London is home to a remarkable pool of talented wine personalities who are devoted to helping diners enjoy the diverse world of wine and have a good time too. Here, Patrick Schmitt MW introduces the WLC Top 50 Most Powerful Sommeliers in London 2019.
Several years ago, when we first came up with the idea of a wine list guide for London restaurants, there were two major aims. While we wanted to applaud those places with brilliant drinks selections, we also wanted to celebrate the personalities who had compiled them. After all, if restaurants are rightly famous for their food and chefs, they should also be recognised for their wines and sommeliers.
Having published an extensive guide to the top 100 best places in London to drink wine in May last year, for the start of 2019 we decided to print a further booklet, this time to highlight the most brilliant wine-trade figures working in the capital’s restaurant scene. To us, it seemed to follow naturally, but, I should add, it hasn’t been easy.
Initially, I would like to stress that the people profiled in this guide have been ordered loosely according to the rankings of restaurants in last year’s Wine List Confidential. In other words, their position in this publication is related to the ranking of their establishment in our wine list guide from 2018 – which you can order from winelistconfidential.com.
That’s simple enough, but we have restricted ourselves to one person for each restaurant. And for this reason, I should apologise to the influential sommeliers that we haven’t been able to feature. People like Dmytro Goncharuk at Hide, or Julien Sahut at Sexy Fish, as well as Klearhos Kanellakis and Beatrice Bessi at 67 Pall Mall – although this wine establishment does get two entries: Ronan Sayburn, who is the club’s wine director as well as CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and Terry Kandylis, who is the head sommelier, and the man most likely to serve you just after you’ve settled into the soft furnishings at this former bank in the heart of St James’s.
We’ve also stopped at 50, which was a source of frustration for us because London has so many more talented and influential restaurant wine figures than this number suggests – but we had to draw the line somewhere. However, others have been profiled in full on our WLC website, so you can read about the most embarrassing moments and vinous bucket lists for further London-based power somms by visiting our website.
It has also been interesting to witness the changes since we first drew up our list. Some of the names within our initial top 50 have had to go – perhaps most notably Charlotte Logan-Jones at Bonham’s, following the sad closure in late December of this wine trade favourite, with its amazing collection of accessibly-priced fine labels. While we were braced for another sad loss from the guide following the closure of Nuala just days before we went to print – which was a great place for little-known and delicious wines – we were pleased to see its wine buyer Honey Spencer resurface as sommelier at Hackney’s Bastarda, while revealing a new role as a wine consultant for a bakery/wine bar called Flor, and hence her inclusion (see page 72).
This means that our top 50 is just one woman down on the initial ranking, although it means that the list of London’s most powerful sommeliers shows even more imbalance between the sexes. Then we saw the disappearance of one of London’s most impressive figures: Piotr Pietras MW, the founding head sommelier of wine Mecca Hide, who has returned to his homeland of Poland, partly at the request of his pregnant wife, who’s also Polish, but also to exploit the opportunities of an emerging fine wine scene in this part of Europe. Although he has not been directly replaced at Hide, we have featured Hans Weinefalk Larsson, who manages the top floor of fine dining at the restaurant, while you can read about the afore-mentioned Dmytro Goncharuk on our website, who manages the ground floor restaurant at the same place.
Finally, just as we thought the guide was complete, a tweet revealed that Guillem Kerambrun had left Caprice Holdings – where he had been group head sommelier and wine buyer – to join Berkmann Wine Cellars as director of fine wines and private clients. However, we were thrilled to learn that the much-liked and respected Clement Robert MS was to take over where Guillem had left off. We wish Clement every success with his new role, having weathered many changes at 28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen – the wonderful chain of wine-focused restaurants founded by Xavier Rousset MS, but more recently troubled, and, since November, under new ownership.
The most shocking and saddest of all developments was the passing of Gerard Basset MS, MW, who died on 16 January aged 61. Nevertheless, we are still celebrating his role-model status in our guide with a profile of him on pages 8-13. After all, he was the mentor to so many top somms, including London’s most influential – Ronan Sayburn MS – who we have interviewed alongide Gerard to begin this guide.
What attracts all this wine-loving talent to London? To quote Honey Spencer, “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 the East and South, there is seemingly no limit to innovative projects and collaborations.”
Making such a diverse, exciting drinks scene possible are the capital’s consumers – London is home to such a broad base of diners, not just in terms of incomes, but cultures. And this has bred a willingness to experiment, making the more daring approaches taken by London’s somms both effective and rewarding.
Plus there’s been recent change. This concerns the relative affordability of wine in major restaurants in the capital. Although London is still an expensive place to go out, restaurateurs are increasingly seeing the need to make wine accessible, particularly among lesser-known labels, taking margins down on the more obscure, and, indeed, higher quality products, providing a reason for diners to both experiment and trade-up, and that way enjoy a drinks experience more on a par with the first-rate food they will be enjoying.
Catalyst in such change has been our number one entry: 67 Pall Mall. Although it is a club, it has shown the hospitality business that a model of low mark-ups on wine can work, and even when the drinks service is done to an exceptionally high standard. Klearhos Kanellakis, assistant head sommelier at 67 Pall Mall, believes the influence of the club’s success has been huge. “I think it has changed the wine world, because it was the first place where the wine was central to the concept, rather than the food, with low mark-ups on fine wine, as well as everything listed on iPads, and so many wines by the glass, all served using the Coravin, into Zaltos. In addition, there are the events. Now we see others are copying our ideas, so I think 67 Pall Mall has changed the wine scene for the better.”
The concept of a club built around accessibly-priced and perfectly-served fine wine has certainly shone a light on the positive role of a brilliant drinks offer to a restaurant’s bottom line, however, such a place also requires first-rate wine personalities to succeed.
Keep calm and carry on
With that in mind, we feel that the great sommeliers of London are still under-appreciated, and we hope this guide will go some way to further the diner’s appreciation of their positive role – not just for improving the wine experience, but the overall pleasure of eating out. As Terry Kandylis tells WLC: “According to the HMRC [Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs], a sommelier is considered the same as a waiter. It is seen as an unskilled job, and it is underrated, but the role of the sommelier is to really enhance the experience for the diner – and if one person makes you feel great, they you will go back, even if the food or the décor is not exceptional.”
As a result, for Beatrice Bessi – who works with Kandylis – there is a single overriding trait all sommeliers must possess. While one might assume it’s a steady hand or brilliant product knowledge, actually it’s something quite different: “empathy”, she says. And, I would add, a calm temperament too – understanding the diner’s needs in a matter of seconds during a busy Friday night requires a certain serenity, even if it’s just for show.
To view the full Top 50 Most Powerful Sommeliers in London 2019, along with detailed profiles on their career history, click here.