With restaurants in London allowed to reopen this week, Lucy Shaw talks to some of the capital’s top group wine buyers to find out how they’re navigating their way through the pandemic, and the challenges that come with buying wine across multiple sites.
With the role of the sommelier shape-shifting to accommodate the twists and turns of the coronavirus pandemic, and the multiple lockdowns it has caused, more power is being put into fewer hands and the role of the group restaurant buyer is emerging as one of the most coveted positions a sommelier can secure.
Having spent four years as head sommelier at fine wine paradise The Ledbury in Notting Hill, which, sadly, looks unlikely to ever open its gilded doors again, last September the memorably monikered Seamus Sharkey was made group wine buyer for JKS Restaurants, putting him in charge of the wine lists at some of London’s most exciting and innovative restaurants, from Michelin-starred Indian venues Trishna and Gymkhana to Sri Lankan specialist Hoppers and steamed bun house Bao. It was a role Sharkey created for himself, having approached the company’s three owners and expressed an interest in joining the group.
Having taken his role at The Ledbury as far as it could go, Sharkey was hungry for a new challenge. “l was lucky to be party of the golden era of sommeliers while at The Ledbury, working with a big team where wine was given centre stage. That’s a rarity in the industry and I was very aware of that.
“Wine hadn’t been such a top priority at JKS, which is partly why I came in. Having spent my career in Michelin-starred restaurants, I’m loving working with a diverse array of dining concepts, brands and cuisines. I want to make sure each wine list has the same integrity, regardless of its price point, and ensure each list is relevant to the site and the dishes served there,” he says.
Sharkey reveals that in order to secure the role, he had to persuade the Sethis that it would be worth their while hiring him in terms of the return they would get on their investment in the form of strong wine sales. And he’s wasted no time in shaking things up, giving each of the wine lists within the group a radical overhaul in order to give the firm more freedom when it comes to supplier relationships, and more flexibility to adapt the lists when necessary.
“We’re working with more importers now. I wanted to make sure the producers we take on are more relevant to the sites to make the wine lists more balanced. When I came in, some of the lists were entirely made up of wines from one importer,” Sharkey says. Trishna’s list needed the least tweaking, while he’s switched up around 80% of the wines on Gymkhana’s list and all of the wines on the list at Hoppers and Spanish restaurant Sabor, run by ex-Barrafina chef, Nieves Barragán.
Sharkey has relished how much freedom the Sethis have given him to revamp the group’s wine offering. “It’s all about relationships and trust. I didn’t want to go in all guns blazing – sometimes it’s just a case of changing the listings to similar wines at better price points,” he says. Having strong relationships with the UK’s top importers from his Ledbury days has helped. While he’s given all of the lists a sharper focus – Sabor’s list, for example, is entirely Spanish – he hasn’t radically slashed the size of them.
For the group’s top tier venues, like the two Michelin-starred Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia, Sharkey has set up JKS Wine, a limited company through which he sources top drops like rare vintages of premier cru white Burgundy at competitive prices from fine wine brokers, indie merchants outside London and private clients.
Has he found it challenging finding wines that pair well with spicy Indian dishes? “There are lot of preconceptions about matching wines with spice. You don’t have to rely on Rieslings. I’ve found a lot of lighter, fresher reds work brilliantly with spice,” he says. When it comes to putting a list together, Sharkey’s rule of thumb is that he only includes wines he’d be happy to drink an entire bottle of.
With the coronavirus having wreaked havoc on the on-trade this year, the role of the sommelier has been one of the first to be deemed a luxury many venues can’t afford, but Sharkey believes a good sommelier is still an asset to a business.
“It’s really important that sommeliers stick around or wine lists will end up looking the same. If the role of the sommelier starts dying out then wine lists will get smaller and less exciting, and small importers will struggle to sell their wines into restaurants, as they will end up being dominated by the big importers,” he warns.
While group wine buyers for restaurants have to take a step back from their sommelier duties, Honey Spencer, the recently appointed wine director for the Palomar Group, believes a presence on the restaurant floor is a vital part of the role, particularly when it comes to making sure the front of house and waiting staff are au fait with the wine list and which dishes the wines pair best with.
“I spend two to three evenings a week on the floor, so my presence is very much felt in the venues. I think there is a misconception that wine consultancy is perhaps a short-term and shallow commitment, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Spencer, who was headhunted for the role this summer.
Mother to a young son, Spencer works 30 hours a week for the group, whose restaurants include the Levantine-inspired The Palomar and North African specialist The Barbary. One positive outcome of the pandemic, Spencer feels, is a willingness for companies to be more flexible about contracts. “Businesses are now able to envisage senior roles part-time, which will prove transformative for women in the hospitality sector who chose to have children,” she says.
Ensuring your wine lists stay true to the restaurant’s concept is one of the secrets to being a successful group wine buyer, believes Clement Robert, group head sommelier and wine buyer for The Birley Clubs, which include Annabel’s, Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club.
“You have to be agile and flexible in your approach. Annabel’s alone has a Japanese, Indian, Italian, French and Mexican restaurant, so you have to adapt your wine offering to each concept and work closely with the chef,” he says. Another important trait is being able to admit when something isn’t working.
“I had this idea of only serving South American wines at our Mexican restaurant inside Annabel’s, but the customers didn’t take to the concept, so I had to rethink it and offer the wines I wanted to champion by the glass instead,” he admits.
Sometimes, however, a focused wine list can really work, and Robert’s all-Italian list at Annabel’s newcomer Matteo’s (named after owner Richard Caring’s young son), has been very well received. “I haven’t had a single complaint about it being 100% Italian – our guests have been really receptive to it,” he says.
The majority of the wines on his lists come from the key players like Enotria, Liberty, Berkmann and Bibendum, with smaller importers like Indigo, Vine Trail and Dynamic Vines acting as “the seasoning to add a little spice”. Like Spencer, he believes it is “super important” for group wine buyers to spend a decent amount of their time on the restaurant floor to train and guide the sommelier team and waiting staff. “I spend around 40% of my time on the floor – I wish it was more,” he says.
The ability to multitask and delegate is a must for Diana Rollan, group head of beverage at D&D London, who oversees the drinks lists at nearly 40 venues. For continuity, each of the restaurants within the group, from Launceston Place in Kensington to Orrery in Marylebone, shares a core collection of around 20 wines that pop up on every list like a greatest hits collection, featuring wines from key regions and styles, from Chablis and Rioja to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Keen to keep on top of trends and offer her diners something different to drink, Rollan recently collaborated with urban winery London Cru on a bespoke, D&D branded, own-label Bacchus that made it onto the lists at some of the group’s top venues.
She also struck a deal with popular Provence rosé producer Minuty to make D&D sites the only on-trade venues in the UK where its special summer edition rosé bottles (boasting a different artist design each year) were listed and poured. Unsurprisingly, the refreshing pink proved one of the big hits of the summer, particularly at venues within the group with outdoor terraces.
The pandemic has led Rollan to reduce the size of many of her lists, which she isn’t planning on scaling back up any time soon. “Moving forward, we’ll aim to have smaller drinks lists that are versatile, flexible, and can change often, as it keeps them more relevant and engaging,” she says. As for the future of fine dining in London, Sharkey of JKS believes that in order for it to regain its swagger, the high-rolling tourists need to return.
“Fine dining venues will struggle with their overheads until tourism picks up again and the capital’s top hotels are full. The spend per head is so high in those venues that the number of covers they are able to do makes a huge difference – in order to work they have to be full.”