Owned by the formidable Neleen Strauss, a South African native and passionate advocate of its wines, High Timber was founded in collaboration with Stellenbosch wine estate, Jordan. Today, it is a beacon for South African wine in the capital, with Strauss’ connections making its easy to source rare and aged vino and show off the best of South Africa, she told Wine List Confidential earlier this year. While South Africa is at its heart, Strauss also offers wines from ‘all over the world’, such as Alsace Riesling (Julan Schaal), Domaine Leflaive Chassagne-Montrachet in magnum, Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Rosé 2000 and first growth Bordeaux. Outspoken and direct, Strauss made headlines in 2012 for hand-delivering a bill for £90,000 to Mayor of London Boris Johnson to protest against alleged losses of trade during the Olympics, claiming that turnover was knocked 80% over the fortnight as workers abandoned the city during the tournament. “This is – give or take a few hundred pounds – what the Olympic Games have cost me in turnover since they began,” she said at the time. “And I have asked Boris Johnson to pay the bill personally, not from the seemingly limitless coffers that supported London 2012,” she wrote. Here, Strauss shares her love of the job, what it was like to serve Oprah Winfrey, the joy of a plate of anchovies with a glass of Albarino, and an altercation with a Texan with a knack for opening a bottle of wine with a handgun….
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
Becoming a sommelier was the natural process of being a waitress first and just getting deeper and deeper into the wine side of things.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Meeting and experiencing the passion of winemakers and viticulturists, learning constantly and having a lot of fun in the wine regions
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
That I drink wine for a living!!
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
Chipping a piece of hard wax off whilst trying to open a bottle; flying wax hit a customer behind the ear. After apologising and explaining what happened he told me he hates wax, and in his broad Texan accent was delighted to tell me he once shot the wax off a bottle with his handgun at his house in Austin.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Not to take wine seriously but rather experiencing it as a journey full of mainly good times.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
Lanzerac Pinotage as a little girl because it had a pretty pink label.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
The first time Gary Jordan spent a full day with me at Jordan Winery in Stellenbosch and literally taking me from step one of winemaking to the end result. He covered so much that day and we ended it with a vertical of his Chardonnays overlooking the Atlantic and Indian oceans from his mountains.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
Moving a glass when you’re about to pour.
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
George Jardine and Michel Roux.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
Albarino and fresh anchovies.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
In Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, next to the Kruger Park.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
Maybe a game ranger!
Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with?
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
Ophrah Winfrey in Johannesburg. She was the only person on a table of 10 people that realised the wine they were drinking was corked! She laughed about it but luckily loved the next wines.
What makes you most proud to be a sommelier working in London?
London is the most wine wise city in the world.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
Finding that elusive fabulous 1965 red magnum of anything!
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
Has to be our grass fed ribeye steak with a 1998 Kanonkop Paul Sauer!