Buying and drinking wine might be the day job, but how about actually making it? Chris Losh talks to five sommeliers who are living the dream
After five years working at the River Café, Jack Lewens worked his first vintage in the south of Italy – and he was hooked. This, he thought, was something he’d like to do more of. Ten years later he got his chance, signing a deal to work with organic winemaker Bruno de Conciliis from Campania in the south of Italy.
With backing from on-trade stalwarts Jackson Boxer, Stevie Parle and Michael Sager, Lewens’ plan was to create an independent wine brand to sell into restaurants and bars in the UK and elsewhere.
‘I’ve worked in restaurants for 20 years and as a somm for 15. I’ve got enough exposure to wine to understand wine styles and what will sell commercially. Bruno has an intuitive understanding of how to make fabulous wine – we’ve got both sides of it,’ he explains.
Though Conciliis is in charge of the winemaking on a day-to-day basis, Lewens is heavily involved in strategic and stylistic decisions in the winery – and plans to get even more hands-on.
‘In the medium and long term I want to be very much in the vineyards. Of course, I’m there for all of the vintage, but I want to be spending time pruning in January – every key stage of the growing season,’ he says. ‘It’s not making wine on the telephone. I’ve no formal winemaking education, but there’s no better way of learning than actually doing it, working with a guy who’s got a couple of decades of experience.’
They have a 15-year lease on 4.5 hectares (ha) in the national park of Cilento, two hours south of Naples. Unsurprisingly, it’s all local varieties (Malvasia and Aglianico are key), and managed by a small viticultural team.
By 2019, production is expected to reach 25,000 bottles, but Lewens is ambitious for further growth. His team’s extensive on-trade contacts mean there’s already interest from New York and Paris, as well as London, and they’re looking at rolling out the model into other parts of Italy.
A white vermouth could also be on the cards.
‘We’ve got a route to market and that is nine-tenths of the law,’ says Lewens. ‘Producers might be doing something fabulous, but they don’t know how to sell their wine. We know what we want and what we can sell. It’s a really magnificent combination.’
Wine name: Vigneti Tardis
Importer: Vigneti Tardis, firstname.lastname@example.org
Four years ago, Gergely Barsi Szabó was going through a tough time. A relationship had broken down and he was living with sommelier friend Donald Edwards. ‘I was sitting on a balcony and I thought, “fuck it, let’s make wine”,’ he says.
Naturally enough, the pair went back to Hungary, Barsi Szabó’s homeland. They had some connections with growers in Tokaji through their work and the region’s potential for dry wine excited them.
Edwards had spent time studying at Plumpton College, while Barsi Szabó had worked a couple of vintages as a cellar rat at Bruwer Raats in South Africa, so neither was without experience. For the first few years they teamed up with a local winemaker, using his winery and grower contacts, but even so, things got off to a tough start.
‘2014 was a legendarily shitty vintage,’ says Barsi Szabó. ‘About two-thirds of the crop was cut away or discarded. It was more like on-site gardening than picking.’
They own no vineyards, preferring to buy fruit as required, which suits them well. ‘I like the freedom of it,’ says Barsi Szabó. ‘I would never dare buy a vineyard and not be there 365 days a year.’
Current production is small – just 840 bottles a year – and with sales in Austria, Italy and the UK, there are no problems with finding buyers.
‘Usually people want to get the production up and then have to sell it. For me, I always want to sell out dry,’ says Barsi Szabó. ‘I want to know where I’m selling it as I make it.’
The pair are currently working with winemaker Orosz Gábor in Mád – something Barsi Szabó describes as ‘being like a 1.0 version of a negotiant’.
Though they don’t work in the vineyards, they are very involved in the production process, deciding when to pick, how to press and ferment, and controlling racking, batonage and the final blend. This year they’re thinking of experimenting with skin contact.
‘I like to be there when it’s being bottled, so I can do the labelling and put it in the boxes, so each bottle goes through my hands. It feels pretty good!’
Currently Barsi Szabó Edwards’ venture is admittedly bigger on feel-good factor than it is on actual profit, though the pair are hopeful of being able to roll out the guerrilla template elsewhere.
‘The know-how is there if you find local contacts and an interesting wine region – and you have a good enough employer to allow you to do it,’ says Barsi Szabó.
‘I’d love to do this full time. It will take one hell of a long time to establish, but once there’s a brand and the markets are ready…’
Wine name: Barsi Szabó Edwards
Importer: Theatre of Wine, 020 8858 6363
China Tang at the Dorchester
Ever met a winemaker who you really rate and feel deserves greater exposure? This was the motivation for the joint venture between Igor Sotric and the king of Slovenian wine Marjan Simčič.
‘It was back in 2005. I liked what he was doing and it was obvious that he was going to be a star, but he just needed a bit of a push in the UK to get people to know him,’ says Sotric. ‘He’s a mate really and it was just a way to help out.’ The pair decided to work on a joint venture, creating a top-end wine for the upper tier of the UK on-trade – the perfect global shop window.
Chardonnay Selekcija’s first vintage was in 2009, released in 2011. It’s a combination of grand and premier cru fruit from the slate- and sandstone-heavy Goriška hills, near the Italian border, with the proportion of each changing every year. ‘It depends how drunk we get, how much of his top fruit he’s prepared to give me,’ jokes Sotric.
Stylistically, the wines are a full but pure expression of Chardonnay – clearly tilting towards Burgundy. Of recent vintages, the 2014 and 2015 got 96 and 94 points respectively from James Suckling, which isn’t bad for a wine with a trade price of £14, and there’s ageing potential as well.
Sotric’s work and family commitments in London mean that the vineyard and winemaking are taken care of by Simčič, though the duo meet up on a regular basis, and Sotric works with the winemaker to decide on the final flavour profile of the wine that bears his name.
‘We get together and taste the different samples and work out the blend,’ he says. ‘We were thinking of calling it Simčič-Sotric, but Bancroft [the importer until recently] thought it might be confusing.’
Sotric describes the profit as being ‘a couple of quid a bottle’, which isn’t too bad given that they make 6,000 bottles. ‘But it’s really not about the money,’ he says. ‘It’s a bit of fun, the pride of having your name on the label, and a chance to help out a friend.’
Wine name: Marjan Simčič Chardonnay, selected by Sommelier Igor Sotric
Importer: Orbit Wines, email@example.com
Given the spectacular mountain scenery of Priorat in Spain, there’s a certain irony in discovering that ex-Zuma wine head Alessandro Marchesan’s wine project there began, rather prosaically, on a London bus.
It was there that he ran into the Catalan Jordi Masdeu, then working as a wine rep for Emporia. The pair became housemates, and not long after, Masdeu’s father told his son about a friend in Priorat who was looking to retire from wine.
The pair spotted an opportunity. They started renting the old boy’s 6ha vineyard, paid a viticulturalist to look after the vines, and Masdeu – a trained oenologist – made the wine.
Having designed a label on Photoshop, Marchesan took the first vintage to some fellow judges at a wine competition, without telling them what it was. They loved it – and Liberty’s David Gleave MW offered to import it on the spot.
If this all sounds ridiculously easy, it wasn’t. ‘I was very much working as a sommelier at the time,’ says Marchesan. ‘I used to finish work on a Friday night at 11.30pm, go home, pack my bags, go to the airport for 6.30am, spend the weekend in Priorat, get home Sunday evening and be back at work on Monday morning. I did this for three or four years.’
Zuma, fortunately, was tolerant of it – as is his current employer, Italian family wine company Zonin 1821. ‘I never let it get in the way of the day job,’ says Marchesan.
The daily running of the winery and vineyards is carried out by Masdeu, who’s moved back to Catalonia, with Marchesan involved in the decision making, overall strategy and final blending. The vineyards are still rented, and Marchesan is in no hurry to change that situation, though the pair have managed to build a small winery of their own to make their 30,000 bottles a year.
‘It’s a massive learning curve for you as a sommelier,’ says Marchesan. ‘I always wanted to make wine. Always… since my first visit to Australia in 2003. It’s not easy – and it’s not something you can live on right away. But it’s a dream.’
The Wine: Mas La Mola
Importer: Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
In 2009, after working at some of the best hotels and restaurants in France and the UK, Bruno Murciano MS found himself at a loose end.
‘I’d done one, two and three Michelin stars and a deluxe five-star hotel – I thought “where next?”’ he says. He had recently obtained approval from the bank for a mortgage to buy his first home in London and suddenly the answer was obvious. Instead of bricks and mortar, he bought a 6.5ha vineyard in Utiel-Requena, west of Valencia.
The deal went through in July, and he and his brother made their first wine a few weeks later, renting their cellar space from the local co-op.
It wasn’t, perhaps, quite as impulsive as it sounds. Murciano had been thinking about doing something like this for a while, and had contacts who could help make it happen. He’d established a friendship with young Riojan winemaker David San Pedro a few years beforehand, who was only too happy to advise the brothers on which vineyards to buy and to help them make their first wine.
From vines over 85-years-old, there are now five wines in the range, including La Malkerida. A Bobal made in old concrete tanks, it means, roughly, ‘the unpopular lady’ – a reference to the challenging nature of the variety.
‘At the time we started in Spain, everybody was looking for fruit concentration, a lot of new oak,’ says Murciano. ‘My vision was for something completely different. I wanted to make something refreshing. Nobody had any information on different clones or soils for Bobal. We had to work the whole thing out ourselves.’
Current production is 70,000 bottles a year, 95% of which is sold in Spain. As a former Spanish Sommelier of the Year (2008), Murciano is very well connected to Spain’s on-trade, even though he has never practised as a sommelier in his homeland.
‘I’ve met most of the prestige sommeliers from Barcelona and Madrid and so on. When I made my own wine they all knew about me, so it was easy for me to get a bit of distribution in Spain,’ he says.
The brothers have no plans to increase the size of their vineyard, though they are on the point of converting their parents’ bar and restaurant into a small winery. With Bruno working part time for H2Vin in London, his brother takes care of most of the day-to-day running of the winery and vineyard.
‘It wouldn’t be fair to say I do a lot of work in the vineyard,’ admits Murciano. ‘But it was my brother who wanted to call the wines after me. He said, “at the end of the day, people know you…”.’
Wine name: La Malkerida
Vinos de Bruno Murciano
Importer: H2Vin, firstname.lastname@example.org