OT: First, what is a sommelier and how did you become one?
Ben Knight: At nineteen, I came back from working as a gap student in Britain and needed to pay back my parents, so I started waiting tables at restaurants and I learnt about wines by a sort of osmosis. Then one night I had a really startling dream—about a Shiraz I had drunk a few days before. I could actually taste and smell the wine in my dream. That’s what made me a sommelier. Later I trained formally through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust based in London. A sommelier is someone who advises people how to match their food and wine, who teaches people how to understand their wines.
OT: So what is your role at the restaurant you advise?
Ben Knight: The Bottega has 300 varieties of wine on its menu. My job is to manage their wines, write up notes on them for their menu, and train their waiting staff so that they are able to advise customers. The wine industry here is huge and every vintage tastes different.
OT: Huge? How huge? How old?
Ben Knight: There are around 2,500 wineries in Australia and we are small compared to European wine-producing countries. What is unique to Australia is incredibly old soils and a myriad places to grow grapes and make world-class wine. Australia has been making wine since the late 1800s. Every winery makes a new vintage each year, and every year the wines in bottle change. It‘s hard to keep track.
OT: You advertise a take-home sommelier on your website?
Ben Knight: Yeah, we have these evenings of wine courses in your home. Invite your friends over for a tasting and treat yourself to a wine appreciation course without leaving the house! We bring the wine and the glassware to your house and we have a 90-minute wine-tasting. Taste eight or ten wines side by side and you can compare them and learn why they taste the way they do.
OT: How was it on your first such evening?
Ben Knight: It was a group of young medical students. They liked wine but don’t know much about wine-tasting and they found the idea of spitting the wine into a spitoon scary—it was unfamiliar. They managed after a while though… by the end of the evening they were playing a game where the loser had to drink the stuff in the spitoon...
OT: So the idea is to have fun with wine? Demystify it?
Ben Knight: At the end of the day, people are at dinner, they want to have fun. If the person serving them interrupts with a lecture on wine—that’s not what people want. You need to take the boundaries away, enjoy the wine. Right now I’m playing around with wines as an ingredient to add to cocktails, it’s not going to be a large part of the wine list, but it might just start someone drinking wine.
OT: Are expensive wines always better?
Ben Knight: For every great expensive wine in the world I’ll show you ten cheaper ones that might give you more pleasure. Over-expensive wines are at the edge of how good wines can taste— is it four or eight hundred dollars better? You can get fabulous Australian wines for under 25 dollars. That is not to say a very expensive wine can’t change your life; it can. It’s just that price is no guarantee of having a good time.
OT: Could you name a few good, affordable wines?
Ben Knight: Well, whites: Pikes Riesling from Clare Valley and Tarra Warra Chardonnay from Yarra Valley. Reds: Stonier’s Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula; Torbreck Shiraz from Barossa Valley.
OT: How should we store wine in hot climates such as India’s?
Ben Knight: Ideally wine should be stored below 20 degrees. It loses its top notes in the heat and the texture becomes too loose. So in an Indian summer, store wines in the fridge but take them out thirty minutes before serving. You’ve to find the darkest place as well—that’s why wine is often in dark bottles. Never store wine next to the oven. Never on top of the fridge—keep wines away from vibration and find a room that has the coolest and most even temperature.