The incisive mind behind the much-loved Amphora, an indie wine bar and merchant located in the eclectic Mill Road area of Cambridge, talks to Douglas Blyde about the unifying powers of wine, shaking hands with the president, and the benefits a science background brings to the understanding of “the origins of flavours”…
Why did you call your establishment “Amphora”?
Amphorae were used in ancient times to make, store, transport, and preserve wine and other products. Various cultures have their own equivalent vessels – Qvevri in Georgia, Talhas in Portugal – and they are increasingly popular in modern winemaking. The amphora therefore symbolises the integration of old and new, and how innovation can result from reflecting on history.
What was it before?
A less vibrant wine shop. <sotto voce> Prior to that, an adult shop, as people like to remind me.</sotto voce> I still get the magazines, which are entertaining…
And what did you do before?
I taught science to teenagers, learned to code, sold jewellery on Sundays, made animations, and organised conferences – I was lost before my life in wine. Teaching was good training for hosting tastings. My science background gives me a good understanding of the origins of flavours and textures in wine.
What are your ambitions in the world of wine?
Academically, Master of Wine. Socially, to make wine accessible and appealing.
What can the wine trade do better?
First, communication and education. Wine has its own vocabulary which is misused and abused. Acidity and tartness are not synonyms, and yet they are confounded. Sugar is odourless, and yet people describe fruity aromas as “sweet”. To communicate effectively, members of the wine trade should hence have, at minimum, a good grounding in chemistry. Second, step out from under a veil of pomposity. In my first year at Cambridge, the Master offered me Claret. It took me years to discover that Claret is red wine from Bordeaux. Why? I did not want to appear foolish. The first thing I say at my weekly wine tastings is, there is no such thing as a silly question.
Describe your clientele?
A diverse and eclectic group which includes a few crazies, united by discernment, curiosity, and adventurousness in their exploration of wine. Amphora is a promiscuous place in the sense that strangers meet and establish incredible friendships. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by this very supportive and enthusiastic community.
Describe your liquid assets?
The list comprises high-quality wines from underrated regions, a few aged brandies, and the occasional white truffle gin. All the wines are relatively premium since you do not come to Amphora to drink “simple” wine. We always have at least two sparkling, two amber, and a range of sweet wines. When I’m feeling contrary, I throw in something unadventurous such as Chablis, to identify the boring customers.
Is every bottle available by the glass?
There are currently 72 wines by the glass, so not every bottle, but certainly the most interesting ones. If one asks nicely, any bottle may be made available.
What is a particularly successful moment at Amphora?
Our monthly collaborations with The Foraging Chef, @chefstevethompson, who makes exuberantly flavourful five-course tasting menus which are a joy to pair wines with. We do a tasting flight of 10 wines – two different wines with each course – and ask people what their favourite pairings are. The room is always quite evenly split.
How does wine seduce you?
Seduction starts in the mind. A good tech sheet builds anticipation. As any competent Casanova knows, successful seduction stimulates all available senses: starting with the aesthetics of the bottle shape and label, its cool heft in your hand, the perky pop of the cork (I’m afraid screw caps fail in this regard), then the perfect clarity of the liquid, poured into a Zalto. The best wines force you to wait impatiently to unveil their nuances, and you hope to be rewarded. They evolve in the glass over hours, if you can make it last that long.
What grape could you live without?
Whose voice do you listen to?
Paul Wagner, author of “History of Wine in 10 Glasses”. I don’t really have a mentor – any volunteers?
What has been a standout wine-related trip?
Visiting Georgia, where winemaking originated 8,000 years ago. I touched Qvevri, quizzed winemakers, feasted to the brim, made a toast, shook hands with the President of Georgia at her Palace, and made many friends.
Which wine region do you dearly want to visit next?
South Africa. It’s a large region I know. I am greedy.
Do you prefer still or sparkling water?
Coffee or tea?
Coffee. Ethiopian light roast.
Whisky or vodka?
What is your motto?
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Turn water into wine? More seriously, mastery over time.
Which hospitality venues are on your bucket list?
Aulis, Alchemist, Alinea, Noma, Jiro (and the rest of Japan)… shall I go on?
What frightens you?
Housework and admin. Senescence. Irrelevance.
What does the world need more of?
Correctly placed apostrophes, integrity, originality, mindfulness, and aged wines.
Tell us something surprising about yourself?
Unrelated to wine, I have a YouTube Channel, “Hippomedics” with over 5,000 subscribers.
Who would play you in a film?
With whom, from history, would you want to share a glass of wine?
Jesus. I’d like to know what wine he transformed for the wedding feast, and we could discuss my religion: Hedonism.
Amphora – 1A Devonshire Rd, Cambridge, CB1 2BH; email@example.com; amphoracambridge.com
This article was originally published by the drinks business and has been shared with permission.