Interview: Laura Ward, Sommelier Vivat Bacchus (2010)

Posted on: March 11th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Laura Ward (Sommelier, Vivat Bacchus, Farringdon)

While enthusing about her wine experiences, one cannot help but be captivated by Laura’s genuine and naturally disarming charm.

Over the space of forty-five minutes she shares, at breathless pace, her knowledge of- and fascination for- this great subject.

Those customers who choose to seek the Sommelier’s advice and guidance at Vivat Bacchus, Farringdon will be more than likely to leave the restaurant wiser and completely satisfied.

Interview by Simon Carter, editor of fine-dining-guide. Interview took place March 2010.

Tell us some background about yourself ?

From a very young age I was obsessed with food and dining, which ultimately led to undertaking a Hospitality degree. A few of the modules within that degree were food and wine related. Post graduation (In 2006) I was fortunate enough to go travelling and have the opportunity to incorporate some vineyard visits: In, among others, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina.

I also had the experience of a number of temporary jobs working in food & beverage at typically five star quality hotels. By the time I came home from my travels I was one hundred percent convinced that my future was in wine.

Consequently, I researched the best ways to go forward in terms of qualifications and enrolled on the Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses at London Bridge.

In gaining the diploma, there was a lot of theory, such as into the making and business of wine but also practical tasks; such as blind tasting of wines to understand good quality from poor, one grape variety from another and so on.

I started a job at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant and worked my way up to assistant head sommelier. They were a good employer and during my time there went on a number of wine related trips. The first was champagne, which was fun! The majority of trips were around the Italian wine and food regions. The accent at Fifteen was naturally Italian cuisine and Italian wine was a natural complement to the food. Piedmont stood out for the wonderful food and my favourite grape variety in the world – Nebbiolo.

I stayed at Fifteen for three years and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. At the start of 2009 I was looking for a fresh challenge and in April of that year came to Vivat Bacchus in Farringdon.

What makes a good Sommelier ?

Being a good sommelier means getting it right with the myriad of customers that walk through the door every day. Each customer is slightly different so each offers a unique challenge.

Some will have pre-conceived ideas about what they like and want, while others will be open to a discussion and to trying something that they perhaps had not previously considered.

Should the sommelier have the opportunity to consult – to advise and guide – then it is essential that he/she have adequate knowledge. A very wise man once said ‘know your cellar, taste everything in your cellar!’ We have wines at Vivat Bacchus going up to £15,000 a bottle so I may never have that luxury but nevertheless I have that needed level of confidence in my knowledge to do my job effectively.

Understanding a customer’s palate from a description of what they are looking for from a wine can be one of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of the job.

It may be that you are able to bring them exactly what they are describing, but equally it is a great thrill when you bring them an alternative, which in the end they find at least as satisfying.

Are Sommeliers specific wine experts or can they come from general front-of-house ?

I think it can be both. So long you have a genuine enthusiasm for the subject, a genuine passion, it doesn’t matter whether you have come from general front-of-house background or specifically from a strong wine foundation.

It is naturally important for sommeliers to have an all round skill set – to be able to interact with customers in the style of the restaurant and understand the order of service and so on. In fact I have a friend working on the wine service at a famous Michelin starred restaurant who had to trial as regular front-of-house team member before being offered the sommelier position.

What do you think of the wine introduction or ‘presentation’ at the table ?

The wine presentation is important but again you have to judge the audience: Should you have a table of businessmen who are on a tight timescale and are not looking for any interruptions then perhaps it is less relevant.

In the main people like to have an introduction of a chosen wine, it is part and parcel of the dining out experience.

At Fifteen restaurant, the majority of guests were dining purely to try Jamie Oliver’s take on Italian food and the wine was mainly secondary. The restaurant always only offered a tasting menu, with the wine pairings an optional elemtent. Those who did the wine pairings were always enthusiastic and loved and gained from the experience.

What are your personal favourite wine regions ?

Italy has thousands of indigenous grape varieties and is both exciting and confusing: Exciting because there’s always something new to learn and understand around the corner, it’s also been the most absorbing region for food and wine matching in my career to date: Confusing because some wines are named after the region and some the grape variety and it takes a while to navigate your way around.

I’ve also done some studies on South African wine and with Vivat Bacchus there is a natural focus on that country. The country has a lot more history than say Australia or New Zealand but without the cultural heritage of France. So it is neither Old nor New World but somewhere in between and in many ways this is reflected in her wines.

Chenin Blanc and Pinotage are arguably their stand out varieties and the quality has gone up and up over the last few years (particularly since independence from the KWV). Since the onset of the global recession, South African exports have stormed ahead while other countries have suffered.

How do you go about wine and food matching ?

From a country perspective, I admire those regions within countries that naturally or historically marry food with wine. The local cuisine and wine paired together.

From a general fine dining perspective there are some rules: If it’s a rich dish then the body of the wine must stand up to that richness: A dish with strong flavours needs a wine with high flavour intensity to stand up to those flavours: Don’t much heavy tannins with fish as it will taste metallic….and so on.

At the same time apparent opposites may work; an amazing sweet wine with a really salty blue cheese is one of the best matches in the world. The fascinating thing about wine with food is that unlikely pairings may work well – in the same way great chefs tell you that innovative ingredient combinations work in a new recipe.

In addition, one can always add flavours to a dish, in other words it’s not always important to use the wine to mirror flavours in the food. The wine may almost become part of the recipe of ingredients that evolve and enhance the dish.

It’s often true that the Old World or “Older” world wines have been developed with food in mind whereas New World wines stand alone more easily as a social drink without the food.

What trends do you see in the marketplace ?

The New World generally has done well in the recession. Australia (the country which perhaps began the ‘New World Revolution’) has maybe, for one reason or another, lost out in tough economic times but overall the New World is easier for people to understand and quality is there at a price point.

South Africa has done very well with a price point to suit every pocket. Naturally there has developed a number of wine producing countries that a few years ago may not have been associated with producing great or interesting wines. To pull an example out of the air – Greek white wines – you may not see them in retail shops but in top fine dining Michelin restaurants they are found quite readily. Why? Because they have developed the required quality and consistency – if they hadn’t you wouldn’t see them!

Has the end customer become more knowledgeable about wine ?

That’s quite difficult to answer. Why? At Vivat Bacchus we have a group of extremely enthusiastic customers who come to a wine club every Monday and are so passionate about their wines. They may not be representative of the general market.

As one observation, the growth in tasting menus in fine dining restaurants has had the natural by-product of placing an emphasis on the ability to match wine with food; the customers’ level of interest and expertise has expanded in conjunction with this trend.

How do you go about sourcing wines ?

We go to tastings that are held by a number of suppliers. Vivat Bacchus change the wine list four times a year, pretty much in line with the seasons. There may be, for instance, more reds in winter and more whites in summer.

How do you determine mark-ups ?

Generally speaking the higher volume, lower priced wines would have a higher mark-up and the higher priced, lower volume wines a lower mark-up. The house will have a Gross Profit target to meet and mark-ups are maintained with that in mind.

We may also look at the value add, for example people will have wine with the meal but may or may not have an aperitif, so Champagne may be marked up a little lower to encourage the customer to drink a little more!

What are your long term plans in the field ?

I’m at Vivat Bacchus for the foreseeable future but in the long term I would love to own a deli or wine bar. This would be in London as I love the London wine scene.

At the same time I love the idea of wine travelling and experiencing the cultures of wine around the world and exploring the ever expanding universe of wine!