December 20, 2023
Noble Rot’s Joshua Castle on what it takes to be a top sommelier
Joshua Castle looks back on his career, his journey into wine, and shares his insight on what it takes to be a leading sommelier
Managing wine lists and working with multiple suppliers and producers in his role as head sommelier at London’s award winning Noble Rot.
Can you tell us about your background and how you first got into wine?
I originally studied art history in Melbourne, and like most art history graduates I had limited scope for employment in the art industry without further studies. I decided to take a break from studying for a year, and worked in a few restaurants in inner-city Melbourne. I absolutely loved it, and one year turned into two, and I put art on the back burner in favour of hospitality.
My interest in wine was sparked by the discussions that I’d have with colleagues after work. Typically on Saturday night after service we’d pool our tips and choose a special bottle to share. My affinity for wine came from those post-work dissections of wines.
I worked at a winery in Stellenbosch for a few months before making my way to the UK, where I am now the head sommelier at Noble Rot, and studying towards my MW.
Why did you want to be a sommelier?
Great wines have stories- as a sommelier opening bottles for guests we have an opportunity to bring those stories to life on a day to day basis. I think that makes being a sommelier a pretty cool job.
Joshua Castle, Head Sommelier at Noble Rot
How did you progress into your current role?
Lots of reading, travelling and of course drinking.
What is involved in your current role and your main tasks?
Staff training is one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of my role. Our team at Noble Rot has an insatiably curious appetite about all things wine, so building and delivering a comprehensive training programme that covers an array topics is a time consuming but rewarding task.
How have you helped devise the wine list and wine programme at Noble Rot?
Our wine list is a constantly evolving beast. We’re changing our by the glass offering between services, and constantly adding new bottle listings. I think this perpetual changing makes for a really exciting list for consumers and also staff. It means we can be more seasonal too, featuring different wine styles throughout the year.
What are the key factors about the list that help and drive the bottom line?
Our competitively priced rare and mature wine is a real draw-card for drinkers, and knowing that there’s a bargain to be had keeps them coming back. Arguably that doesn’t help the bottom line, as you’re losing the opportunity to make more margin on those rare bottles. But importantly you’re giving value to guests, and encouraging repeat custom.
Sometimes we’ll pour something special using Coravin with minimal mark-up as it builds interest and value for consumers.
What do you most look for and want from wine suppliers to help drive sales?
Flexibility with by the glass pricing can really help. More often than not suppliers are happy to shave a little off BTG wines, which helps sales. Buying a parcel at a discounted rate is another strategy that we use.
I’m sure, like many other restaurants, we rely on dozens of different wine suppliers, wether it’s for house pours or single bottles. We do this to create diversity on the wine list. Our best relationships are with suppliers who understand this and inherently have a sense of wines that fit our remit.
Noble Rot Wine Bar And Restaurant
How do you determine if your wine list is successful? What criteria do you use?
When the glass bin at the end of service is full of an eclectic array of wines from different regions, styles and prices I know it’s been a successful day. I find it strangely satisfying seeing an empty bottle of house white alongside a Grand Cru Burgundy, because I know that both those wines were served by our team with the same level of care and attention.
What are the criteria you look for in a wine when deciding whether to include it on your wine list or not?
Typically a ‘Noble Rot wine’ is one that is made from indigenous grape varieties grown in an agriculturally conscious and sustainable way.
What do you see as being the key skills and talents needed to be a good sommelier?
Skills are taught and learnt, but a talented sommelier is one who is genuinely excited about the wines they work with, and can astutely read a table and communicate their passion in a way that is involved, inclusive and interesting.
This, coupled with those with curiosity and a genuine hunger to learn, are the makings of a great wine professional.
Have those changed at all during your careeer?
I’m much more prepared to ask questions when I don’t know something, even if its a silly one. The nebulous topic of wine can be so daunting, and sommeliers are expected to know so much, so being prepared to admit when you don’t know can be really constructive.
Noble Rot Soho
What wine buying trends have you seen since lockdown in terms of styles of wine and regions?
Post-lockdown drinkers have been much more curious to explore different wine regions and styles. We’re seeing an increasing interest in lighter, floral skin-contact wines, which can make for fantastic food and wine pairings. The iconic names of the natural wine scene also seem to be on the radar of more drinkers.
What are the sweet spots in terms of price points?
A savvy drinker will be able to spot a bargain however deep their pockets are, but I find the real challenge is tracking down unique and delicious wines that are well made, and will hit the list at £30 and under.
Yearly we ask our favourite suppliers for samples of wines under £10 cost and taste them en masse. It usually ends up being a long day with hundreds of wines, but a great calibration for your palate and a chance to track down some affordable gems.