“Wow, and you get paid to do this?” is not an uncommon reaction to my telling someone that I work in the wine trade. This time it was Christopher, a charming accountant I sat next to at a Polish wedding recently. Thankfully, unlike most of the other guests, he wasn’t a vodka fan so I was spared “death by a thousand shots” and can remember our ensuing conversation. It quickly became clear we shared a passion for all things vinous, and the idea of using his skills in our industry flashed through his mind. I could see it in his eyes: dreams of vineyard tours, endless days swirling and sniffing the latest vintage, dusting off old Clarets in a candle-lit cellar, sampling “cuisine du terroir” on a bright Mediterranean terrace. He couldn’t have been more envious if I’d let slip that I help Kelly Brook with her underwear shopping.
“Yes, and my role is quite varied” I commented. “For instance, I’ve been doing a lot of work with the AA recently.” Christopher’s smile turned to genuine concern and he quickly sympathised with our industry’s perilous exposure to alcohol. “Ah no, not Alcoholics Anonymous – I mean the guys who inspect restaurants and hotels.”
Matthew Clark actively supports a number of hospitality associations and one of my roles is to work with the organisers of large industry events such as the AA and Cateys Awards, to ensure the beverage part is a success and increasingly to contribute to the menu selection. But it doesn’t stop there: earlier this year, the AA recognised some 200-odd Notable Wine List winners and it was a real honour for me to be part of the judging panel. We went on to scrutinise closely the best entries and to select the eventual AA Wine List of the Year winners for England, Scotland and Wales. The results were announced at a prestigious awards night, held at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel in October and this year I was delighted to work four AA rosette and two Michelin star chef Nathan Outlaw, carefully pairing the right wines to his menu.
The process would be right up my friend Christopher’s street. Having seen a proposed menu, I look to experiment with different wine styles that can either provide a textural match or contrast for the dish. The first tasting allowed me to really understand the food on the plate, its key elements and how they interacted with a wine. At the second tasting, the menu had been tweaked slightly: a restaurant dish is difficult to recreate exactly for a 1,100 cover banquet - although Grosvenor House’s Executive Chef Nigel Boschetti is an experienced master and meant Nathan was able to serve some of his signature dishes. At this stage, I was really looking to hone the pairing, finding more subtle nuances of flavour in both food and drink, allowing the ingredients to sing and finding wines that would set tongues wagging.
This is how things shaped up for Nathan Outlaw’s menu at the 2015-16 Awards:
Canapés: Smoked haddock fishcake, herb mayonnaise – paired with Taittinger Brut Reserve en magnum
Starter: Seaweed-cured salmon, cucumber chutney, horseradish yoghurt – paired with Soellner Grűner Veltliner Fumberg 2014, Wagram, Austria
Main: Roast turbot, Porthilly sauce, potato terrine – paired with En Rebellion Pinot Noir 2014, Domaine Ste Marie des Crozes, Pays d’Oc, France
Cheese: Three Year Old Davidstow Cheddar, fruit cake, ale and onion chutney – paired with The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, Single Highland Malt, Scotland
Dessert: Vanilla ice cream, apple, blackberry jam, meringue, almonds – paired with Nederburg Noble Late Harvest 2012, Winemaster’s Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa
The Nederburg Noble Late Harvest with dessert – a huge and sadly often untapped upselling opportunity in restaurants.By Nick Zalinski
On the night itself, I always feel a sense of trepidation: given the noise and distractions of the dinner, will the pairings shine through? Our hosts at the AA like to give Chef and I an opportunity to describe the menu and wines to the audience (which is a Who’s Who of the Hospitality world) so I’m also a little nervous to see how the VT footage, filmed earlier in the day, will come across on the big screen. This year, I was keen to encourage everyone to try the Nederburg Noble Late Harvest with dessert – a huge and sadly often untapped upselling opportunity in restaurants.
Enabling people to discover new wines and flavours is one of the thrills of my job, so I was delighted when, on the back of our association with these awards, Simon Numphud (Head of Hospitality at the AA) asked Matthew Clark to run a two-day wine training course for his inspection team. Our portfolio has been on a bit of journey in recent years and anyone who takes a good look at it now quickly recognises that it’s right up there with the best in terms of quality, breadth and provenance. It was great to receive enthusiastic feedback from the inspectors not only on the quality of our training but also about the samples they tasted. These guys are regularly exposed to great wine in some of the country’s finest restaurants, so when you hear comments like “Superb, classic, interesting, amazingly good for the money,” well you can’t help but feel a sense of pride. It is positive reactions like this that give us the belief and ability to work increasingly with award-winning restaurants, and our new appointment as wine partner to the Moët UK Sommelier of the Year competition in 2015 fully demonstrates our vinous credentials.