Despite seeing the world of wine as a “mammoth” subject, the up-and-coming sommelier has thrown herself into the global dining scene in the past decade. She began her hospitality career with a bartending stint at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen after graduating from Kingston University with a 2:1 in International Business with languages, which gave her the chance to spend part of her education studying French literature in Paris. She achieved her WSET Level 3 while working with the Jamie Oliver Group, before going on to join London wine bar Sager+Wilde by the end of 2013. An avid traveller, her love of wine was first sparked by a bottle of 2002 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Champagne she found backpacking through New Zealand right at the start of her career. Time spent in Denmark led to her talent being spotted by the team at acclaimed restaurant NOMA, and in 2017 she travelled to Mexico to serve a three-month stint at the group’s Mexican popup in 2017. Spencer, who joined Nuala in June last year, is an advocate of lesser-known expressions. She champions regions from Moravia in the Czech Republic and Naoussa in Greece. Here, she explains how a sick sommelier helped get her start in wine, why Trousseau is her marmite variety, and how the earth stopped turning upon tasting a certain Champagne while backpacking in New Zealand.
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
I was working as a cocktail bartender at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen after I graduated from university. I thought the sommeliers were so cool and started joining them attending tastings and learning as much as I could about wine, although it seemed like a mammoth subject (update: it still does). One day one of the sommeliers called in sick
and I was asked to stand in. It went well and the company offered to pay to put me through my WSETs. In other words, I got lucky.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I still pinch myself that I get to do a job that is both highly sociable and academic. There aren’t many careers that tick both boxes. Being a sommelier also facilitates travel and I’ve taken some trips and met many people that will stay with me for life – all in the name of getting better at my job.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
For me there are two answers to this question: From outside the trade, naturally people think get to be drunk all the time and get paid for it. Also, in the UK there is still a stigma that surrounds hospitality and how respectable it is as a career choice. When I passed my WSETs, my normally liberal and supportive dad asked when I was going to end my “gap year” and find a proper job. When I served him at NOMA Mexico, I think he finally began to understand what goes into the job. The other misconception is that the sommelier is hired to entertain or educate guests by talking to them about wine. As someone that works in hospitality, our primary job is to make sure our guests have the best experience they can, whether that be comparing Burgundy vintages or quickly serving them a bottle of house red and leaving them to their rare night off together from the kids. In this sense emotional
intelligence is just as important as wine knowledge.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
I would be lying if I said that most days I don’t crave a cool can of beer but on special occasions I make myself a fino and tonic – picked up from days of managing Sager + Wilde.
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
For me it is always upsetting when a guest recognises me but the recognition doesn’t go both ways. I always do my best to remember guests, particularly those I gel with, but I’ve worked in many countries across the World and it’s fairly regular for someone I’ve met outside of London to come into NUALA and give my memory a run for its money.
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out as a sommelier, what would it be?
I think it would be to ask more questions, particularly when visiting vineyards and winemakers. There is such a paranoia in the wine world that asking questions renders you clueless to others, but crucially this is the only way to expand understanding. These days I force myself to ask questions if I’m unsure and always find it amazing how often others more senior around me appear to have not known the answer either!
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
Ah, of course this is the impossible question but I do remember tasting a bottle of 2002 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Champagne when I was backpacking in New Zealand near the start of my career and for a while the earth stopped turning! I also recently met Daniel Landi who makes ethereal wines from Grenache in Sierra de Gredos outside of Madrid and felt a very deep connection with his wines which led me to take the best wine trip I’ve ever been on a month later.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
I always cherish evenings spent with Rajat Parr who I somehow manage to bump into fairly regularly around Europe. His knowledge is vast and I feel like I’m opening a treasure trove when I talk with him. I was also invited to celebrate 30 years of Elisabetta Foradori’s cuvée ‘Granato’ in the Dolomites last month. It was unforgettable experience tasting the wine through the years and and observing how the wine has evolved as much over 30 years as any human given the same passion, time and trust.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
It disappoints me when guests are adamantly against trying something new. We are living in fairly pivotal times in the wine world and many famous names are just not able to make the quality of wine they once were owing to a plethora of factors. Equally, there are some incredible emerging producers and regions that are really worth taking a punt on such as the Jura in France, Moravia in the Czech Republic and Naoussa in Greece. At NUALA we encourage people to try these wines by reducing our margin on them and offering tastes but some guests just ‘like what they like..’
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
Danny Meyer has long been my hero for his undyingly ‘nice guy’ approach to hospitality. I re-read his book ‘Setting The Table’ every year as a way of hitting refresh. As for persons in the wine trade I have a lot of admiration for MW Isabelle Legeron MW for persistently banging the drum for natural wines far before they got trendy and of course when I met Jancis Robinson I got a bit teary. She is unparalleled not only for women but all people in the wine industry.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
Another impossible question but one of my most memorable pairings has been Lobster Thermidor and a 1999 Chenin Blanc made by Mark Angeli of Anjou. Oh, and I had a 1988 Dufour champagne on my 30th birthday this year with some birthday cake. That was pretty perfect.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
A small, steep slope of Mencia vines in Ribeira Sacra would suit me just fine; I’m definitely a mountain dweller at heart despite being an urbanite all my life. That or a spot in the Basket Range just outside Adelaide – spare the spiders.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
Hand on my heart I don’t know. I just hope I never have to re-asses my options.. I’m not sure I’d be good for much else.
Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with?
I have a real love-hate relationship with Trousseau, it can be so wonderful and also so foul. In fact I have such a strong feeling about it that I’ve set up a company under the Portuguese translation
Bastarda which I think encapsulates the nature of the variety perfectly: occasionally loveable but also a terror! I also have no time for bad natural wines. I am an avid supporter of natural wines and as a rule only work with organic or biodynamically farmed wines but I am also a strong defender of my guests’ experiences and I hate to see wine made badly and passed off as ‘natural’ and subsequently for them to decide they hate all organic wine.
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
I remember serving Champagne writer Peter Liem last year and getting a real schooling on the nuances of serving particular wines. Naturally, Sommelier customs can vary from country to country but I relished the lesson.
What makes you most proud to be a sommelier working in London?
I honestly think London is THE city for wine at the moment. From the revered cellars of West London to the younger generation pitching flags for low intervention wines around East and South, there is seemingly no limit to innovative projects and collaborations.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
Breaking bread with Elisabetta Foradori was at the top of my list and I achieved it this year so I suppose I need an updated bucket list! I’m trying to persuade my friend Charles Dufour to make my own cuvée so let’s see how far I get there..
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
We recently put a burrata with black pudding and peach dish on the menu which I paired with an incredible Muscat (Gelber Muskateller) by Eduard Tscheppe of Styria in Austria. It looks like it’s becoming a real favourite here at NUALA!