I had a chat with Emily Harman a sommelier based in London. It was amazing to discuss and understand her work. She runs her own consultancy- VinaLupa, curating bespoke wine lists and training for restaurants, bars and hotels. Emily has worked at the legendary River Cafe to then spending several years in Australia working at the highly awarded fine dining restaurant Attica in Melbourne. Her time in Australia led her to work the 2011 vintage with artisan winemaker Tom Shobbrook in the Barossa Valley and then later that year to move to Tuscany to work with Sean O’Callaghan at Riecine in Gaiole in Chianti.
Aksha : Let us start from the beginning…tell me, how did you get interested in wines and more specifically in becoming a sommelier?
Emily : I did not really choose this job. I worked in restaurants as a teenager, and wine was really just a hobby. I loved eating and drinking out. At one such place where I worked, the woman who owned it, she kept giving me wine to try and to take home. I started reading books about it and this went on for a while. That was when I started working at the River cafe for the first time. There, I got into Italian wines. Somehow, I also had the opportunity to travel to Australia and visited a lot of wine regions in my own time. I took a job at Attica, in Melbourne. One of the top restaurants in Australia. The manager saw my interest in wines, she said “you should work with wine” and it all went from there.
Have you done a formal training in wines?
I have done some, but I did that much later on. The UK and Australia are different from some of the other European countries. Here a lot of people learn on the job, whilst working under sommeliers and usually they do their qualifications whilst work. Whereas, France or Italy a lot of people study first to become a sommelier, before even working in a restaurant. In the UK and Australia, in most cases, you have to work your way into that position.
Is this for cultural/historical reasons? As in south Europe, they have traditionally grown wine?
Maybe. I can really only speak from my own experience.
How did you decide to set up your own business and tell me more about your work and what it involves?
Everything happened naturally, people started approaching me to do work for them on the side, and then I thought I will just give this a go full time. It was a bit slow at first but it has picked up quite well now.
A majority of this work is dealing with restaurants, creating and refreshing wine lists. Maintaining
and managing their suppliers, agreeing on prices. Training staff is a big part of the job as well. Putting together the whole wine program for bars and restaurants, that’s really the majority of the work I do. I have also done other things like wine tasting events. I have done my own pop up events. I recently did a wine bar called UNFILTERED in a motorcycle garage. So it is quite varied really.
What do you find challenging and exciting, working as a Sommelier?
I guess the most exciting and enjoyable part is that I get to meet a lot of people and I travel a lot, so you are constantly exposed to culture and you are constantly learning. No one that works in this industry knows everything and I am sure it is the same with other industries as well. You will always have new things to learn, which is always great. Things to see since the
world is massive.
The challenges I face, although not all the time but sometimes, is to know and understand what your client needs. Sometimes, when listening to what someone says, you need to have the ability to understand what they really mean. This tends to involve a lot of communication, a lot of back and forth.
Do you have any particular wines/ regions or grapes that are your favourites?
Yes, I do but it always changes. At the moment, I guess I would say Tenerife, in Spain is quite important for me. There are some really great wineries. I tend to focus more on regions than on grape varieties.
Since I work with shoes and fashion, I am quite curious to know about how do you approach your clothes or fashion for your work and lifestyle?
In general my whole wardrobe is black. I am not so comfortable with colour. However, for example today, I am working at the River Cafe, and Ruthie (the restaurant’s chef owner) likes her staff to wear bright colours. So, I will be wearing a bright green because I know what she wants me to wear. Otherwise, I love and follow a lot of japanese brands such as Comme des garcons, Nemeth, Yohji yamamoto and few others. I also love all the clothes from Ann Demeulemeester. I love these shoes (she shows me these black flat laced shoes on her feet) from the ‘Curiosity Shop’ in Holborn. They have this quirky edge to them, which I like, and they are all handmade.
For events in the evenings such as wine tasting, or for example recently I did a talk on English wines at the Holland Park Opera, then I dressed up for that more formally and wore heels. If it is appropriate, I would wear heels, especially it it is an evening event. Whereas, for a daytime event, since I do training with the staff, I dress more casually because it makes me more approachable. If I am doing a tasting or something educational, I would probably dress up in smart clothes or even a dress.
Like fashion, I believe the wine industry has two extreme sides of consumption, on the one hand it is a bit elitist and exclusive and on the other hand there is a democratisation which has its own consequences. What are your thoughts on this?
I guess there are two sides to every coin. It is probably the same as fashion. There is the particular customer going for a particular product, and they can afford that particular product.There are people who are going to go for quality wines and are willing to spend more money on it. That market is always going to be there. At same time it is niche and will always probably be niche, because those wines are quite expensive. It depends on the occasion, consumption is different. Obviously there is also the mass market, that spends under £10 for a bottle of wine at the supermarket because they are shopping there and millions of people doing it.
I am trying to draw parallels, because I tend to face this a lot, as my shoes are handmade by artisans and for natural reasons it gets expensive. I personally think it is fair price due to the amount of time and craft that goes into it. It’s challenging to find a balance, keep the prices not too high and yet retain the quality.
Yes, I guess it is quite difficult for a wine producer to do as well. I mean the margins they work with are minimal in comparison to the amount of work that goes into a bottle of wine. I think it comes down to someone’s understanding of what goes into the product. I think it is an educational thing, I don’t want to say educational because it sounds pretentious. I think once you have been to a vineyard, and see how things are made and the work that goes into it, when you add it up you understand — but again there is a certain kind of person who understands that and who will pay a price for that.
In a pop up I did, I served wine in magnum bottles, which you usually do not see. Everything was magnums and it was only fine wine. Usually restaurants operate at a minimum of 70% margin, I did all on 40%. Also, it was in an informal setting. So, you had all these people who usually don’t drink this wine, who went like “oh we can afford this wine”, so this is one way you can influence people and also make wine more democratic too.
Do you specifically work with the British market?
I have been until this year. A few months ago I started working with Berlin as well. So I am travelling a lot between London and Berlin at the moment.
This is just out of curiosity, since I consider my shoe brand quite niche and similar to a boutique winery. So I wondering if you have any recommendations on boutique wines for our readers.
2014 Vidonia, Suertes del Marques from Tenerife. A white wine made with the Listan Blanco grape. It is pure, mineral and powerful.
2014 Chianti Classico, Riecine. Chianti from one of the finest (in my opinion) estates in the estate. They work biodynamically in the vineyards and the winemaker is known for his excellent skills at blending differently plots together to produce wines with balance and harmony.