Photographer: Tastyart Ltd Rob White/Getty Images

Sommeliers Are Finally Working Together to Bring More Varied Wines to Diners

A low-key series of tasting parties is taking the London wine scene by storm—and potentially changing the way restaurants pour

Imagine a party at which all the guests are sommeliers: You might expect more spitting than at a Sex Pistols concert, more sniffing than at the home of a wayward lord.

Not quite.

Younger wine professionals in London have gotten together in an informal group called Wine Bantz, to which they each bring a bottle and try to surprise one another. While it's about blind tasting rather than getting blind drunk, it's certainly convivial. The first session, at Mission in Bethnal Green, lasted into the early hours. (You can see the evidence on the group's Twitter feed.)

Sharkey of Restaurant Story says sommeliers aren't changing the world; they should simply share their enjoyment of wine.
Sharkey of Restaurant Story says sommeliers aren't changing the world; they should simply share their enjoyment of wine.
Photographer: Tom Bowles

Like policemen, sommeliers in London are getting younger. If you doubt that, please meet Seamus Sharkey, the head sommelier at Restaurant Story. He is 24.

"Wine Bantz is creating a real buzz," he says. "We've been talking about doing this for months. Sommeliers are generally extroverts, but there's usually not much energy at wine tastings. You just show up and go back to work. This is about sharing and enjoying.

"We want to get people excited about the London wine scene. Some sommeliers think they are lone rangers conquering the world, but really it's our job to pour fermented grape juice."

The second Wine Bantz, held at Bubbledogs last month, was all about sparklers, with bottles that ranged from Dom Perignon 1970 to a little-known Austrian wine. ("Bantz" is short for "banter," or wine chatter.) Some guests ended up back at Mission, whose co-owner Michael Sager-Wilde, is a founder of Wine Bantz.

Sunaina Sethi, 27, who is in charge of wine at JKS Restaurants—which includes Bubbledogs and Gymkhana—says she plans to get involved. "It's a great opportunity for like-minded people to get together and talk about a common passion and taste interesting things," she says. "It's a way for sommeliers to find more interesting wines to introduce in their establishments."

Rodriguez, restaurant director at Fera at Claridge's, has been part of Wine Bantz from the start.
Rodriguez, restaurant director at Fera at Claridge's, has been part of Wine Bantz from the start.
Source: Fera at Claridge's via Bloomberg

Raphael Rodriguez, restaurant director at Fera at Claridge's, has been part of Wine Bantz from the start, when it was just a handful of friends. About 100 people are now on the e-mail list.

"The point is to get the wine trade together and have fun," he says. "We share the same passion, and the point is to get to know each other and get to know some different wines." That can work in diners' favor as unusual wines introduced at the events make their way onto wine lists in restaurants.

(If you can't wait for that and you want something funky, Newcomer Wines in Shoreditch focuses on "Austrian wines with cool labels and crazy stories." These wines, from small growers, are just starting to show up in restaurants such as Lyle's. Hedonism Wines in Mayfair is another fine destination for the adventurous.)

Newcomer Wines is bringing wines from small Austrian growers to an international audience.
Newcomer Wines is bringing wines from small Austrian growers to an international audience.
Source: Newcomer Wines via Bloomberg

The Bubbledogs party, which attracted 30 to 40 guests, took place in early July. It's back to Mission in September for the next gathering.

"It was really fun," says James Snowdon, 27, who worked at Bubbledogs before joining Bao. "It's just a bunch of friends of a similar age who are like-minded when it comes to wine. Some bring funky stuff and others big names."

Bubbledogs owner Sandia Chang, a veteran of Per Se in New York and Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, says Wine Bantz is actually replacing an important part of the learning process for a restaurateur that gets lost when you break out on your own.

Chang of Bubbledogs is part of a new generation of sommeliers that seeks to make wine more accessible.
Chang of Bubbledogs is part of a new generation of sommeliers that seeks to make wine more accessible.
Source: Bubbledogs via Bloomberg

"When I was working at Per Se, I had sommeliers that would pull me aside at the end of the night and pour me a few glasses of wine, blind, and it would train me to taste them blind," she says. "But once you run your own restaurant, no one does that for you any more. This is a good way to train each other and show each other new things and see what people are drinking out there.

"We just talk a lot about geeky wine stuff and have fun and relax. Sommeliers used to be quite intimidating, but nowadays we're a little bit fresher-faced, with a new approach.

"Generally, restaurants no longer list wines by lowest to highest price. They list by regions and grapes because people are more savvy and more open to trying new things. It's more fun. There are a lot of women in the industry as well, which is less intimidating. Sommeliers are younger and talk normally, instead of using jargon."

What is her tip for something for us all to try?

"Cabernet franc is the thing now," she says. "It’s a grape that’s been forgotten and it is amazing. I always think cabernet franc tastes like the dry spice package in instant noodles."

Now that's language we can all understand.

Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.

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