Interview: Ronan Sayburn Master Sommelier (2009)

Posted on: June 17th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Ronan Sayburn

Ronan Sayburn

Ronan Sayburn is a Master Sommelier – one of only 180 in the world. Ronan spent around eight years of his glittering career at Gordon Ramsay Holdings as Executive Head Sommelier. This role brought responsibility for the recruitment, training and management of sixty plus sommeliers worldwide.

Numerous accolades have included 1998 Ruinart UK Sommelier of the Year and 2006 Matthew Clark Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Profession of Sommelier.

Ronan is truly a leader in his profession. When not working with wine, he enjoys all action sports such as marathon running and scuba diving.

Interview took place Wednesday 17th June 2009 at The Greenhouse Restaurant, Mayfair, London.

Tell us some background about yourself ?

I started working as a sommelier about sixteen years ago, originally working for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. I had come down from North Yorkshire to Oxford to work as the only English sommelier in the team – it was quite scary at the beginning. Before long I was promoted to assistant head sommelier to a guy called Henri Chapon. Henri was great to work for – straight down the middle – a black and white kind of guy and I learned a great deal.

Prior to being at le Manoir – after college and university – I had spent time in front of house but to come down to a Michelin Two Star restaurant with such an extraordinary wine list was something awe inspiring.

After two years I went to work for OW Loeb & Co Ltd (a well respected and long established London wine merchants) but after a while missed the sommelier side of things so came to work at Tom Aikens first Head Chef restaurant – Pied a Terre.

One night Gordon Ramsay came into the restaurant. It was just before he got the third star and just before he opened Petrus. Gordon quite liked the idea of an English sommelier – there were very few around – so when he came in I recommended some good wines to him and we got on well. Two months later I decided I was moving on from Pied a Terre and was planning to go to the new Spoon restaurant at St Martin’s Hotel when I got a call to meet Gordon Ramsay for coffee. Gordon asked me to join Royal Hospital Road as Head Sommelier.

As his number of restaurants grew so did my position, eventually as Executive Head Sommelier. I was there 8 years in total.

I decided to take a sabbatical and travelled South East Asia with my girlfriend. Six months turned into twelve which turned into eighteen. We ended up spending some time in Bordeaux making wine for a couple of months.

Benoit, who was the sommelier at The Greenhouse, gave me a call and said he was moving on and would I be interested in taking the position. The restaurant has the largest wine list in the UK at over 3300 bins – quite an extraordinary challenge and one that I felt would be appropriate at this stage of my career. The owner is very passionate about wine and he will dine here with his friends and drink some amazing wine. It’s great to have an owner who cares so much about your area of work.

How would you describe your roles and responsibilities?

As the head sommelier with a team of four I would say, for me, it is roughly 40% service and 60% administration: Having such

a big wine list and with cellar space being at a premium in Mayfair (we have four cellars but each is quite small) we will only stock a couple of bottles of each wine. Of course, every month there is a stock take; in a typical month we may run out of up to 200 bottles and have to replace them, this will involve a degree of sourcing and negotiating. At the same time I have to ensure that the list is ticking over; is nicely balanced (in price, quality and diversity) and progressing in line with the overall product of the restaurant. I will be involved in numerous tastings from wine suppliers to keep an eye on the world of wine in general and ensure we are constantly up-to-date.

What type of training is involved in becoming a leading Sommelier?

To begin with a sound theoretical knowledge, be well read in wine. Then perhaps look at the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory course or the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. Once you are familiar with, for example, how wine is made, how it should be stored, the grape varieties and an introduction to styles, the best thing to do next is work in an environment where you can gain knowledge from an experienced sommelier – where there are fine wines and customers wanting to enjoy them…I was very lucky in that I had this start working for Raymond Blanc and Henri Chapon.

Are there any bodies which Sommeliers belong to?

The Court of Master Sommeliers is probably the most important and the Academy of Food and Wine Service does a lot for wine service in general. Then for the exams there’s the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. Depending upon which direction you are going the Wine and Spirit Education Trust takes you more toward Master of Wine and the Court of Master Sommeliers takes you more toward Master Sommelier.

I took the Master Sommelier (MS) route. It took me five years in total (introductory, advanced and master) and is one of my proudest achievements – there are only around 180 Master Sommeliers in the world.


How would you describe the Greenhouse Cellar in terms of size/quality/diversity?

All of the above! It’s the largest in the UK (at 3349 bins), has a depth of quality and a breadth of diversity. It (the size) affords us the luxury of a lot of verticals – different vintages from the same producer. For example: 18 vintages of Chateau Latour: 16 vintages of Chateau Lafite Rothschild: We have five pages of Champagne that covers most of the major growers and styles: A dozen or so pages of white burgundy including something like 120 different Puligny Montrachet’s. We also have some Brazilian, Luxembourg, Greek, Indian and Uruguayan wine. So the opportunity is there to experiment as well as try any of the many classics that we stock.

How do you go about sourcing?

A lot of the first growth classics are quite easy to source as a lot of wine merchants stock them, the challenge then becomes getting the right price. The UK is a huge natural importer of wine, so there’s great number of very high quality wine merchants and suppliers who are always presenting new wine.

Should you go to Bordeaux or Piedmont or Loire Valley you’ll find large wine lists in restaurants, but they will tend to focuspurely on their local area. In the UK, restaurant wine lists feature wines from just about anywhere and everywhere. I know that when, for example, Italian and French people come to Britain they are staggered at the level of choice found in our supermarkets never mind our top restaurants. Amongst the breadth of top wine merchants, you find ones who specialise – it maybe in Austrian, Portugese or Greek wines and once you get to know them they will bring you the best of the best of what they have to offer. So having good, ongoing, working relationships with your suppliers is very important.

How do you go about food and wine matching?

You either compare or contrast to enhance. For example, something slightly gamey like a pigeon or a guinea fowl roasted and served with cherries would ideally compare with (and be complemented/enhanced by) a Pinot Noir. A different example would be a roquefort souffle (that is rich and salty) being contrasted by a sweet wine like a sauternes.

In the same way, take something rich like goose that is also quite fatty, you may go for something opposite that is dry, crisp, mineral and fairly acidic.

You have to be careful and try the dish because the main ingredient may be misleading. Take a Sea Bass for example, you might imagine that something like a dry, rich, big white burgundy would be ideal but the saucing and garnishes maybe suggesting something slightly different.

So in summary I would say look at the main protein in the dish and from that how much tannin (for example if it is a very meaty dish) or acidity or richness you need accordingly. Equally look at the saucing and garnishes and make a balanced decision.

Do you stock natural “upgrade paths” for wine?

We have great choice that comes with the luxury of the size of the list. For example, there are five champagnes by the glass, twelve whites and sixteen reds by the glass and a dozen dessert wines.

How should a customer go about maximising the relationship with a Sommelier?

Whether someone is paying £20 a bottle or £1000 a bottle it is about customer satisfaction. There is no point “selling” someone a luxury item and then have them dissatisfied purely with the expense and not return to the restaurant.

Typically, Sommeliers are as passionate as anyone about their jobs, including the chefs so they are trying to do their best job for the customer.

What I say to the Sommeliers here is build up trust by demonstrating your knowledge. We always take the wine order after the food order so that when you approach the table you may say “Madam I know that you are having the scallops followed by the lamb, and for you sir the lobster followed by the beef.” We will ask the customer is there anything they particularly want and possibly they will ask whether we could recommend a wine.

There are always options to go by the glass, half bottle or bottle. Should the sommelier have the opportunity to share their knowledge and recommend wine to the customer then they can always go back later to recommend a sweet wine with dessert or a digestif. On occasions the customer may spend a little more than they intended but end up having a great timethat they want to repeat.

You have to be friendly and diplomatic – for instance we get some young couples coming in celebrating a special occasion, the last thing we want to do is make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed by making an inappropriately expensive wine recommendation. You have to use and trust your instinct with customers when recommending wines.

How do you go about pricing, determining mark ups?

In general I will put mark ups lower for those items that are hardest to sell – a classic example is German Rieslings. Those who know and love wine, love German Rieslings but there’s perhaps a stigma amongst the public that they’re too sweet – there are plenty that are not! I know if I can get a customer to try one they are likely to enjoy it so I set the mark up lower to provide some encouragement.

Another example is champagne – it’s the first thing that people drink – we mark that up lower. If we do our jobs well and we source really good wines that are better than we’ve paid for them, then we may mark them up perhaps a bit higher but the customer will still be getting good value.

We also want to encourage those that want a very special occasion: Krug we sell at £30 a glass instead of maybe £50 elsewhere: Chateau d’Yquem is also available at £38 a glass. The idea is that customers can come here and experience things that they’ve maybe never experienced before and have an incredible time that, in the end, they want to repeat.

What systems do you use for stock management?

We use a system called F&B Shop, which is a web based stock management system. Everything runs in real time and will be linked up to our EPOS system so we can monitor stock levels on an ongoing basis. The system allows for flags to tells us when we’re low on stock and need to replenish accordingly.