This month we were lucky enough to catch up with the enigmatic and incredibly busy Louise Gordon as she prepares for the highly-anticipated launch of Hampshire’s Heckfield Place…
Q. What set you on the path to becoming a sommelier
A. It was a total accident. When I was 19 I went to work for a company with a wine warehouse in France – not knowing anything at all about wine. Not the most glamorous start, but it gave me a brilliant introduction to wine. I also did the WSET introductory course while I was there, which gave me the bug to learn more.
Q. You were listed as one of the 50 most influential people in the wine industry – what was your reaction and has it changed the way people work with you?
A. I was very surprised. I just get on with my job and hope I do it to the best of my ability, so it’s incredibly lovely to be recognised for that.
Q. How do you keep your knowledge fresh?
A. It is very difficult when working hospitality hours, but I read articles and industry magazines to try and keep up with the latest developments. I also teach WSET which helps to continuously re-enforce the basics.
Q. Who do you most admire from the wine industry and why?
A. It has to be Gerard Basset. He is a legend and ultimately the one industry icon that everyone else looks up to, and probably aspires to be. I’m a big fan! If I can accomplish a fraction of what he has achieved, I will be a very happy lady.
Q. Tell us about Heckfield Place and why we should visit?
A. We are a luxury country house hotel in Hampshire – but with a difference. We have just over 400 acres and a large proportion of that is dedicated to our organic and biodynamic farm, which provides the hotel with the majority of food that you’ll find on the menu. We have an on-site energy centre with aerobic digesters and all food waste goes back down to the farm as fertiliser. We are as sustainable as we can be at the moment, with an aim to improve further in the next few years. We also have an underground screening room that shows new releases and live-streamed events!
Q. Tell us about the wine list you have created at Heckfield?
A. It was a really enjoyable challenge to create something from scratch. It is about 300 bin lines with a diverse, and hopefully very interesting, selection of wines. We have some very old wines, some very rare wines and I am a big fan of ‘twists on the traditional’. For example, we have an Argentinian version of an Amarone and an Australian Tempranillo. The wine-by-the-glass selection is a little off-piste and includes a Ribolla Gialla, a South African Verdelho, a Canadian Cabernet Franc and a red Sancerre. The bar list has some amazing spirits on it and all of our cocktails use tinctures, liqueurs, syrups or essences that we make ourselves using ingredients from the land.
Q. So is everything ready? Tell us about the launch this month?
A. We are ready and raring to go! We officially opened on the 1st of September but we are still actively recruiting for more excellent staff. We launched with a tea party for 200 locals that took them on a mini-tour of the house and grounds, with copious amounts of food and drink along the way…
Q. What are the biggest challenges facing the hospitality industry at the moment?
A. A lack of well-trained and experienced Sommeliers and Bartenders. This might be an unpopular thing to say, but there seems to be a lot of people who have a year or less experience all wanting managerial positions. A lack of quality, experienced applicants is quite apparent.
Q. The profile of sommeliers and the MS certification has risen in recent years (largely due to the Somm films), have you noticed its influence in the restaurant?
A. Not to any great extent. People still ask if you are a Master of Wine, and I’m not sure the general public are aware of the difference between the two.
Q. Sommeliers seem quite prolific in the US but less so in the UK – do you think that is the case? Do you think the role of the sommelier is changing? And does it have a different level of importance in different countries or cultures?
A. The role is definitely changing as the nature of the industry does. The evolution of “laid back luxury” as a concept means that our approach to selling has had to change. Coupled with the availability on the open market of most wines, we have to be incredibly conscious of our margins and the wines that we select. The job definitely has different levels of importance in different cultures, but I think in the UK we still struggle to distance ourselves from the “stuffy, stiff sommelier” reputation.
Q. What kinds of misconceptions do you encounter when you say you’re a sommelier?
A. Most people are fairly impressed these days and often ask how you became a sommelier. But there is still a good proportion who either don’t know what the job entails, or simply think you are a glorified waiter. I also believe that a lot of waiters and managers in restaurants don’t fully appreciated the level of knowledge and skill required to be truly excellent.
Q. What would be your advice to women considering a career as a Sommelier?
A. It is a very rewarding career. It is constantly changing and you have to constantly keep on top of your knowledge. To anyone considering it, I would say it is very hard work but stick with it, as it is incredibly fascinating and you get to meet a wealth of interesting people along the way.
Q. What wines have you opened in the restaurant that have surprised you (good and bad)?
A. I recently opened a 1973 Leoville Poyferre that, from looking at the label and the cork, I thought was a complete “goner”, but after a very crumbly cork experience it turned out to be incredible.
Q. Which wine region would you consider the most underrated?
A. I currently have a love of all things Italian, but I think the most underrated region is probably the Alto-Adige. It has a few great wines but not many are available in the UK. It’s certainly a region to visit and look out for.
Q. What is your biggest annoyance with suppliers?
A. I am very lucky with the suppliers I use as most of them have known me for years, and trust me. I really hate people from companies I don’t use “just popping in”. If you want to speak to me, make an appointment – it’s possibly my biggest pet hate! A close second is sales reps talking down to you or assuming you don’t know something; I have dropped companies before due to arrogant reps.
Q. What could suppliers be doing better or, more of, to support Sommeliers?
A. I honestly think most suppliers do a good job and as I said, I am very lucky with my reps and companies. Just clear lines of communication and preferably not an excessive amount of emails!