Like Lewens, Jones’ debut red was made in an approachable, easy-drinking style, meaning it could be bottled quickly. He has since gone on to make boutique bottlings in Germany, Croatia, Greece, Slovenia, and a couple of wines from the Southern hemisphere. foresight While on the road he relished his nomadic lifestyle. “It was a great feeling to rid myself of my possessions and live out of a backpack. You always want to be there to taste the wines, but once they’re maturing you can have trusted friends send you barrel samples. You have to have confidence in your foresight about how the wines are going to mature,” says Jones, the former head brewer for London mead brand Gosnell’s, who has since moved on from Flavour Bastard to set up a canned wine company.
The controversial restaurant has been closed since 6 August, though owner Vic Singh insists the site will reopen imminently. While working at the restaurant, as well as curating one of the most exciting wine lists in London, Jones loved being able to sell three of his own wines to curious consumers: The Spectre Mosel Riesling 2013, emblazoned with a spooky skull label; Terms of Venery Sylvaner, an orange wine from Slovenia; and Three Years Down, from the Greek island of Chios, made from local red varieties Chiotiko Krassero and Ayanitis. “I was given carte blanche with the wine list, and it was great to have the opportunity to include producers that I’ve collaborated with. I enjoyed seeing how people responded to the wines, but you have to bite your tongue sometimes, as you can’t be too over-protective of them, despite having nurtured them.
Working as a sommelier there can often be a disconnect between those who make the wine and those who sell it, so it’s great to be able to be a voyeur, and see people’s reactions first hand to the wines that you’ve made.”
South African-born Angelo van Dyk of London-based wine bar Bedales, which has sites in Borough Market, Spitalfields and Leadenhall Market, believes it’s not only a privilege but a necessity for people who sell wine to have made it at least once in their career.
“To have never had a hand in the winemaking process would be as short-sighted as being a butcher and never having stepped into an abattoir. If you’ve never experienced the process of making wine, you will never understand it in its entirety,” he says.
“The sun rising over dew-soaked soils; the low rumbling of tractors in the distance; freshly trodden grape juice, ice cold under foot; and the back-breaking efforts of punch downs all add to the appreciation of the final product.”
Keen to fulfil his dream of making wine in his homeland, having gained valuable experience at Wind Gap in Sonoma, this year van Dyk, who briefly studied winemaking at university before switching courses, took two months of unpaid leave, packed his bags and headed to the Western Cape.
Before he left, he raised enough money from a small pool of friends to make a boutique red blend in collaboration with Francois Haasbroek, former chief winemaker at Waterford Estate, who now runs his own boutique project called Blackwater Wine.
The pair met when van Dyk spent a few months as a cellar rat at Waterford after graduating. Having kept in touch over the years, the visionary Haasbroek was an ideal mentor for van Dyk. “He helped me source the fruit and let me rent space in his winery, so was crucial to the project getting off the ground – I would have struggled without him.” Having planned to produce Syrah from Elgin, Mother Nature had other ideas, as the plot van Dyk had his eye on wasn’t ripening quickly enough, so he settled on a block of Syrah from Paarl and a parcel of Grenache from Bot River.
Financial constraints “You quickly realise that you’re at the mercy of the elements and you have to be flexible. People who make wine in a garagiste way adopt a minimum-intervention approach not because of trends but through necessity and financial constraints,” says van Dyk, who had to make a call on the Paarl Syrah block without even tasting it.
Fortunately, the fruit exceeded expectations. The resulting wine, Yo El Rey (meaning ‘I The King’ in Spanish), which is how the young Picasso signed his paintings, is a “delicate” 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache, which will be bottled this month after spending eight months in oak.
For his inaugural vintage van Dyk produced just 1,800 bottles, which will go on sale at Bedales next spring. Illustrating the level of camaraderie that exists among the London restaurants and bars trying to push the wine conversation forward, Leroy and Sager + Wilde are keen to take it on.
Van Dyk’s key motivation was the chance to work outdoors again. “I missed feeling connected to nature and had started to feel claustrophobic in London. Bedales has been incredible in giving me the time off to do this, as the company felt the strain while I was away,” he admits.
The future of Yo El Rey lies in the balance, as van Dyk is keen to make the wine every year, but isn’t sure if it’s a viable possibility alongside his work commitments in London. “A conversation needs to happen and I hope we can figure out a way for me to do it as I’m happy to work around the project to pursue it,” says van Dyk, who has a white in his sights and would love to make a skin-contact Pinot Gris.
The number of London sommeliers who moonlight as winemakers is growing, from Igor Sotric of China Tang at The Dorchester, who makes a Burgundian-style Chardonnay with Marjan Simcic near the Italian border in Slovenia, and ex- Sager + Wilde somm Gergely Barsi Szabó, who makes a dry Furmint in Tokaj with sommelier friend Donald Edwards, to former Zuma head somm Alessandro Marchesan, who now works for Zonin1821 and makes Mas La Mola, a perfumed Garnacha from Priorat distributed by Liberty Wines in his (precious little) spare time.
Chef Roger Jones of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in Wiltshire is also in on the act, and makes a South African Chenin, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for his Jones Family Collection in collaboration with Newton Johnson in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Stellenrust in Stellenbosch. Give up the day job Proving how difficult it is to be both a full-time sommelier and a winemaker, many somms with grape-growing aspirations have to take on less demanding day jobs to carve out the time to make wine. Sommeliers have one key advantage over other winemakers – having worked the floor day and night, they have first-hand experience with consumers, and know which wines fly out of their cellars and which gather dust.
“Our USP as sommeliers is that we understand the market and we make wines that consumers will like, or at least our sommelier friends will like,” jokes Michael Sager, who collaborated with Rajat Parr in 2014 on a Sager + Wilde own-label Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, and has gone on to make a number of own-label wines for the bar in collaboration with boutique winemakers, such as Rheingau-based Eva Fricke and Californian pet nat fanatic Michael Cruse.
“As a sommelier it’s virtually impossible to make your own wine from scratch without partnering up with an established winemaker. It’s a romantic notion but sommeliers don’t have the freedom you need to be a winemaker,” says Sager, who, as well as the Vigneti Tardis project, has a small-batch mezcal range, a vermouth, Mexican rum, Colombian triple sec and a soda brand in development.
For most sommeliers, the desire to make wine isn’t about making money – they of all people know how tough it is to make a tidy profit in the industry – it’s about something far deeper than that. It offers them the chance to swap their tailored suit for a T-shirt, get their hands dirty and connect with the terroirs they’ve idolised for years, allowing them to create their own unique snapshot of liquid history that they can be proud of.