Member Profile: James Cameron of Northcote Manor

Though he grew up in a ‘family of wine drinkers’, Northcote’s new head sommelier, James Cameron, never thought he’d end up working in wine. But a year out in Australia, aged 18, changed all that.

Work in a vineyard picking table grapes 90 hours a week in 40-degree heat wasn’t the catalyst. Rather, it was time spent travelling round South Australia, where the beauty of Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and the Barossa opened his eyes to something he’d never really understood before.

The Sommelier Collective finds out how he went from backpacking in Oz to running two Michelin-starred wine lists in less than ten years.

So what happened after you left Australia?

I worked at a family-run restaurant in Shrewsbury then on to a branch of Carluccios. They had a really good training scheme. It was the first time that I sat down in a classroom situation and learned about wine.

And from there, the bright lights of Manchester…

I worked at Jamie’s Italian for about a year, then Alberts, which is a decent family-run turn and burn chain. Wine was just a hobby at that time. But then I joined an independent merchant called Hanging Ditch. While I was working there I started my WSET 3. That was a turning point. I went from having a little bit of very casual wine knowledge to suddenly everything exploded. It opened my eyes to the wider world of wine.

On the other side of the table for a change

So how and why did you go back to the on-trade?

I missed the industry as much as anything. I’ve always loved restaurants. There are days when you curse it, but I’ve had the bug for it for 10 years now and I love the fast pace and the amount of amazing people you meet and work with. Going back was always inevitable.

Mana worked out well for you…

I got a job as an assistant sommelier. A couple of months later the head sommelier left for London, so I put my name forward and got the job. A couple of months after that we got the Michelin star and it all became a much bigger deal. At several points in my career, I swear it just feels like someone’s smiling down at me because things just kind of fall into place.

Did things change when you became a one-star Michelin?

Not at first. It was the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Manchester for 42 years, so if anything it was a bit easier for us. Once you have the star there’s almost a bit of weight off your shoulders – you’ve got the recognition that you are doing things right.

Appearing on Chopping Block

How did you approach the wine list at Mana?

Mana has influences like Noma or Geranium and a big Japanese influence as well so putting together a list to actually match that food was quite difficult. One of the things I really liked about it was because the food was so untraditional it meant we could have a pretty untraditional wine list.

In what way?

There was a lot of focus on the new world – California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand – and on smaller producing countries and indigenous grape varieties. It was a good platform for me to build on things that I’ve always been really passionate about.

But nothing would go on my list if it didn’t have a good story behind it.

That was my entire thing as a sommelier – that I was a storyteller just telling people the stories of these grapes and the people that grow them.

Do you think that that side of things sometimes gets overlooked?

I think it’s becoming more and more important. I always say it’s not difficult to put together a great wine list, all you have to do is put great wines on it. But finding a wine list that you enjoy selling takes a lot more effort and a lot of working as closely as you can with your suppliers and with the producers.

Northcote Manor – James’ new one-star Michelin venue in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire

Is it true you joined Northcote Manor just before lockdown…

I did a trial shift on the 28th of October literally like two days before they closed down, did a handover with the previous head sommelier two days after they closed and I’ve not been back up there since. It was terrible timing!

What’s your take on their list?

Northcote’s list is relatively voluminous between 700 and 800 bins. Their selection of Bordeaux is fantastic and the white Burgundy in particular, is relatively unrivalled. These are regions that I love, but there’s still quite a lot of scope for me to work on it with regions I’m passionate about that are perhaps overlooked.

So you’re hoping to adapt it a bit?

At the end of the day, you’re not writing a list for yourself, you are writing it for your guests. Northcote’s list is more traditional because their guests are overall a bit more traditional. But the beauty of this role is that there’s so much scope for you to educate guests, whilst entertaining them and giving them a product that they’ll enjoy that they would never have ordered. Put something on a wine pairing and you might change their mind for the rest of their lives!

Decanting a favourite (oddball) white Rioja

Talking of education, are you studying at the moment?

I’m in my first year of the WSET diploma. I should have had exams this month, but obviously, everything is on hold. I’d love to be having a weekly blind tasting with my Diploma group but it’s just not feasible at the moment. So my blind tasting skills aren’t probably where I’d like them to be. I’ve had a tonne more time to study the actual books, but I think I would rather have more time to taste and less time to read the books!

Any favourite wine styles?

My favourite styles of reds are generally lighter, more elegant floral styles. Pinot Noir from Central Otago would be very high on my list of loves. For whites it’s a cliché but probably German Riesling. It’s hard not to fall in love with it every time I try it.

With partner Meg and spaniel, Paddy

Anything else that gets you out of bed?

I love exploring wines I’ve never tried before – that’s my real passion, even if I don’t really love them! In the last week I’ve had a sweet wine from the Picolit grape in Friuli and a white Narince/Emir blend from Cappadocia in Turkey. There are 1400 grapes being used to make wine, and 1200 of them I’ve not even heard of…

Cross-selling: Sometimes Stories Can Trump Tradition.

By Sean Arthur, Food and Beverage Manager, Holland and Holland Shooting Grounds

Throughout my own career I have approached my guests with my 72 page wine list, been guided to the host of the table for the wine selection and been asked loud and proud “We need a good red for the mains, do you have any Bordeaux?” as if that is the most logical choice for any occasion.

Of course, why not?

But I have always been an advocate of expanding the guest’s repertoire of go-to styles. There are occasionally those more worldly guests that are aware quality wines exist outside of the obvious suspects, but I always felt they were too few and far between, especially when working in a classic fine dining atmosphere.

So how do we change this habit and broaden the horizons without compromising on selling “THAT” big bottle of high-earning 1er Grand Cru in favour of a mid-range Zin?

Now, I don’t mean we should over-stock ourselves or force sales upon people. But there’s definitely a case for showing a passion for other styles and broadening the mix of sales in the room each service.
For myself and my sommelier team this brought about a lot of discussion in the room, amongst the team and even across tables between guests. And with the diversity in sales my Junior Somms became much more confident.

Each time we were presented with the request for a robust French red – for this purpose lets suppose its right bank Bordeaux – I would bring up the selection and point out favourites, but before leaving the table for them to peruse and discuss I would flick forward to the Californians and give some comparatives.

For example, if the host’s eyes widened at the sight of a vertical of Léoville Barton from 1988 forwards then I would mention the new and exciting styles I added from Orin Swift. The prices would be comparable (maybe a bit cheaper) and I’d particularly point out the “Abstract” Cabernet Sauvignon, “Mercury head” Cabernet Sauvignon or “Papillon” listed as Bordeaux Blend.

Some customers might wonder about the lack of back-vintage variety, but I’d just tell them that that’s not Orin Swift’s ethos. They are about putting out well-made and explosive wines to be enjoyed when released. You can age them if you want, but… you know, drink it.
Rather than focusing on comparing grapes and terroir, it’s the story that gets me each time and is something I love presenting in the dining room.

Yes, of course the Old World have stories, but often I found the newer wineries’ stories to be more diverse and more relatable.
Orin Swift began when David Swift Finney bunked off Uni for a year to go drinking in Italy (I’m paraphrasing slightly). He fell in love with wine, and when he came back he trained at the Robert Mondavi Winery before eventually setting up his own venture.

As a story, that’s more fun than ‘handed down from aristocrat to aristocrat through the generations’.

Your guests come for the food and ambience, but they will forever remember that something new, or that wild story that led to their occasion being truly amazing. For me, it’s the exploration and the story that creates the stand-out experience. Wines like this can help to do that.

A few facts on Orin Swift to get you started

David Swift Finny inspired in Italy, trained at Robert Mondavi Wineries and founded his winery in 1998.

His Palermo is a good place to start.
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
ABV: 15.5%
Aging: 12 months, 39% new oak
Notes: Deep dark crimson colour, powerful aroma of currants, vanilla and cedar wood. Explodes onto the palate with powerful blackcurrant and dark cherry fruits, luscious and smooth.
Stockist: Enotria & Coe, £28-£35

Weird Can Be Wonderful.

At a time when everyone is looking at what they eat, where its from and how it’s made there is still quite a big gap in choosing what we drink. When you go to most retail sellers the shelves will be filled with co-operative productions, own-brand labels and recognisable names.

I admit I shamelessly enjoy the 19 Crimes range (don’t judge!) despite the headache the next day. But really I find the more artisanal low-interference wines more interesting – my sommelier team and I have really come to enjoy them.

So the question is, how do we get our guests to experience them and discover more upon each visit?

My view here is that we aren’t necessarily trying to convince everyone that this style of wine is the future, just to be brave enough to mix them in every now and then.

A big challenge I had when expanding the “natural wines” part of the list was that committing to a bottle was a bit tough for many people, especially given the ethos of some producers.

For example when away on holiday my number two decided to buy six wines from a producer in Austria, all low sulphur and unfiltered, one of which was amphora aged and bottled in ceramic. He meant well but my god it was awful.

In order to expand the view of our clientele we introduced two wine pairings. But we didn’t take the usual approach of offering four/six glasses or a normal/premium version. Instead we gave them a choice of Classics or Weird and Wonderful. This gave the guest the option of experimenting or playing safe. I expected most diners to play safe, but in fact it was about 60/40 in favour of weird.

There is, of course weird and WEIRD, and we kept it relatively tame. So no Jura wines or whacking on a flight of Gravner Breg Bianco (although it did feature once). Rather, we used the ethos of low maintenance production and intervention in wines that still expressed freshness and had some level of familiarity.

Success rate of the weird pairing was fairly high, if people were not getting it after the first/second wine I would always suggest we swapped to classic. After all, it’s their money.

But the majority of my patrons who experienced this selection of “healthy” alternative wines were surprised with the overall quality and diverse flavours as well as the fact they were still able to speak after eight wines in a row (I pour generously).

They even came to me at breakfast the next morning, surprised and delighted that their head was clear and pain free! Often the wines I used were natural yeast ferments and therefore low alcohol as well as low sulphur.

Some of our best matchings from the ‘weird and wonderful’ wine flight

Don’t be feared of the weird. It shows that people can be encouraged to go outside their comfort zone if you make it easy for them.

Occhipinti SP68 Bianco, Sicily
Stockist: Les Caves de Pyrenne £12-£17
Served with a fresh crab dish.
Aromatic fresh and lively style.

Pheasants Tears Saperavi, Kakheti, Georgia
Stockist: Les Caves de Pyrenne £12-£15
Paired with venison during the season.
Bold flavours, leather, spice, mushroom earthy and autumnal but not overbearing.

Akashi-tai Ginjo Yuzushu Sake
Stockist: Wine Service £15-£20
Served with earl grey sorbet pre dessert.
Basically a lemon punch in the face, completely resets the palate before moving on. It woke people up pretty good too!

Five Tips To Great Studying While You Work

by Melania Battiston, Head Sommelier, Medlar

We all know how hard it is for hospitality professionals to find time outside of work to concentrate on their studies.

With the long hours, stress and pressure we face every day, it can be a real challenge to balance the two.

But during my time as a Sommelier I have developed – and fine-tuned – a few tricks to allow myself more time to include studies in my daily routine effectively. They could help you too if you’re studying for exams, competitions, or just want to learn more.

1 PLAN AHEAD – AND MAKE YOUR GOALS ACHIEVABLE

I always suggest to have your own agenda that guides you thorough the week. Every Sunday write down your study goals for the week to come. It doesn’t matter how many there are, you just have to make sure that they are achievable. So don’t be afraid to start small.

She’s making a list, checkin’ it twice

Then every night write a ‘to-do’ list for the day after. Divide your tasks into chunks of time and stick to them.

Why do this before going to bed? So your brain can process your easiest decisions (like what to have for breakfast or managing your schedule) during the night. This means you’re not expending useless willpower first thing in the morning when your brain is at its sharpest and should be concentrating on the most important decisions.

You want to make sure that studying doesn’t affect your real work; therefore the most practical tip here is to decide which days you’ll totally be focusing on your job and the days you will be adding studies as an extra. Try to recognise the time of the day where you’re at your most productive and then plan your study hours around that.

2 AVOID PROCRASTINATION

Ok, now that you have created your own weekly/daily schedule it’s time for some action! You’ll probably be studying only for a few hours a day; therefore you’ll need to act efficiently. Let’s get rid of the triggers that can distract you (phone, TV), have scheduled 5 minutes breaks every 25 minutes of work; and get yourself a reward every time you finish the session. It could be something as simple as “If I conclude this topic before going to work I’ll then have my favourite croissant at the coffee shop”. Again, structure is essential.

3 BUILD A COMMUNITY

It’s crucial to build up a community of like-minded people who can understand your journey, your difficulties and can cheer you on and encourage you to keep moving toward your goals and not to give up. Studying during a full-time job is hard, so you’ll need good support! Share experiences, learn from others and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

4 HAVE A REST DAY

Use your day off as a real day off. You’ve earned it and you need it. So spend it wisely by relaxing, nourishing your mind and your body. Exercise, meditation, listening to music and socialising are all good. But it’s good to try self-affirmation, too: saying positive things to yourself in front of a mirror for 5-10 minutes.

Not tasting – but necessary all the same

Things not to do on your day off: stay up late, watch screens all day, check work emails or jump onto social media as soon as you wake up.
You don’t need to feel guilty about having down-time, since your brain will work anyway in the background without you even realising it. It’s called diffuse mode and allows your brain to solve problems or make connections without you even trying.

5 KEEP YOURSELF MOTIVATED

There will be times when you feel tired, down and even demotivated. So keep reminding yourself why you are studying for this exam/competition/qualification. Visualise yourself achieving your goals and look back at all you have accomplished.

Imagine scenarios where you are succeeding (like acing a job interview or winning a competition), and be as detailed as possible – try to recreate the exact scenario in your mind, with sounds, smells and colours. Think big!