Starting out as a waiter at London’s Le Querce, Italian-born Nicola Perrone switched to wine, starting his professional sommelier training in January 2013. After receiving his diploma later that year, he joined Gordon Ramsay’s Maze as commis sommelier. Continuing his studies, Perrone was officially certified as a sommelier in January 2015 by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Having risen through the ranks to reach assistant head sommelier, he left Maze in 2016 and has since chalked up stints at both Luca in Clerkenwell and Jason Atherton’s City Social. Now head sommelier at French neighbourhood restaurant Orrery in Marylebone, he explains how his wine list is “his baby” and reveals that the one wine he can’t get along with hails from his motherland.
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
When I arrived in London, many years ago now, I was working in a family-run restaurant. The owner had so much experience (over 60 years) and he taught me a lot. We used to sit down after service and taste wine together, which made me want to learn more and more, so he encouraged me to do my first sommelier course. From then on, I decided I wanted my career to be in wine.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I love knowing that whether guests are at the restaurant for lunch with a friend, a business meeting, a first date, or a special occasion, they will be able to look back on their experience and remember the wine; in my opinion wine evokes feelings and memories that stick with you. It’s also great to have a wine list that I’ve curated myself, I am really proud of it, it’s like my baby!
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
A lot of people think that sommeliers are just in it for the drinking and the travelling. They don’t realise that there are hours put in to serving in the restaurant, meeting suppliers, cellar management and studying wine in our free time to expand our knowledge so we can keep developing as a sommelier.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
I find a cool IPA or a gin and tonic are so refreshing after a long day.
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
I opened a bottle of Champagne in front of a table of guests and the cork popped out with a huge bang – luckily it was a narrow miss and no one was hurt, but everyone was looking at me!
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out as a somm, what would it be?
The first thing I’d say is to make sure you’re enjoying your job, and doing it with passion. When tasting wine, it’s important to stay open minded and try new things, as that’s the best way to learn. Pushing yourself to do better is also really important.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
It wasn’t so much a single bottle of wine that sparked my interest in wine, but more the variety of wines that I grew to know. Meeting producers and learning about such diverse vintages, grapes and regions meant that each bottle brought me something different; that’s what got me hooked.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
The first producer I visited in Sardinia, Giuseppe Sedilesu, opened my eyes to the hard work and passion that goes into a bottle of wine. It was the first time I’d properly experienced the whole process from start to finish, and it was fascinating.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
When I approach the table asking if guests need any advice when choosing wine, and they decline. As soon as I leave, they take out their phone and start looking up the wines themselves, on an app – I think they can forget that that’s what I’m there for!
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
I try and take the best from each person I meet along the way.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
For me, it’s Champagne with charcuterie. It’s a match made in heaven and the perfect aperitif.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Definitely in Champagne.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
When I was in Sardinia I was interested in joining the army as my family have been in the past, but then I decided to move to London to learn English. That’s when I got into wine and became a sommelier.
Which wine do you find it impossible to get along with?
I’m really open-minded but I do struggle to get along with Prosecco.
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
I’ve served some famous people in the past but for me, the most memorable customers are the ones who are really interested in the food, wine and service. I remember them if they really appreciate a recommendation I’ve given them.
What makes you most proud to be a sommelier working in London?
The hospitality industry in London is extremely dynamic. The diversity means you can taste wines from all over the world. It makes me proud to enjoy what I’m doing in such an interesting wine scene.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
I’ve always wanted to go on a trip around the USA, to see the vineyards there. I’d love to see Napa Valley.
What wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
If I had to choose, it would be Orrery’s Dorset crab with avocado and mango, paired with a Neuburger from Josef and Philipp Bründlmayer, Austria. I really like the freshness of the wine with the dish.