Raphaël Rodriguez began life surrounded by vines, living at home with parents who happened to have a cellar and who enjoyed an appreciation of wine. The young Raphaël was, however, fascinated by planes which led to time spent in the French Air Force. After a pause and an epiphany, Raphael retrained as a Sommelier. Now at Fera at Claridges, with time previously invested at Tom Aikens and Sketch, Raphaël discusses all things wine in this interview with Simon Carter of fine dining guide. Interview took place at Fera at Claridges during July 2014.
Tell us some background about yourself.
I am from the Southern Rhone area, vines were around me when I was growing up and my father was something of a connoisseur – we had a cellar at home. In spite of this I studied electronics and aeronautics as I was fascinated by planes and spent five years working in the French Air Force!
I took a break and came to London and worked as a commis sommelier at Isola restaurant in Knightsbridge. I enjoyed the experience so much that I went back to study for the Sommelier-Conseil diploma at the wine university of Suze-La-Rousse in France. After a brief sommelier job in France I returned to London and worked as sommelier at top end restaurants like The Square, Sketch and at Tom Aikens.
What are your current roles and responsibilities ?
My position at Fera at Claridges is officially restaurant manager and wine buyer, working under a restaurant director. There is a very strong hierarchical team in place where everybody knows their role and performs well and with passion.
I am also proud of the bar at Fera at Claridges, where for example, there is a selection of gins from London based micro distilleries and beers from independent London breweries.
What type of training is involved in becoming a leading Sommelier?
Certainly the studying, reading and learning are important as the knowledge gives you a base but tasting, experiencing and having the right personality (with passion) is vital. Going on site to meet the wine makers, getting to know them, tasting their wine and seeing with their eyes.
You must also have a thirst, so to speak, for continuously taking on board knowledge – the wine world is constantly changing and evolving and the sommelier must mirror those changes in their craft.
Naturally experience is crucial and spending countless hours on the floor of top end restaurants: As with any job, a sommelier will be inspired by the people around them in their place of work – I have been very fortunate to have had a great mentor like Fred Brugues at Sketch in London. In addition, looking up to someone like the food and wine writer Andrew Jefford who has the great qualities of knowledge and humility which inspire people.
Learning to read the guest is a critical piece of the jigsaw – are they regulars, a business customer, or a wine fanatic? Do they want much interaction or little interaction? Not only assessing these matters but also finding the balance between relationship (imparting and sharing knowledge) and selling. Areas of this nature develop as an instinct which only comes through experience of time on the floor.
Perhaps the final part of becoming a leading sommelier is in appreciating and developing the theatre of the role – how you move on the floor, how you pour a glass of wine, how you decant. Every element of the position is like performing meticulously on a stage, in an interactive play.
How would you describe the Fera at Claridges Cellar in terms of size, quality and diversity?
The legacy of the existing cellar at Claridges provided a strong foundation, allowing us to start with over a 600 bin wine list. We hope to expand that to around 1000 but must bear in mind the physical restrictions of storage that come into play.
The buying power of an institution like Claridges is exciting for us and will continue to provide excellent opportunities. We have an eclectic international wine list mixed with a good balance of old world.
For many years, the British culture has been sourcing wines from all over Europe and indeed all over the world. You just have to look in wine shops today to see the diversity of choice available to the consumer. Fera at Claridges is a British restaurant and as such will reflect the culture. To an extent this also means bringing in more British wine of the right type and quality.
In line with the ethos of Simon Rogan the focus is on smaller production, artisan products, with producers who really care about the wine and who explore the terroir. This may involve underrated appellations and native/indigenous grape varieties. We like to think of those wines that have ’a sense of place’! Wines that have a story to tell and move you in a certain way. Even in classical regions we will look for special wines with this ‘sense of place’ perhaps from a small artisan producer or family orientated business!
How do you go about sourcing?
We work with fifteen different wine suppliers, which is rapidly heading up to nearer twenty. As the restaurant is still fairly new it is still a work in progress. Most suppliers are small specialist companies that you get to know well and they too get to know the wines you will like to take on board.
How do you go about food and wine matching?
Simon’s (Rogan) food is largely about tasting menus. So each time there are new dishes I will sit down with Dan Cox (Executive Head Chef) and we find wines that match the dishes. An important factor is natural acidity to balance Simon Rogan’s style of food: There is a lot of fresh flowers, vegetables and herbs and the right wine will naturally lift and balance the food.
We try to be diverse in origin and grape variety and take people on something of a wine tour!
How should a customer go about maximising the relationship with a Sommelier?
The most important thing is to interact with the sommelier. The old fashioned idea that the sommelier is there to hit your purse is not true. The passion for the subject and the accrued knowledge is there at the disposal of the guest.
So give the sommelier an indication of what you like and don’t be afraid to discuss budget. With a little guidance to the sommelier the likely response will be to perhaps surprise with something special that you may never have otherwise tried. The satisfaction of the sommelier is dependent on the feeling of having added value to the customer. So the more the two interact the more likely both parties are to be happy in the experience.
No doubt to some it is still intimidating to talk to a sommelier but in no way is the sommelier there to judge someone on their level (or lack of) wine knowledge but more to impart some of their understanding and passion. Maybe if the customer points to two bottles on the list at top and bottom of their price range and says “this is what I like now surprise me” then that customer will get quality, value, fun and enjoyment from the relationship with the sommelier.
How do you go about pricing, determining mark ups?
We follow a company policy in determining price but the customer should know that in sourcing carefully the underrated appellations and native/indigenous grape varieties we deliver quality and value.