No love lost in Oz somm spat


Today's Throwback Thursday offering is an edited, updated version of the article first published here for members only last Monday 1 September.

Huon Hooke has had enough.

The veteran Sydney Morning Herald wine writer opined recently that he’s thoroughly fed up with Australia’s top restaurant wine lists. They’re ‘choked’, he says, with trendy organic, orange and natural wines from obscure regions, the obsessions of a ‘coterie’ of trendy sommeliers rather than a reflection of what normal people want to drink.

Not surprisingly, the article caused a huge kerfuffle. Lines were drawn, positions taken. Much angst and hand wringing ensued.

The ‘coterie’ of somms who had been attacked in the piece were livid, and demanded a right of reply: Banjo Harris Plane (pictured) of Melbourne’s multi-award-winning restaurant Attica took particular exception and on social media launched an impassioned defence of his profession. The normally unflappable David Lawlor, president of the national body, Sommeliers Australia, even felt compelled to pen a robust rebuttal.

But many readers and wine industry folk agreed with Huon’s gripes – indeed, in a follow-up blog post the columnist said the ‘vast majority (of the feedback) strongly supported my critique’. Australia’s doyen of wine writing, James Halliday, even leapt to his colleague’s defence on Twitter after reading one high-profile somm’s online response, accusing the young upstart of ‘hubris, ignorance and utterly uncalled for rudeness’.

Highly charged stuff. So before I look in a little more detail at the issues Huon raised, some context is called for.

Huon Hooke is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected wine journos, not afraid to be critical but usually even-handed when he is. This is why so many were so surprised by his wine-list diatribe, I think: it seemed uncharacteristically angry and personal.

Huon’s views also sat in stark contrast to surrounding events. A couple of weeks before the article was published, for example, Banjo Harris Plane was named Sommelier of the Year by Sommeliers Australia; and the following week Attica, where Banjo is also restaurant manager, was named Restaurant of the Year by Gourmet Traveller magazine in this year's awards.

I am the wine-list reviewer for both the Gourmet Traveller guide and The Weekend Australian Magazine’s annual Hot 50 Restaurants feature. And to demonstrate where I fundamentally differ from Huon on this topic I need only point to the fact that while he singled out Sydney restaurant and bar Bentley as an example of a trendy wine list – ‘irritating’, he called it, with ‘little that any normal person will recognise’ – Bentley picked up not only the Weekend Australian’s gong for Hottest Wine Service, but the restaurant’s co-owner Nick Hildebrandt was also named Sommelier of the Year by Gourmet.

What’s more, at this week’s Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards, James Hird, one of the organisers of Rootstock – a wine festival dedicated to the obscure, the natural, the organic and the orange – was named Sommelier of the Year.

‘So, James, I’ve made a bit of a list ...’

James Hird, just named Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide’s Sommelier of the Year (left), and Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald wine columnist, at Rootstock, the natural, organic and artisan wine fair, in 2013.

Having said that, I agree with a lot of things Huon criticised in his article. Australian wine lists, especially in fine-dining restaurants but increasingly in much more casual places, are expensive – especially if you’re visiting from overseas (thank you, high wine taxes and a strong Aussie dollar). Yes, I know: somms keep telling me that wine is the only way a restaurant can make money these days, and that’s why mark-ups continue to sit at 200, even 300 per cent. But it’s leaving an increasingly sour taste in diner’s mouths.

We reviewers and publications are indeed too fixated on ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ wine lists – massive tomes with page after page of grand cru burgundy and old vintages of Hill of Grace. And, yes, I’m guilty: Gourmet’s newest Wine List of the Year – all 130 pages of it – is found at Print Hall Restaurant in Perth, Western Australia. But, in my defence, I can say that one of the three runners-up was from Moon Park, a new Korean restaurant in inner-city Sydney: it’s a single A4 list (albeit crammed with a startling selection of achingly obscure hipster booze ... ).

And I agree with Huon, too, that the current system of rating wine lists is flawed: judging a restaurant’s complete wine experience by browsing through a pdf on a screen from the comfort of your office is silly. But this will change only if the media organisations who publish annual guides are prepared to cover the costs of dedicated wine-list reviewers visiting and rating each restaurant’s wine offering in situ. Given the way that traditional media are heading, this looks unlikely.

Which brings me to my last point. Everything’s changing. And change can be difficult.

Sommeliers such as Banjo Harris Plane and his ‘coterie’ are fascinated by the obscure, the different and the rare because, like the chefs at the restaurants they work in, they are constantly looking for new ways to engage with and excite diners and drinkers. Bemoaning the fact that somms at these restaurants don’t list more familiar, widely available bottles that anyone will recognise is like asking Attica chef Ben Shewry to put more spaghetti bolognese or steak and chips on his menu. It misses the point – and makes the critic seem out of touch.

More importantly, it has been my experience that far from rejecting these obscure and unusual wines, restaurant-goers, particularly from a younger generation, are embracing them. Lapping them up. So sommeliers are both creating and catering to that demand: and as a result, they have taken on some of the role of gatekeeper that was traditionally held by wine columnists and critics.

As wine writers I think we can resent that change and hope it goes away – or embrace the diversity and adapt to the changing environment.