Looking after the wines for the Iconic Luxury hotels group is a plum job. We talked to Chewton Glen’s Francesco Gabriele about his journey in hospitality, and why sometimes the best way to move forward is by taking a step back.
If you’re overseeing thousands of wines across five glamorous hotels, it probably helps if you’ve grown up surrounded by the stuff. Francesco Gabriele, Wine Director at Chewton Glen was raised on Sardinia, where his mum’s family ran a winery. In fact, one of his earliest memories is stepping into the damp, winey, earthy smell of the cellar with his grandfather.
He was taking ‘a few drops’ of wine in his water from the age of six, and drinking small amounts with food on a daily basis from 14 onwards. And yet, it was nearly all very different…
Your family wanted a different career for you didn’t they?
My dad had an accountancy business in Rome. He thought I’d be a lawyer or solicitor or something in finance. So I studied economics at the university there. But then I went back to Sardinia and got a job as a bartender in a very ordinary kind of bar and that was where my hospitality passion started.
So not in wine at all, to begin with?
I did maybe five or six years cocktails and mixing, but there was always some crossover. Even if you are in the bar, if there’s a shortage in the restaurant you could find yourself working on the floor. It was a smooth transition.
Tell us about your early career
I spent most of my time in Sardinia on the Costa Smerelda with the Aga Khan’s group – probably the most luxurious group in Europe at the time. From there I went to Milan and did seasons back and forth between Milan and Sardinia until I moved to the UK 10 years ago.
Why the move?
I love to explore new places – I was an economic gipsy – not settled anywhere! But in Italy the season was starting to get very short. So I came to the UK looking for a bit more stability.
Where did you start?
At Tylney Hall near Basingstoke in 2012. It was a four-star hotel and I was head sommelier, though there wasn’t a team – so I was just head sommelier of myself. Then suddenly Chewton Glen was looking for a sommelier.
You didn’t mind going down a level?
The head sommelier [at Chewton Glen] said ‘what’s wrong with you? You’re a head sommelier and your CV is brilliant, why do you want to come here as a sommelier?’ But for me Chewton Glen has always been the best of the best in terms of sommeliering and wine. Names like Gerard Basset and Alan Holmes have all worked there. For me it was like a dream.
We believe you’ve heavily reduced the wine list…?
We used to have 1,966 – I wanted the same number of wines as the date Chewton Glen started. But with lockdown the owners started to take a look at what was in the cellars and said we can’t keep this money locked away there. So we have 1300 wines on the list at the moment.
Do you still work on the floor?
I’d love to be on the floor engaging with people, but my role is a little bit more complicated because I look after the wines for the whole Iconic Luxury Hotels group which includes Cliveden, Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds, 11 Cadogan Gardens and the Mayfair Townhouse.
That’s quite a responsibility!
Even though I started as just a sommelier I was so determined. I said to my head sommelier ‘give me the chance and I will prove that I can do it.’ And I ended up as wine director for the whole group. It’s a huge number of wines. You should see my desk. It’s inundated with bottles.
You seem to have had a very considered approach…
I never ever rush anything in my career. I consider myself a very slow person. I do one step at a time. But every time I move forward I like to feel it’s a solid step. I need to be very comfortable and confident with what I’m doing.
Wine-wise, what trends are you looking out for?
I don’t mind exploring new fashions, new wines, new styles. But it has to be really convincing. For me, I think the classic styles are still winners. There’s been a lot of talk about organic wines, biological wines, biodynamic wines. But for me there’s not enough to create a proper business. The one I can see working is English Sparkling wines. The 20 we have on are really good.
(To see the results of the Sommelier Collective’s English Sparkling Wine Awards tasting click here.)
I love Eastern Europe too. And Greece and Macedonia are really underestimated. As for Hungary – people don’t understand how good those wines are.
Any advice for young somms just starting out?
My advice would be ‘don’t be too ‘sommelier-y’ – too technical. We tend to be a little bit fancy – looking at what we want to explore rather than what is people’s tastes. Look after your guests in a genuine way. Be in hospitality!
Where do you stand on formal wine qualifications?
They are really important. I love the WSET, though for me it’s a bit too commercial. The Court of Master Sommeliers is the best. Unfortunately I only did the first two. I’m generally too busy to cope with any more.
What do you do in your time off?
I like to balance my family life. My daughter is four so we go to places where we can have fun like ski-ing or swimming or horse riding, but also close to a wine region where I can explore wine topics.
What do you think about working in the countryside rather than a big city?
I absolutely love it. In terms of work/life balance it’s the best. I have to go to London a few times a month. But big cities are more for young sommeliers to go to tastings and build up their network. But for someone like myself who’s quite settled the countryside is the best of the best!