assess Laura: she certainly doesn’t have the bearing of a sommelier who — unlike so many that I have encountered — would revel in giving diners an inferiority complex along with their wine.
“It’s very important that your customers feel comfortable,” she says. “Your job is to read them, but this comes from practice and there are never any hard and fast rules.”
Restaurants typically aim to make a gross profit of 60 to 70 per cent on their wine, while more grasping establishments may try to get away with more. Strip away the elegant pouring technique, the fine palate, the managerial skills and the years of knowledge and the sommelier’s ultimate responsibility is to sell wine and rack up as much of that profit as possible.
If a customer does not indicate which kind of wine they prefer, says Laura, it is the sommelier’s job to steer them towards a decision that works for everyone. “Often I will suggest three or four wines; different prices, styles or countries, and try to read them through what gets them excited. From there, you can steer them in the right direction.”
The wine glasses are now impeccable, so Laura proceeds to the cellar. It is dizzying: there is a champagne ante-chamber and beyond it sections for red and white.The wine is filed geographically. Without drawing breath, she rattles off the order: “Here you’ve got France — by region — then Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Greece, England, America, South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand. And then there are the sweet wines.” Finally, she breathes. “And the rosé.”
To keep the cellar topped up and the wine list refreshed, a sommelier is also responsible for ordering new wines. This week alone there are three dealers due in to brandish their wares at Gerard and Laura including, this morning, a specialist in Californian wine called James Hocking. This is where the imbibing — on my part, at least — begins.
The first is a delicious roussanne from a winery called Terre Rouge. James pours, and they all start that Jilly Goolden expert’s schtick, spinning the liquid around in the glass before sipping, then slurping and gurgling with the phlegmy enthusiasm of someone drinking soup from the bowl. I sip. It is silky and delicious.
I swallow. Laura is still gurgling, then suddenly leans forward and spits expertly into a hitherto-unexplained wine bucket. “It could go well with the sweet potato risotto?” she speculates, to nods from Gerard. It is only after three further sips (from a Mount Veeder chardonnay, a Capiaux pinot noir and a zinfandel rosé from somewhere I can’t recall) that I feel confident enough to spit along with the rest of them.
Opening what proved to be a lovely cabernet sauvignon called Phaedrus, James the wine merchant tells me that although restaurant sales are slightly down, and some restaurants — particularly flashy West London restaurants — are proving unreliable to do business with, trade is nonetheless ticking along. “Despite the recession, people are still drinking,” he says. “But people who would once have gone to Tom Aikens and spent £500 are now going to Harrods instead. They’ll spend £50 on some beef and the same on a bottle of wine, and for them that represents value.” Gerard, Laura and James continue expertly to contemplate the relative merits of each wine. I don’t understand how they do it. My taste buds feel assaulted, and a purportedly spectacular Pax winery syrah (trade price £37.46 on the bottle) tastes grotesque.
The end of the tasting comes as a relief. Yet immediately afterwards, in preparation for the forthcoming competition, Gerard sets Laura a blind tasting of five spirits from the bar: a cognac (that smells like whisky), a rum (that smells like cognac), calvados, benedictine and tequila. She sails through. I get them all wrong.
Next up is a “scenario”, a kind of theory exam for sommeliers: Gerard asks Laura how she would best increase sales of a particularly fine Peter Lehmann shiraz named Futures that we have just tasted. She rattles off her options, which include selling it by the glass, stocking it in the hotel’s minibars and thinking anew about which dishes on the menu best complement it. Gerard nods contentedly.
All through the morning I have been trying not to think about serving customers. But now the lunch hour of reckoning is at hand. Matthew Whitfield, a chef, and Laura French, a waitress, both from Marco Pierre White’s Yew Tree, are the first to arrive. Under Laura’s instruction, I have been practising my pouring technique, but am convinced that there is going to be a horrible accident.
Gerard is not foolish enough to let me loose on his wine list — Laura helps them to choose their half-bottle of Yering Station chardonnay — but I am the one dispatched to top up their glasses. The walk from the bar to table, tray balanced on my hand, feels interminable. It passes without calamity, and I am so relieved that I take the bottle from the tray without contemplating the consequences. Without the bottle, the tray is unbalanced and begins to tip off my hand — but with a madman’s twitch I recover. Whitfield and French generously pretend not to notice.
The next thing is to pour, and I remember Laura’s advice: first show them the label “so the customer can see it is their wine”, and then I lean forward to serve, holding the bottle by its base. Then disaster looms again — this time courtesy of the writer Christopher Hitchens. French’s glass is on the far side of her plate, and I remember a spectacular Hitchens diatribe clearly written in great fury immediately after ill-treatment at the hands of a sommelier. Hitchens’s offender had done exactly what I must do to French, whose glass rests on the far side of her plate from me: leant over it, blocking his view of his dining companion in the process, and pour. This is not only a “breathtaking act of rudeness”, wrote Hitchens, “it also tends to undermine me as a guest, since at any moment when I try to sing for my supper, I may find an unwanted person lunging carelessly into the middle of my sentence”.
I will not be that lunger, so go for an unorthodox approach: I ask French if she would mind placing her glass on my side of the table so that I can pour. She does, and I do, then pour again for her lunch date, and walk back to the bar elated. For me, as Herr Flick should have said, the pour is over. After service, Gerard and Laura assess my progress. Despite my knowing practically nothing about wine, and having prevented her from doing anything remotely useful this morning, Laura says: “Well done! You’ve not made any serious mistakes at all.”
For his wine MBA, Gerard wrote a thesis on the psychology of the wine list. In it, he identified a series of risks that deter diners from buying wine. These include the functional risk (“unable to determine if the wine is in good condition or if it goes well with the accompanying food”), social risk (“embarrassment resulting from choosing a wine not perceived to be adequate”), and financial risk (“incapability to know if the wine is worth the price asked for it”).
I would add to that sommelier risk, the fear of being made to feel like ignorant dirt by someone who charges you for the privilege. Yet unless you take the time to learn about wine — and considering that there are more than 2,000 chateaux in Bordeaux alone, that could take a while — you must to some extent rely on them. So hold your nerve, and hope that it’s someone who wears their knowledge as lightly as Gerard and Laura do.

Wine list dos and don’ts

By Gerard Basset

Do inform the sommelier of your budget up front. Sommeliers love to know how much a diner wishes to spend to avoid embarrassing situations and wasting time.
Do remember that it’s not all about the money. Price plays a part in indicating wine quality but so too does reputation, rarity and the name of the producer.
Don’t accept a 2005 vintage if you’ve ordered 2006. In some cases it can make for a very different wine. Vintage changes must be pointed out before the bottle is opened and in some cases must be reflected in the price.
Don’t rule out wines just because they have a screwtop — you’ll be missing out on plenty of wonderful wines.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lar Veale - Wine Correspondent, Interviews Alain Bras

Lar Veale -Wine Correspondent, The Sunday Tribune
Founder & Editor,

Alain Bras' chats to Lar Veale

On my recent staycation in Kerry, I made it to the picturesque town of Kenmare. While there I met up with Alain Bras, proprietor of Vanilla Grape on Kenmare’s Henry Street.

I’ve been in plenty of wine shops. In Kenmare, nestled amongst galleries, craft shops and cafés the term “wine shop”, doesn’t quite do Alain Bras’s premises justice. It’s a treasure trove of wines from all over the world with Rhône Syrahs, Shiraz from Victoria’s little known Heathcote, and everywhere in between. There’s literally something for everyone.

Below, a few words from the man himself.

1. Alain, you originally hail from France. Has wine always been in your blood?

I was born in the Midi in rural wine area between Cahors and Marcillac in North Aveyron. With no wine wine connection apart from the fact that my grandfather made wine for himself, like many farmers in “polyculture” France. I later went to catering college and studied wine as part of the program.

2. What took you to Ireland and what have you been doing since you arrived?

I met an Irish girl on a placement trip to London, she brought me to Ireland in 1980. In Dublin I worked in the restaurant trade, involved in wine purchasing, then head waiter / wine buyer at Whites on the Green from 1984. I moved on to Limerick where I started a wine club – Le Chapeau – from then I lectured on wine and moved to full time Sommelier for Adare Manor, then Sheen Falls Lodge. In 2002, I tried my hand at full time teaching in Shannon College, but rapidly moved back to the trade.

In 2004 we created Vanilla Grape, and subsequently opened our shop – being the window to our wine business of wine purveyor, school of wine and online sales – which to this day is our main trade.

3. Tell me about the wines you stock

The selection is very eclectic in terms of regions (35 regions from around the world), styles (light to powerfully rich), and types (dry to sweet or sparkling) and price range – about 600 wines at present from €9 to €300 for a bottle.

Our selection is evolving and shifting all the time – and right now, very price conscious. It’s around 50:50 Europe to other regions of the world. There’s also a much stronger demand in our store for small producers and biodynamic practice in vineyard management. My selection is influenced by that right now.

Also, the season has a great effect with lighter wines in summer.

4. Do you have a particular focus on one country or style and what goes best with the local Kerry dish?

As a sommelier I like to help with the choice of purchase. A lot of locals now come with a full description of the event and budget and want me to come up with the perfect wine.

With Kerry Lamb I like to suggest a mature St Emilion or an earthy Rioja or even a Chianti Classico again depending of the request.

5. What new wine discoveries excite you?

Limari and San Antonio of Chile for Chardonnay, central and southern Rhone for red and white, Saumur and Chinon (Loire valley) for Cabernet Franc, Rheingau and Rheinhessen for dry Riesling, Shiraz from Heathcote Victoria. The list is long for my favourite wines.

6. What’s your all time favourite wine?

My all time favourite was Champagne Charlie from Charles Heidsieck 1979, but again another dozen could pop up just the same.

7. Tell me about moving online, and what you offer from your website?

Our website, , is the natural follow through to increase our repeat customer base, and continued sales away from Kenmare, especially during festive times and special occasions.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Special Events Wine Tastings with Alain Bras

A unique and special way to surprise the guest(s) of honour for their Birthday, Anniversary, Pre-Wedding weekend etc. with a wine tasting given by celebrated wine expert Alain Bras. Alain selects the fine wines especially for a given group and each guest receives a wine menu for the tasting. Group interaction is encouraged and canapés are provided on request. The Alain Bras Kenmare School of Wine Certificate is awarded to the guest(s) of honour to mark the special occasion.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

France, Chile rewarded in the world's first Concours Mondial du Sauvignon

by Jane Anson in Bordeaux

The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles – together with the ODG Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur – launched the first Concours Mondial du Sauvignon during the Bordeaux Fete le Vin wine fair.

Over 40 tasters from ten countries took part, including writer David Cobbold, and winemakers JD Pretorius from Steenberg vineyards in South Africa, and Jean Christophe Bourgeois from Domaine Henri Bourgeois in the Loire.

512 wines were presented for this first edition, from France, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece and Brazil.

France dominated both awards and entries – with over 300 entries and 90 awards. Chile was the next most successful, with 61 entries and 21 medals. Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc from Cipresse Vineyard took the trophy for unoaked sauvignon over €12 and Michel Laurent 2009 from Sancerre the trophy for under €12.

Around 80,000ha of Sauvignon Blanc are estimated to be planted worldwide, with the largest concentrations in France, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa.

It is a grape that is popular with consumers, but not often with critics, and was compared recently to 'the thinking man's Pinot Grigio' by Lulie Halstead of Wine Intelligence, and 'a dud' by wine critic Mike Steinberger.

'Sauvignon is an extremely demanding grape variety to get right,' JD Pretorius told, 'but it is often derided by critics as being too populist, or one-dimensional.

Even consumers in South Africa seem to be slowly moving away from it back towards lightly oaked Chardonnays – but it's a grape variety that deserves better critical recognition when in the hands of the right producers.'

Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc is available at VG

Another satisfied customer for VG

Morning Christine
Wow, what a marathon! I was just about to reply to you saying there was no address to which the wine had been delivered on the Track & Trace when I got your last email telling me about the local shop!
I phoned Aileen - once I had her landline number - & she revealed all. Marina was at school with Aileen - a year below her - & of course they knew each other well!
Aileen has her wine - her favourite - I knew that from her brother who is married to my daughter here in Aus! Halleluya!!

So, thank you SO VERY MUCH for all your efforts to get it to her - will have a stern talk to Marian re her non use of her mobile phone!!!

Please also thank the delivery man who must have been out of his mind by the time he decided to give up & risk having Marina choose to indulge in a tipple at midnight!

Yes, Aileen is very happy, so am I - I never doubted you would get it to her eventually but do apologise for the trauma you have all gone through.
When next in Ireland I will make an effort to contact you & the delivery man & we'll have a Whisky or a wine together - sure owe you one!!!

Here's hoping, sincerely, that all your customers aren't like me and you will have a peaceful week next week and a pay rise the next!! Please pass on my compliments to your company & tell them you have very much impressed one customer from Australia & I will recommend you to anyone interested (provided they are sending to someone who answers their mobile phone!!!)


Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Cork: the traditional approach
• Pros: Cork has a long history; it has been used as the sealing method of choice for over 400 years. Cork stoppers, because they are such a pain to remove, implicitly signal quality. When they work, they work well. They’re a renewable resource (the trees are not killed when the bark is stripped to make cork). They make a satisfying “pop” when removed from the bottle. They’re readily biodegradable. And they support an entire industry of corkscrews and other cork-removal products.
• Cons: Corks often go bad. Estimates vary widely, but many bottles of wine are ruined due to corks that are tainted, ill-fitting, or deteriorated. (Depending on which figures you believe, as little as 1% or as much as 20% of all wine sold is “corked,” which is to say, damaged by a problematic cork.) Corks can be difficult to remove, and sometimes break off into the bottle. The world’s cork supplies are nearly maxed out, so cork prices are increasing.

Plastic: the new cork
• Pros: Plastic is immune to cork taint, so wine is much less likely to spoil. Plastic corks can be made more cheaply, and with much more precision, than cork stoppers. Depending on the vintner’s tastes, plastic corks can be made to look very similar to natural corks, or be molded in any imaginable designer colour. They’re recyclable. And the same cork-removal equipment (along with its obligatory “pop” sound) can be used.
• Cons: If the trees used to produce cork are no longer used for that purpose, they may be cut down to make space for more lucrative crops, thus endangering the habitat of various kinds of wildlife and altering the local ecosystem in unpredictable ways. If not recycled, plastic corks also pose a more direct threat to the environment. Some wine experts claim plastic corks unfavourably affect the flavour of wine. On the other hand, they don’t hold the aroma of wine well, making the ritual of cork-sniffing unsatisfying. The plastic may not retain its elasticity well over time, making it unsuitable for wines meant to age for decades. And most importantly, it’s just not right.

Screw caps: a strange twist
• Pros: Screw caps, like plastic corks, avoid problems of cork taint, and yet unlike plastic are much less likely to affect wine’s flavour or lose their effectiveness over time. They are less expensive than natural or plastic corks. And they can be removed without any special equipment.
• Cons: As with plastic corks, screw caps imply environmental issues associated with the loss of cork farming. Cork sniffing, of course, is right out. And again, most importantly, it’s just not right. You shouldn’t be able to get at your wine as easily as you get at your cola.

Crown seals: good enough for beer
• Pros: Crown seals (the type of bottle cap used on most beer bottles) are basically screw caps without the screw part, so they have all the same advantages except ease of removal.
• Cons: The downsides of crown seals are the same as for screw caps, with the additional issue of needing a bottle opener.

Wine revised Alain Bras