The ‘Belle of English bubbles’ was The Ritz hotel’s first female sommelier at 19 years old
First things first, what are you drinking?
I wish I could tell you…it’s a side project I’ve been working on and all I can say is it’s English, fizzy and white!
Where did your wine journey begin?
When I was in college, for my mother’s birthday we went to afternoon tea at the Ritz and I was dazzled by how elegant it was – I’d never been anywhere like it before. At the time I wasn’t really enjoying the academic route and was toying with the idea of an apprenticeship. I was working in a pub down the road from my family home in Surrey and I quite liked the idea of a career in hospitality and perhaps one day owning my own restaurant.
Shortly after, an ad came up for The Ritz Academy and I just thought it was fate. I applied and successfully joined in 2014. I trained in all areas of the hotel (front of house, kitchen etc.) but I started in the restaurant with the sommelier team and, although I was not old enough to drink (I was 16 at the time) I was an excellent topper upper!
Before I worked at The Ritz all I knew about wine was that there was red, white and pink and it either came with bubbles or without. I was baffled that some customers would spend £100 and even £1,000 on a bottle of wine and that’s where my interest began and I went on to become the first ever female sommelier at The Ritz.
Why is it important to you to make the world of wine more accessible?
When I was working at The Ritz I would tend to give more of an experience to those people who were coming for a once-in-a-lifetime visit because I felt they were sometimes made to feel uncomfortable. That’s no reflection on The Ritz, it’s the same with a lot of fine dining hospitality.
Because I trained in a traditional setting but was still young enough to have friends who were at university and would spend less on wine, I have quite an open outlook on wine and hospitality generally, which is rare. I believe it needs to be less exclusive and accept and recognise everyone’s wine tastes, opinions and budget. It’s important to see people’s different points of view and offer advice to allow them to make better choices, not necessarily your choices.
My goal is to make wine sexy and fun because I feel like a lot of that has been forgotten. When you go to beer or gin tastings it’s such a great time but often with wine tastings, you leave your fun hat at the door and the serious tasting notes come out but actually wine is so much fun. I have a saying: ‘You drink wine with the people you love, to fall in love and to make love’.
Tell us about The Million Pound Menu
When I did my kitchen training at The Ritz, I met a girl called Ruth Hanson, who is a chef and is very passionate about British food. We became friends and moved in together and we began talking about how cool it would be to open our own restaurant.
One evening, bottle of wine down, we were scrolling through Linkedin and we saw this ad pop up for a new TV show called Million Pound Menu. We were literally talking about the concept of an all British restaurant right there and then and so it felt like fate, again. We applied and a week later they got in contact to interview us for the show.
At the time we were working 14- hour days and trying to do everything we needed to prepare for the programme – a business plan, menus etc – in time. But it was worth it because we won the million pounds to open our restaurant, Epoch.
The investor Atul Kochhar is a very, very talented chef but unfortunately, over time, we grew to understand that the investment wasn’t quite right and so we decided not to go into partnership together. But there’s no hard feelings.
Since then I’ve been working to build my wine consultancy business, which is going really well. One day I’d love to open up a chain of nice bars or gastro pubs but it’s a tough market out there so we’ll see.
What spurred your interest and passion for English wine?
The Ritz introduced English wine to its menus in 2016. Because of its reputation, my expectations when I was tasting it were very low. However, my first English wine was Gusbourne Sparkling Rosé and I was completely blown away. The branding was beautiful and it’s made literally an hour and a half away from the centre of London.
I think that’s what started my English wine journey and from then I’ve just wanted to discover and share more English wines. A lot of the people I worked with in the restaurant were French and Italian and they were always saying that their wines were the best and so, being very English and patriotic, I wanted to prove that English wine was going to be a thing.
And so, I’m very passionate about and focused on English wines. Being knowledgeable about all types of different wines is great but I think there’s something quite valuable about being knowledgeable about a niche, a certain country.
Do you think opinion of English wine in the hospitality industry is changing?
In the past English wines have always had a bad reputation. The industry is changing but it will take time. It’s like any new business, not everyone is going to know that good English wine exists overnight so it’s all about education.
I think the reason mine and Ruth’s idea to have a restaurant serving only British produce with a purely English wine list hasn’t been done before is because we haven’t had enough consistency and quality in English wine for it to be explored properly. We do have great wines in the UK but you have to search and vintage variation is quite prominent so that can create challenges.
Going back to my previous point, different people have different budgets and English sparkling wine sits at a premium price point compared to something like prosecco so I understand why people would go for that.
I’ve done some consultancy work for a brand that takes wines into airport restaurants and they all want more English wines and I continually get new distributors coming to me for recommendations of English wines so it is changing. But, you have to look at people’s preferences and some people like a full bodied red and England just doesn’t produce a full bodied red!
What English vineyards do you think have really got it right?
In terms of really good quality wines and good branding, Gusbourne and Black Chalk jump to mind but while most vineyards in England are now producing great wines, personally I don’t think many have nailed the whole package in terms of online presence and their branding.
I’m really into my fashion and I think the fashion and beauty industry has really gone with the times, whereas there’s this whole feeling with English wine that it’s premium and ‘prim and proper’. So, I’d like to see more vineyards having some fun with it and opening up their audience that way.
Raimes in Hampshire really blows me away. Their branding is so recognisable, it oozes elegance and is super feminine, which I love. The price point is also really decent for the quality of wine.
Where’s your favourite place to drink wine?
I wouldn’t say I have a favourite place to drink wine. I love exploring new restaurants and bars but rarely visit the same place twice. As long as I can put on a nice dress and heels, I’m not too bothered where I go to drink wine!
Favourite person to drink wine with?
Definitely my best friend. We always think we’re so sophisticated and grown up but then regress to bad behaviour and reminiscing over our teenage years!
What’s your favourite wine memory?
Either my first time tasting English wine or the time we drank the Moët & Chandon that the producers gave to us after we won Million Pound Menu because we were like: ‘Ouch, could you not have found an English sparkling wine? This is not our concept!’
What’s your favourite wine and food combo?
I’m lactose intolerant but I do love cheese so it’s either a pizza with a Negroamaro or an English cheeseboard with an English Blanc de Noirs.
Finally, if you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would that be?
It would probably have to be Blanc de Noirs. I love it. It’s rich enough to pair with food but also simple enough that you can drink it on its own. Wiston Blanc de Noirs is very good, as is Raimes and Jenkyn Place.
Find out more about Emily on her website: emilysenglishwines.com/ or by following her on Instagram @emilysensglishwines.