The words 'youth' and 'wine' weren't always a common pairing, but today's sommeliers are changing that.
In the past couple of years, Sydney's drinking scene has undergone huge changes, with the explosion of small bars throughout the city run by young, switched-on proprietors. In restaurants, a quieter revolution has occurred. There is a far greater number of sommeliers, a role traditionally filled by more mature types, and they are getting younger. At some fine-diners, wine recommendations are made by highly trained and knowledgable sommeliers younger than 35. Many bright, young things are making their mark in the industry.
On paper, there's plenty to recommend a career in wine service. It can be more prestigious than waiting, it's less stressful than cooking, you get to drink on the job and talk about your favourite subject for a living. Not surprising, then, that competition is hot for the prime positions among the young up-and-comers.
But it is, as always, a long way to the top. A good sommelier is expected to have a knowledge of wine that is almost encyclopaedic. In the highly charged atmosphere of the restaurant, where strong opinions are the stock in trade, there's a lot more to the job than knowing heaps about wine and being able to pour a red without leaving drips on the tablecloth. A good sommelier is a psychic, a diplomat and an excellent judge of people.
When it comes to advice, the 30-year-old manager and sommelier at Bloodwood restaurant in Newtown, Gabrielle Webster, thinks the softly-softly approach works best. ''You try to work out what style the person wants - light or heavy - and you don't push anything down their throat,'' she says. ''If they're looking to try something different, I might suggest something but you've got to read the customer. You don't push a Loire sauvignon blanc when they want one from Marlborough.''
Richard Hargreave is a sommelier heading places. He has just finished as dux at the Court of the Master Sommelier exams (an international qualification), he's 28 years old and has landed the job of head sommelier at Momofuku Seiobo after working at Bilson's and Quay. He offers suggestions only to those who ask. ''Some people have a very definite idea of what they want and I am not going to try and get in the way of that,'' he says.
In a job many still perceive as the province of elderly gentlemen, being young can have its downsides. Youth and wine knowledge can be deemed an oxymoron. Hargreave cites ''customers who won't take advice from me because of my age'' as his main grievance with the job.
The just-turned-27 Italian Chiara Daniele, who is a sommelier at Quay, has to face the added hurdle of being female. ''They think, 'She's a girl, she knows nothing,''' she says. ''So then I smile and show them all the knowledge that I have.''
Twenty-eight-year-old Nicolas Andre of Marque is more your archetypical sommelier, complete with suave French accent, charm and loads of confidence. But that doesn't make him pedagogic. He likes Australian customers for their willingness to experiment and the fact most are uninhibited by wine orthodoxy or parochialism. ''They're open-minded,'' he says. ''If you're working in France and you try to serve a German wine to a French customer, it's a disaster.''
A big part of the job of the sommelier is to liaise with the kitchen to make the food and wine speak the same language at the table. Again, these four sommeliers don't force their customers to follow the dictates of wine and food convention. Hargreave says: ''If the customer orders the wine with affirmation, I am not going to try and change their mind. If they ask my opinion, I would try and steer them towards a more appropriate match. I have seen a customer drink Amarone with sashimi and it still makes me shudder thinking about it.''
Webster doesn't push, either. ''If what they've chosen really doesn't go with what they're eating, I might say something like, 'That might dominate the wine you've chosen,' or whatever but it depends - sometimes they just want to drink what they're drinking.'' Daniele concurs food and wine matching isn't everything. ''Sometimes I might suggest a wine that I know they really want without thinking about the food, just so they'll enjoy the time in the restaurant.''
All four say the same thing when asked what they like most about their chosen career. For the sommelier, a job well done is a satisfied customer. Andre, who puts a lot of effort into creating interesting wine matches to go with chef Mark Best's creations, likes it ''when people come back to you with lots of emotion and say they're really happy with what they drink and what's on their plate''. For Daniele and Webster, it's ''the relationship with the guests''. And at the intimate 30-seat Momofuku, Hargreave enjoys ''exposing people to new and exciting wines which they would never usually try and seeing their reactions''.
Interestingly, our four young guns didn't set off from school with their sights set on becoming sommeliers. Hargreave started work with wine merchants in Britain before moving into restaurants. Daniele was pointed in the sommelier direction while at hospitality school near Lake Garda and Webster was already working on the floor in restaurants and got into wine from there. Andre was a waiter who ''wanted to escape hospitality'', went to a wine school in the Rhone Valley and eventually worked in a restaurant where he was mentored by another sommelier.
There's no shortage of ambition in the top ranks of sommelier land but what does the future hold for young people who will hit the peak of their profession before they're 35?
There's a sommelier ladder Hargreave is ascending fast - becoming a master sommelier is his long-term goal. After that, he says there's lots of opportunity for wine-related careers. ''A sommelier can head in many directions,'' he says. ''Some choose to oversee large wine programs, such as Michael Engelmann, MS at Rockpool Bar & Grill, others head into winemaking, some move into distributing wine that they want to see on restaurant lists such as Andrew Guard. All of these directions are made easier with a sommelier background.''
For Daniele, it's more travel and ''becoming the chief sommelier
at a really good restaurant'' and for Andre, the ultimate reward of all that knowledge would be to apply it to a vineyard and make his own wine.
Webster is about to enjoy one of the best perks of the job. She's heading off on a tasting trip through some of Europe's famous wine regions. Doors and bottles that remain closed to the average punter will be opened. Why think of the future?
''I don't know what I'll be doing when I'm older,'' she says. ''Maybe a vineyard - that's the endgame - but it will definitely be something to do with wine.''