Name: Anne McHale –
Nationality: British –
At the moment: UK –
Master of Wine – Wine Consultant & Educator –
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Please, tell us a little bit about your first encounter with wine & the wine industry? Any particular mentors at that time?
My love of wine began as I was growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We were a wine-drinking family due to my father’s passion for the subject – he founded the first ever student wine society in Queen’s University Belfast back in the late 1960s, and still loves wine to this day, though he has never worked in the industry. My début in the industry happened almost by accident! After a languages degree I moved to London and applied for a range of administrative jobs which required a French speaker (in various industries), and as luck would have it, the first job I got offered was in an ex-cellars wine agency specialising in Rhône wines.
What specific traits or skills should a Sommelier(e) possess for professional performance and is there any person with that qualities you especially admire within the wine industry?
I would say: superlative wine knowledge in general and detailed knowledge of their list in particular, approachability, ability to empathise with the guest and connect quickly with their stylistic preferences even if the guest lacks the ability to express that fully in ‘winespeak’, attention to detail, ability to upsell and cross-sell (whilst still exhibiting sensitivity to the guest’s budget). There are many, many excellent sommeliers in my home city of London – I particularly admire the team at 67 Pall Mall for their precision, knowledge of their huge list and their discreet and slick service.
What would be your advice to a young Sommelier(e) i.e. Commis Sommelier(e) where to look finding an adequate position at home or abroad? Any further tips?
Look on the usual job sites – beyond that, network as extensively as possible within the industry, take as many relevant qualifications as possible (CMS and/or WSET) and if financially possible be prepared to consider an unpaid internship to gain experience. Or work as a waiter and make sure that the management know you have a keen interest in the wine side of things – many organisations like to develop staff in order to retain them and would prefer to recruit from within, so you never know what a role in a seemingly different area could lead to.
When a customer asks for advice on selecting wine what’s in your opinion would be the best approach?
Find out their budget if they have one (this can be ascertained with some discreet pointing if they are hosting a table and don’t want to discuss money openly!). Then find out the stylistic preferences and food choices of the various diners, to decide whether by-the-glass might be a better option than full bottles. Then if possible try to steer them towards something interesting and non-obvious but which is similar in style to wines they would normally enjoy.
What’s your philosophy about glasses? Are you working with well known brands or are you considering new brands as well and how do you determine?
Not so sure about this as the front of house teams at my clients’ restaurants usually deal with this. I think there are many great glass brands out there – personally at home I use Riedel, but there are many options. 67 Pall Mall use Zalto which are exquisite and so light and fine – but very very fragile so there is a cost element to be considered too!
What advice would you give people on pairing wine with food?
There are various rules that can be followed, but the most important is to match the richness of the food with the body of the wine so that one doesn’t overwhelm the other. Beyond that there are many, many nuances which will depend both on the individual food/wine and on the guest’s preferences, so I don’t like to be too prescriptive. I would encourage sommeliers and chefs to work together though, to run regular pairing sessions for staff – this helps enormously!
Should a Sommelier(e) taste the guest’s wine?
In general the etiquette would be no, unless the guest has particularly requested this.
What are the key ingredients for creating a wine list for a restaurant and what is your opinion on some ridiculous pricing on wine in restaurants, do you have tips on how to determine mark ups?
It really depends on the restaurant, its target audience, its positioning and its cuisine – so it’s hard to generalise on the styles, price points, origins and number of wines. So first of all those points need to be taken into consideration. Overall though I would say: a range of price points to suit the budgets of every target consumer, a range of styles to cater for each guest’s palate, a mixture of recognisable names and more maverick options, and finally wines that will pair with the restaurant’s cuisine. Mark-ups of course depend on the financial goals of the restaurant and the overall positioning – but I favour a policy of taking a higher percentage margin at the lower end and then decreasing that margin on a sliding scale as you go up the list in price. You will quite often make more cash revenue by selling a higher priced wine even at a lower percentage mark-up – and if the guest feels they are getting great value by trading up, then it’s a win-win situation.
How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry?
I attend trade tastings, stay connected with the network of other Masters of Wine, travel when I can and regularly follow industry news from publications like Wine Searcher, Harpers and The Drinks Business.
How would a new vineyard get the attention of someone like you to notice their wine and what’s the best way for producers to improve their chances of being listed?
In London, many sommeliers and buyers like me will buy from UK-based distributors rather than directly from vineyards. If we take several wines from one distributor we will benefit from a) better deals due to higher volumes and b) logistical advantages e.g. being able to order only 2-3 bottles at a time of a given wine, because the rest of the order is made up of other wines. As you can imagine this makes it desirable to deal with a distributor. So the way to get in front of a buyer like me is to be part of the portfolio of a reputable distributor who deals with top clients and whose salespeople have a good track record of getting new wines listed. It’s a relationship-driven business, so getting in with the right people is key.
If you were a wine, which variety would you be, and why?
I would be a Vosne-Romanée – complex, elegant, perfumed and reassuringly expensive!
What are the top 3 types of wine (your faves) would we find in your home wine collection and what’s your desert island wine?
Top 3 wines in my home wine collection – that’s a tricky one! Most of the wine I have at home is French, but I also have bottles from many other regions and countries. Perhaps I should give you my top three bottles that I’m excited about drinking; they would probably be (oh, how to decide?!): a 2010 Côte-Rôtie from René Rostaing, a 2011 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and a 2009 Quinta do Vesuvio port for which I helped tread the grapes nearly ten years ago. I only have one bottle of each, so the problem is that once you open them you can no longer anticipate them…
My desert island wine, assuming that someone else is paying and that my desert island has appropriate refrigeration (!) would have to be a Grand Cru, perhaps a Bâtard-Montrachet, from Domaine Leflaive, back when the famous Anne-Claude was alive. I’ve never enjoyed white Burgundy as much as I have those wines.
Any interesting suggestions about magazines or online platform?
As mentioned above, keep abreast of Wine Searcher, Harpers and The Drinks Business. Meiningers is also good for global business news. www.jancisrobinson.com is essential reading for intelligent news and debate on all wine-related subjects.
@ by Dominik Kozlik – Zeitgeist Sommeliers – www.sommelier-jobs.com