December 20, 2023
Edward Bailey On Defining A Good Sommelier
Edward Bailey, UK’s leading sommelier on a day in a sommelier's life, what is a good sommelier and how he buys wine and how he sells wines. Let’s find out a bit about his life as a Sommelier.
Your current place of work.
5 Hertford Street
Tell us about yourself.
I'm a 23-year-old Sommelier from St Albans. I currently work at a private members club in the heart of Mayfair. I love to travel, cook and go to the theatre and explore whatever else London has to offer.
Why did you want to become a sommelier?
I have worked in hospitality since a young age and I have always loved the thrill of fine dining. My journey to being a sommelier started one night when I was drinking wine with my dad that he had been given. Both of us were completely oblivious to the world of wine at the time we thought it would be a £10/£15 bottle. After looking up the wine after we learnt it was worth much more than we thought and I was so annoyed we hadn't saved it for a special occasion I started researching about wine and paid more attention to the wines being sold at my workplace. Before that, I never realised that wine is so much more than a drink. The variety, history, geography and the way a winemaker is able to express their passion through their wines. It really is an artwork and I really wanted to enter this world and I am so pleased I have.
Image: Edward Bailey
What do I look for in a new brand before taking it into my restaurant?
I don't look at brands for the club we have a team of very knowledgeable buyers for this. However, I do work closely with them and I'm always suggesting wines for us to stock. What I look for in a brand is good winemaking practices, recognizability of the brand and how well it's going to pair with the seasonal dishes the kitchen creates. Sometimes it's great to have a couple of wines from regions of the world that are a little less known for their wine as well.
What sources do you follow to stay on top of industry trends and new launches worldwide?
I read Decanter magazine, have a whole library on wine and winemaking and I like to follow key figures of the industry on social media as well as going to tastings and events to update my knowledge on what other sommeliers and restaurants are doing as well.
Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?
What other drinks do you enjoy? If they like something like a lager they're not lightly to enjoy a heavy wine like a Chateauneuf Du Pape, so something like champagne with some lees aging, if they like drinking coffee then they might enjoy a more powerful, full-bodied wine with strong flavours and slightly bitter characteristics of tobacco or chocolate, something like a Barolo As well as asking what they like to drink, what they plan on eating as well is important. I don't believe in the myth that white wine has to be drunk with fish and red wine has to be drunk with meat. Some great pairings can be made with chardonnay and steak or pinot noir and fish for example. If they are only having one course then recommending a jeroboam is probably not the way to go either. The occasion of their meal also plays a big part. If it is a birthday or anniversary then perhaps they might want to start with a glass of champagne or cocktails, if it's a business dinner then maybe some whisky for after or a nice digestif. There is so much you could ask to ascertain exactly what wine a guest may like but as well it's asking the right questions that matter, nobody likes a server who is always at the table, you want to be able to enjoy your meal with the people at the table as well. So it's good to be effective. What do they like to drink that isn't wine, what are they going to eat, and what the occasion is? Quite often I ask if they have any questions for me and work from there onwards.
What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?
Good organization - of a wine cellar if there are wines in shortage, perhaps a vintage change, or maybe some bottles have been there far too long and need to be upsold or replaced. Preparation/good mise en plus (setup of equipment) is so important - Service is obviously part of the job that is seen but there is so much behind the scenes. How is a sommelier going to serve wine if there are no clean wine glasses or if someone has preordered wine in advance whether or not it could benefit from being decanted? Knowledge - is of course important but as a young sommelier myself I know I'm not going to know everything there ever was to know about wine straight away I understand it will take years to be at the level of a master sommelier or master of wine so its important I keep updating my knowledge. Being Adaptable and able to learn what the guest wants always helps as well.
How I would train my new staff member in their first 7 days of them joining.
Focus on their strengths. They may have brilliant knowledge but lack people skills, if that's the case show them steps of service and sometimes throw them in the deep end, give them a section of the restaurant. I benefitted massively from on-the-job learning. If they have great people skills but lack knowledge then sometimes 20 minutes a day for a training session on a specific wine region or perhaps the wines by the glass in order for them to build confidence in what they are suggesting and selling.
What methods do you use to grow wine sales? Please explain with examples.
As I work at a private members club it's slightly easier for me in the fact everyone is a member and comes to the restaurant regularly. It really helps because it means I can learn their preferences quickly and sometimes I can recommend a wine they wouldn't normally try and they end up loving it.
What methods do you use to grow profits?
Upselling is my main focus.
How do you self-learn and improve your skills?
As someone who previously hated exams since leaving Uni, I have completed 3 different wine qualifications and I think they help massively improve my skills as they keep me up to date and help me remember a lot more than simply researching singular wines and vineyards. In addition, improving my French and Italian has actually benefitted me even more than I expected because I am able to simply pronounce the wine names properly.
What's the best part of your job?
Meeting people. My current job has given me a fantastic opportunity to network and form relationships with professionals in the industry as well as people who just love wine and like to talk about it.
How do you elevate the guest experience? Please give 4-5 examples and insights here.
1. If they come back and order the same wine I suggested to them on their previous visit 2. If their guests leave happy 3. If they order more than one bottle (The easiest way of knowing if they actually like the wine) 4. I love it when a member asks for my recommendation, after almost two years of working where I am it just shows me they trust me enough to know I will give them something they will absolutely love.
Your favourite TV show right now?
Suits - an American TV series on the life of a lawyer.
An unforgettable wine experience for you - tell us the whole story!
Grape picking for Michel Gros in Vosne-Romanee, Burgundy was an incredible experience and I hope to return there. It was only a few days but by the end, I felt like I was part of the family. It was hard work but to be right in the thick of the wine harvest and production was invaluable to me in my understanding. It's great to learn that stuff from a book but nothing beats actually seeing it happen in front of you.
What are the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?
Being against red wine chilled. In the summer months, I love to chill a Fleurie or Barbaresco but whenever I suggest it I always get a look of surprise. Or once I had a guest ask for a wine that tasted like beer, although there are some wines that have similarities in flavor, if you enjoy drinking something for example lager or a cocktail then drink what you enjoy.
Your favourite restaurant in London right now?
Cork and Bottle in Soho
Any favourite food and wine pairing suggestions for London drinks enthusiasts?
There are so many brilliant pairings to choose from and I'm sure the other Sommeliers being interviewed will agree it's a question we are asked all the time but rarely have a single answer for. I like a classic pairing of steak with a Cabinet Sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux.
Your favourite book?
My favorite non-wine book at the moment is Consumer.ology by Philip Graves - It's a great book on the psychology of consumer behavior.
Name 3 sommeliers in the UK you like.
1. Brian K. Julyan - I had the pleasure of being taught by him while studying for the first level of the Court of master sommeliers.
2. Mark Andrew - I think he alongside Dan Keeling (co-founder of Noble Rot) has some great insights into the future of wine as well as the fantastic menu they have in their restaurants.
3. Jancis Robinson - I have been a huge fan for a long time, being the first person outside the wine trade to pass the MW exam as well as writing the oxford companion to Wine (the most detailed wine book ever), I can only hope to have an as successful career as this legend of the wine industry.
What's your personal career goal? And how are you investing or planning to get there?
My career goal is to become a Master Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I would love to have my own wine and cooking show and travel the world in pursuit of incredible wine and food.
Give us one good story that you remember of a customer and you.
Being young there is often times when a guest won't trust I have the knowledge to provide them with a good wine and pairing. One of our regular guests when I was fairly new was like this but they took a leap of faith and loved the suggestion I made. Now when they dine at the restaurant they don't even look at the menu they are happy to let me choose for them and trust I'll deliver. This for me is something I will remember because it taught me to trust my judgement and that a good sommelier is not someone with 30 years of experience or someone who has tried a lot of wines, it's someone who is passionate and always learning.