‘I Don’t Want To Employ People Who Move Every Year…’

The Social Company’s Executive Head Sommelier Laure Patry is one of the hardest working somms in the UK, with a full-time job on the floor and responsibility for myriad lists and openings all over the world. We caught up with her in late lockdown to find out how she got there, what she values in others and which wine regions she’s currently most excited about.

Did you always want to be a sommelier, or did you fall into it by accident?

I always wanted to work in a restaurant, but my parents tried to push me away from that, so I went to study literature, studying Russian, Spanish and English. But really I just wanted to work in restaurants so after two years I ended up going to catering school instead. I did that for two years in Le Mans. And then after I did one year of sommelier school in Angers.

But when you graduated you didn’t work in France…

My sommelier school offered me the chance for a year’s work placement in the UK, so I said yeah, why not? I never went back. In France you have to work a long time for the restaurant before you get promoted.  But, by the time I was 25 I was a head sommelier. That would never happen in France.

So how did your career start out?

I was at the Angel Inn in Hetton, near Skipton in the middle of nowhere in North Yorkshire. It’s got a Michelin star now, but it didn’t have one when I was there.

Starting in the UK gave Laure a much faster career progression

What was that like?

I was 20 years old so for me it was fairly difficult because I was young and I was used to living more in the city. Plus I’d lived in my own flat since I was 16, so to come back to a very small room living in a house with other people was hard at the beginning. But I made lots of friends and it was really nice. So I actually stayed two years.

Where did you go after that?

I went to Bath – a beautiful hotel, but the restaurant and the chef were not very good. So my ex-boss put me in touch with Ronan Sayburn. At the time he had a job in Claridges so I went for a trial and started there. This was 2003. It was very busy – we were doing like 150 covers. But I felt very comfortable with that, and after six months, they promoted me to assistant head sommelier.

Is that where you first met Jason Atherton?

He came to do a little bit of work in the kitchen, and he quite liked me and wanted to help me progress, so he asked if I could go and work with him at his and Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant, Maze. We worked [there] together for six years.

Winning Riedel Sommelier of the Month in 2015

You’ve worked for some amazing venues. What advice do you have for young sommeliers on how to get ahead?

Finding a head sommelier that can teach you and having a good team around you is very important. But I stayed in the same place a very long time so I kind of grew up within the company. A lot of people move within a year or six months, and they lose the opportunity to get promotion within the restaurant where they’re working. When I look at CVs, if people move every year I don’t know if I want to employ them – it makes me feel that they are only going to be there for a year.

Provided you like where you work, Laure thinks a bit of patience can be good for your career.
Pic: Sarajulhaq786, Pixabay

Was there someone who inspired you?

It was my teacher, Patrick Rigourd at sommelier school. Before going to his school I liked wine, but when I did the course I really loved it. It was the passion that he transmitted. When someone has so much love for something it helps you fall in love with it as well.

What’s your current role within Jason Atherton’s organisation?

I’m Executive Head Sommelier. Basically I open all the restaurants around the world with Jason. One year after opening Pollen Street, he decided to open in Singapore, so I went in for a couple of weeks to help him set it up. I try to do the wine list from London. And then I go, do the orders, take the deliveries, so I can see everything is OK, then I do the first few services, and then I come back.

Sounds exciting – but a lot of work

It’s not easy when you have to work in the restaurant and then you have to do the wine list for four different countries as well! I was doing wine lists in the morning, and in the evening after service. It was quite tough. Now I’m working at City Social, but preparing for our opening in Mykonos at the end of May.

With the team in Shanghai

What do you think makes a good wine list?

Balance is all important in a wine list, says Laure

I think you just need to have balance. The content needs to be balanced; the price needs to be balanced. And having diverse styles is quite important – a mix of classic and upcoming producers to keep the guests and the sommelier excited. Obviously if you are a three Michelin star venue you’re going to have a big selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but I think you should also include some smaller regions or local producers. It’s always exciting to see that.

Are there any wine styles that you’re particularly excited by at the moment?

I love wine from the Loire because that’s where I’m from and I’m still discovering people that I don’t know. And I just think the value for money is amazing. And I would say the same for Alsace. I’ve just bought a lot of those because the value for money is amazing; lots of small producers, and everyone is working biodynamically or minimum intervention or organic.

Laure sees a brave new dawn for Alsace, with lots of organic and low-intervention producers. Pic: CIVA

Do you wish you’d done the MS?

I’ve never done it because I’ve always been working on the floor and especially with all the restaurant openings it would be too much for me. Of course it is good to have an extra qualification – it would be amazing to have the MS. But I’m not sure, I would do it now – I just don’t have the time. And I’m not so I want to learn every single appellation. If people know you and they know the way you work, I don’t think [having an MS] makes such a big difference.

Obviously the hours are tough in hospitality. Why should young somms stay in the profession?

Being able to travel to beautiful parts of the world is a major advantage of being a sommelier, says Laure. Pic: Chris Losh

First you need to love it. But you get to try wines that maybe you would never normally have a chance to try. That’s a big plus. But you can travel too. Every country has a restaurant so you can work anywhere in the world. But also you can visit producers and vineyards.  That’s a massive advantage for sommeliers as we are the link between the producer and the consumer. And of course, when you are a head sommelier the opportunity to do your own wine list – to make it your own, to be buying wine and also making your guest happy is very rewarding.

‘Dividing The Wine List Into Categories Really Helps…’

Fresh starts are very much part of the sommelier experience – and particularly so for Sommelier Collective member Oliver Pugh, who’s just left a Michelin-starred venue in Cornwall for new challenges in Norfolk.

It’s another bold restart from someone whose career has seen him up sticks a few times. And even includes a stint as a journalist! He talks to the Sommelier Collective about Austria, making wine lists accessible and the importance of ‘Trinkfluss‘. (We didn’t know what it meant either, but it’s a GREAT word).

So come on. How long were you in the gutter press?

Seven or eight years. But my partner and I felt like we were stuck in a rut: going to the office every day, sitting in front of a computer. We were lucky enough to be in a position of having little responsibility so we sold our house in London, quit our jobs, and went to live in Austria.

To do what?

The idea was to start a B&B or a little hotel. We bought this house in the Tirol with the aim of renovating it. But basically the costs exponentially increased, to the point where they were no longer affordable.

We had to sell the house and decide what we wanted to do next. But in the meantime, we’d been working in hospitality to get experience before we opened, which is when I really found out I love being involved with wine.

So tell us again, Oliver. Why exactly did you leave England to go and live in the Sud Tirol?

So your restaurant hospitality experience started in Austria?

Yes. I saw that the sommeliers had a lot of responsibility, and they could make a huge difference to what a hotel or restaurant could earn. I thought that could be really valuable lesson for [our hotel] when we opened so I started going to school in Austria, and I qualified as a sommelier whilst I was there.

How long did that take?

You have to do it over three years because of the way the course is structured. There are three stages, and each stage is like a month or so, nine to five with study and trips and stuff. But there was also a lot of learning from the sommeliers I was working with.

The hotels I was working in were the bigger ones and the better ones and the wine collections they had were amazing. We also did lots of trips to all the vineyards in Wachau and Burgenland and around Vienna. I got to taste a lot of wine and meet a lot of producers, which I think gives me a bit of a niche at the moment.

Oliver drank an awful lot of Gruner during his six years in the Tirol. Pic: Open Food Facts

As the Austrian-specialist sommelier?

Right. I’m not an expert or anything but I’ve got that definite depth of knowledge in that one country, which I think lends me a bit of an advantage, especially because people are more and more interested in Austrian wine.

Where did you go after Austria?

Paul Ainsworth’s in Cornwall – one Michelin star. They  started me off as a somm waiter because they didn’t know me. I was working with [Collective Member] Ellie Owen. Then a few months in they said we’ll just have you on the floor, which was amazing; really good experience.

Did you have any responsibility for the wine list at Paul Ainsworth?

Elly was really cool. When I got there she said if you have any wines that you want to be on it, we can talk about it. Just before the end of the first lockdown we rewrote the list and reordered everything and I was heavily involved in that, which was great.

Was it a large list?

Well, it was a book, but we had an obviously challenge. It was a very old building with no space whatsoever. So keeping a fully stocked cellar was a real challenge… finding the holes to put the wine in all over the building.

Did you have two or three styles that that kept ticking over?

I would say things definitely changed after the first lockdown. Before then it was kind of light spritzy whites. Lots of Burgundy and Pinot. But after the first lockdown people really started to indulge a bit more: more willing to push the boat out and go for bigger reds and higher end Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rioja.

Most definitely NOT the cellar at Paul Ainsworth’s Georgian townhouse restaurant. Pic: Danielle Scott

Could you sell people into a Smaragd from Wachau, say?

For people who are open minded, definitely. I don’t think most people are ready, or experienced or know enough to spend big money on Austrian whites on a large scale.

The Wachau. Easy on the eye. Harder to sell Pic: Flickr

Is Austria always going to be a hand sell do you think?

There’s a long way to go. Apart from your basic Gruner it is definitely a hand sell. Certainly the reds – trying to convince somebody to have a Blaufrankisch off the list, without me [pushing it] would be a big challenge. It’s a shame because they’re fantastic: great value, really food friendly. I think Austrian reds are really underrated.

Besides Austria, are there any other countries or styles you find yourself reaching for on a regular basis?

I’m hopefully just about to start the second part of the WSET diploma, so I’m reaching for everything I can get my hands on at the moment!

I don’t tend to gravitate towards high alcohol full bodied wines a lot.

The Germans have a great word for it: Trinkfluss.

It means ‘drinkflow’ – something that has you going back for a second glass. The fact that when you have it with food it isn’t going to sit in your mouth for 10 minutes is really important.

Is there anything you learned from reworking the Paul Ainsworth list that you might want to reapply next time?

I think people tend to appreciate a bit of a steer on what a wine might be like. I don’t necessarily think you need to have a tasting note under each wine, but if you can divide the wines into some sort of categories so that people know what to expect, I think that really helps.

That way, when they come to you you’re sort of pushing on a door which is already open. Otherwise people can be really intimidated, just seeing a long list of wines from France and not having have any idea what any of them might be.

Making lists easier to navigate for the customer doesn’t mean less interaction for the somm, says Oliver

You think it helps the customer?

Yeah. People love talking to you about wine if they have an interest in it. So I don’t think putting stylistic categories on your list means that people will talk to you less. I think there are some people who don’t want to talk to you, whatever is on the menu. But [otherwise] I think a little bit of information helps get things started

What’s the best wine trip you’ve ever been on?

Just before I did my exams my partner and I went on a bit of a road trip. We did Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja – all by car from Austria. It was a lot of miles, but I just thought, I’ve got to get this in before my exams. But also the Sudtirol. We visited a few different producers there. It was only an hour away and that was stunning. The landscape is so beautiful, when you drop down that side of the border.

Oregon. Not a bad place for a visit right enough. Pic: Bill Reynolds

Is there anywhere else you’d like to go?

I’d really like to go to Oregon. It seems to be a place where there are lots of great producers who live quite deliberately in lots of different valleys. It seems a bit like burgundy in that sense. It’s not so kind of corporate. It’s also producing the kind of wine styles that I love to drink.