Interview: Amanda Yallop, Group Wine Director, Fink Group
Amanda has been a sommelier for many years and has been working for the Fink Group of restaurants for 14 of them, starting off as a line sommelier at their flagship Sydney restaurant Quay, and gradually taking on more and more responsibility.
She is now the group wine director, managing the beverage program for their six restaurants. She oversees the wine program and heads the training curriculum for staff at all levels.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Amanda recently about all things wine, her desert island drops, what she sees for the future of the Aussie wine industry - and more!
Was there a particular moment that made you fall in love with wine?
I don’t think that I had a moment. I think I just gradually fell in love, and I know a lot of people in the industry do talk about how they had ‘that moment’ with ‘that wine’, but I think I was just keen and eager. It was more a trip of discovery. I thought, I just want to learn more and see more and taste more. I was just never-ending! The more you know, the more you realise you know nothing. (Me: Yes, I’m finding that too!)
What keeps you passionate about working in the industry?
I would say the people. I think that hospitality has a subset of the population that is slightly mad, and essentially I work in an industry where strangeness is commonplace, and it’s quite appealing.
What’s the most recent wine to surprise or excite you?
Let me have a think… We work in the industry, so we actually stop and look at wine all the time, where most consumers miss out on that joy of having something new. You know, they find something that they enjoy and they sort of stick with it because it’s considered safe. But I do think the tide is turning, and the younger consumers and people who are just coming now into wine, rather than just sticking to one wine, are desperate to try something new, or something their friends had or something they’ve seen on social media. And I think that they’re beginning to turn around and look for different bits and pieces. But, after all that... for me I would say it’s the Courabyra Sparkling from Tumbarumba.
What’s your best advice for food & wine pairing?
Common sense! It’s much easier than people expect. And it’s a lot of fun. Look at the hero element of the dish, which is nearly always a protein. Look at the method of cooking, and look at the garnish. Check the weather – is it lunch time, is it dinner time? You follow your mood. When you’re eating and drinking you definitely follow your mood. Just like when you read a book or when you listen to music. Your mood dictates where you’re going to head. People think that it’s ‘high science’ when you talk about food & wine matching, but it really isn’t. if you really feel like a red wine and you’re having fish, throw in a lot of greens. Make sure that you’re having greens for the red. I think that that works. You don’t want to have tannins with a fish protein, but if you’re throwing in a lot of broccoli or green beans or peas, you can get away with a red wine – a nice grenache or pinot noir. A lot of people at Christmas time have a massive Christmas lunch or dinner, and you’ve got ham, you’ve got turkey, you’ve got salad, you’ve got veggies, you’ve got everything. And people tend to just stop and eat bits and pieces at a time, and then they’ll drink wine that sort of matches. Instinctively people, if they’re drinking a wine that does not match what they’re eating, will often stop drinking until they’ve finished eating. And then they’ll go straight to the wine! I’ve observed that over the last two decades, working in restaurants. You have a sip and go, “That’s not really working for me, I was really enjoying it, but I’ll finish what I’m eating and come back to it.” Observation tells me they’re the people I need to watch when their plate is empty that they’re gonna need a top up. Look, food & wine matching is really easy. If you really feel like drinking riesling and you’re having steak, have a sip of the riesling, finish your steak and then go back to the riesling. Same thing if you’re having oysters and shiraz – finish the oysters and go for the shiraz.
What’s an unusual food & wine pairing that you love?
I like grenache and chilli. I think chilli is very hard to match with. Most people go for a beer or an off-dry riesling or an off-dry white wine. But grenache and chilli is delicious. And I love vegemite and goats cheese with champagne! Or a quality sparkling wine from Australia. Do it, do it, do it – it’s delish!
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
What’s open and not finished? You’re funny! (Me: Ha ha – good point!) Maybe gin. I have heard of these people who open wine and do not finish the wine… I know that they exist! No, you know what, I do have some wine that I’ve coravined*. I do this randomly when I want to have a look at a quality wine that I really don’t want to open because it cost me a lot of money, or I’m saving it for a special occasion. Although, I have been hitting the special occasion wines quite a bit in the last 6 months! If not now, when?! So… I might have a couple of barolos or maybe some Margaret River cabernets that have been opened and not finished. But they’re sealed again and ready to go for next time!
What’s your go-to party tipple?
Sparkling! A lot of people that you know who are really into wine have a definite preference. And they have a strong belief that because they love it, and if you don’t love what they love, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. If somebody is into wine and you’re not sure what to give them (because people are very particular about what they enjoy) give them sparkling or give them fortified as a gift. If uncertain, sparkling or champagne is always suitable. Fortified is something that, if you’re not really into it, once you’ve had it, you’ll be like “Oh, hello!”
Which wine destination is on the top of your bucket list?
I do visit Australian wine regions more than once, just because with the evolution of our industry, things shift and change and you get new producers… and Australians are very happy to experiment. We’re not legislated like areas of the Old World, where they must do things in a certain manner. There’s a lot more freedom here, so it makes sense to stay up to date and to revisit the regions frequently. But somewhere that I really, really, desperately want to go and haven’t been would be the Loire Valley. When we’re allowed to finally leave! But there’s no shortage of regions to visit in Australia. Honestly, is there anything more satisfying than going to a local region, going to the local bakery and grabbing a pie and then filling your car boot with some local produce – some wine, some cheese, some olives? Perfect. (Me: I’m going to Mudgee soon, and I’m so excited. I’m looking forward to doing exactly that.) Mudgee is fantastic. The people have that sort of ‘touched by madness’ quality, which I think is wonderful. You’ll have a great time!
Desert island wine – what bottle would you want to have with you?
I would probably go madeira or sherry. Because they’re bulletproof! Once you open them, they’re still fine. (Me: You can savour it until you get rescued!) Absolutely. Although, you never know… (Me: Maybe there might come a day where you want to just down it?) Absolutely!
If you weren’t a sommelier what would you be doing?
Um… I don’t know! Maybe a librarian. I’m a bit of a nerd. (Me: Love it! What kind of books do you like to read?) I like the old classics. I love a recommendation. I’m not terribly into fiction but I do like biographies.
How do you think the challenges of 2020 (things like the bushfires & the pandemic) have affected the future of the Aussie wine industry?
I think it’s been awesome and it’s been horrendous. We began with the bushfires, which were absolutely devastating. If you look at it down to the nitty gritty, there are certain areas that, if they were decimated by bushfires, insurance will cover it. They will replace a wine area, they will replace things for dollar value, they will replace a home eventually – that will actually happen. But if you’re in an area that had local bushfires but the fire itself didn’t go through, the area was just affected by heat or smoke, insurance doesn’t cover that. And so they’ve gone without, but they’ve also gone without having that support from the insurance. Smoke taint does affect wine, and it depends on the degree. You generally won’t notice it in a wine when it’s a young wine. The smoke compound actually adheres to the skin of the grape, so it only affects that particular vintage if it happens during the growing season and the berries are around, particularly during véraison and close to the harvest window. If you’re having smoke and the grapes are still ripening, it’s much less of a concern. If you drink some 2020 wines that’ve had a low degree of smoke taint, you probably will never notice. You would notice in 5-10 years, because that compound becomes stronger, more obvious and more apparent as a wine ages. But in a young wine often you don’t see it when it’s below a certain level. If you know that a region has been affected by smoke taint, ask the producer if you can. Of course, 2020 is going to be really hit, 2019 in Tassie was really hit. Ask them if you think their wines are gonna be affected. Because the producers are actually quite honest, and if they think that their grapes have been damaged to an unsustainable level, they generally didn’t pick them anyway. But some of them would have picked them thinking, “Well this is a style of wine I hope to be drunk young; it’s not meant to be drunk with quite a bit of age.” And culturally, Aussies drink young wine. Over the last 20 years, we’ve been encouraged to undersell them, the wet tax came in. We know that most people when they buy a bottle of wine drink it quite quickly, within that day. So that actually goes in the producer’s favour. But if you know a region’s been hurt with smoke taint, please support them. Drive in when you can, go visit them. (Me: Yes, for sure. There was that whole Empty Esky movement, which was great.) Absolutely, and it got slowed down because, you know, they still had firefighters and people that needed accommodation, so they were saying, “Just wait, come back soon. Just give us a bit of time to get settled,” and then coronavirus interrupted that. It has been a horrendous year. But it also means if you don’t have time or you can’t go to a local region, go to your local bottleshop or bar, pub or restaurant or whatever it is, and drink something from that region. Because that means, once their stock is coming out the door, they’re gonna replace it. So that has a cascade effect, and that will help them as well.
What’s your biggest challenge as a sommelier?
Probably just keeping up! The world is moving at a rapid pace, and it is actually fun. We must embrace change in order to remain current. We really should, and I think there’s a great bit of joy to be had doing that. We’re surrounded by people who have quite strong voices with a very compelling nature. Listen to what people are saying but make your own decisions and make your own mind up. Because opinion is neither right nor wrong, it is only opinion. If you enjoy something, enjoy it! Don’t let anybody else put you down. Honestly, the best thing you can do is experiment, have a bit of fun, try something you haven’t had before.
What’s the best part of your job?
I would say it’s a joint best between the people that I come across and having the opportunity to try new wines. It’s fun! I mean, obviously there are long days where you’re counting bottles in a cold cellar where you can’t feel your fingers – it’s not all glamourous! But it’s also a lot of fun. But yes, probably the people. We’re really, really lucky.
What would you like people to know about ordering wine at a restaurant?
It’s not stressful, just relax. If you’re not sure what you want, just ask. If you want to have a bit of advice, just ask for that as well. Neither is right nor wrong. Whatever you feel like doing, absolutely go for it. That’s the purpose of having a trained team alongside you: you can use the benefit of their experience. Because some people really don’t know what they want, and they really struggle to explain what they like. There’s no pressure, nobody’s gonna judge you. Essentially, a person who’s trained in wine wants to deliver what you want! They’re gonna listen to you and take the cue from what you’re asking for, and hopefully make the right decision and guide you to where you want to go. If you don’t want guidance, just ask for what you want – if you want it colder or warmer, ask for that. That’s what they’re there for… to deliver something in a style that you want, in an environment that you want it. (Me: Very cool. Hopefully people will be less stressed about ordering wine at a restaurant now.) See, people do get stressed! And I always think, “Why are you getting stressed?” (Me: I think people assume there’s a judgement factor with the wine professionals… you know, if you order something that they don’t consider premium or good enough?) I’m not saying that doesn’t exist, but that’s a very old school mentality. And it certainly does still exist – I wish it didn’t. But if you want to ask for advice, absolutely do. Because people love to introduce you to something new. The sommelier is actually going to get quite a thrill out of that. They love to go, “Oh that person only ever drinks Mornington Peninsula pinot gris but I asked them to try a chardonnay and they enjoyed it.” They get a thrill out of that. Bottom line: don’t be afraid to ask, don’t be intimidated to ask a question. And whoever is looking after you, it’s their job to make sure they’re delivering what you want. And they do enjoy it! That’s what gives them the most satisfaction. Often the judgement that you think is coming is just in your imagination.
And, finally, what would people be surprised to know about you?
I have a twin sister that doesn’t drink alcohol at all! And I used to be a tax consultant. It was really dull, but it is easy. The world of wine is a lot more inclusive than people expect. Consumers think that they’re on the outside of the wine world, but people inside the wine industry are always so happy to share, once they take the cue from someone that they like something or want to taste something. I’ve learned a lot from the people who came before me, and you have to take that onboard. But those who aren’t in the industry don’t get that picture of these wonderful human beings who are willing to share wine, time and talk.
(Me: Like yourself, with me!) I have to, it’s my duty!
*Coravin is a tool. "It’s a wine preservation system where literally you can remove some wine out of a bottle without unsealing it. So if it has a cork, you literally pierce it with a very fine needle, remove the wine and the needle with actually leave an argon gas in the bottle that acts as a preservative blanket," says Amanda.
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