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The Interview - Matt Wilkin, Group Consultant Sommelier, The Capital Group Ltd, London

Published:  23 July, 2008

You've been a bit busy recently winning awards and passing exams...
Yes, I've come down with a cold now that it's all over. It hits you as soon as you stop! The Champagne Ruinart Sommelier of the Year competition was on 23 March, and then seven days later I sat the Master Sommelier exam. The results come out on the same day, so we all went to Le Gavroche that night to celebrate.

How did it feel to pass the Master Sommelier?

For me it's a personal thing, just something I wanted to achieve. There are only about 130 Master Sommeliers in the world, and being the first Australian to pass makes it a bit special.

What advice would you give to other sommeliers who would like to enter sommelier competitions?

When I first started entering competitions I did dismally, because I didn't really understand what the judges were looking for. But once you get an idea of what it is they want, you can see your own strengths and weaknesses and work on them. I'd advise people to take a close look at what goes on in the competitions, and talk to other sommeliers who have competed in them to get an idea of the kind of questions you will be asked. It's a bit like the television programme Who wants to be a millionaire?. You wouldn't just rock up to take part without first watching the show to get an idea of the format.

So what's next on the agenda?

It would be great to get dual-nationality so that I can represent the UK in Ruinart's European competition (Trophe Ruinart du Meilleur Sommelier d'Europe). Down the line, I'd like to attempt the World Sommelier Competition. But I would need to improve my French first: you can't be charming if you are stumbling around with the language.

What does your job involve?

I am responsible for the stock control of all the beverages for the group, though in each establishment there is a senior member of staff who looks after the actual ordering on a day-to-day basis. I also write the wine lists and do the buying for each outlet, with the exception of The Capital Hotel, where I want the head sommelier (Mathieu Gaignon) to have the same responsibilities that I had when I was in that position. When you are working 16 hours a day and you are very passionate about what you are doing, you need the creativity of putting together your own wine list. Otherwise there is a danger you will lose some of your passion.

Do you try and limit the number of suppliers you are dealing with?

At The Capital Hotel it doesn't matter because you've got a 950-bin list and only 12 or 13 tables, so you're not buying massive volumes. It's more specialist listings and buying cases of six or 12, so we can open up accounts with anyone. For the other outlets I've got to try and keep it down as much as possible, because the lists are shorter.

How did you find the transition from head sommelier at The Capital Hotel to buying for the entire group?

The good thing about this job is that it is less anoraky than when I was head sommelier at The Capital Hotel. In a two-Michelin star restaurant, you are buying wines that represent only a tiny percentage of the market. There are so many products out there for different budgets, and it's very important to have an understanding of all sectors of the market. I find myself switching into a different mindset for each outlet whether its The People's Palace, the BAFTA wine club, The Royal Parks or Munch Caf. I need to put on a different cap because it's important to think about each individual environment and the type of customer you are trying to attract or cater for. When I moved to this position I became aware of far more products. It's been a good reality check.

What are your personal wine preferences?

I like wines that don't give away too much, wines that are multi-structured and take time to evolve in the glass. Those wines tend to be European, but occasionally you get them from Australia. I love German Riesling, and Burgundy is one of my favourite regions. If I ever become a winemaker, Riesling and Pinot Noir are the varieties I'd most like to work with. But I think the vineyards would be too far apart!

Have you done any winemaking?

I've got stuck in a few times, and I'd like to get back to it eventually. With the company having its own vineyard (The Levin Winery) in the Loire Valley, I get to go over to France quite often to do a bit of pruning, planting and canopy management, as well as helping with the vintage and tasting the wines before bottling. I just love being in the vineyard; it's very therapeutic. You come back to London clicking your heels.

The Capital Group Ltd, 3 Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge, London SW1X OLN.

Tel: 020 7808 0600

Matt Wilkin has come a long way since his first job as a petrol station attendant in his home town near McLaren Vale. He is the first Australian to pass the Master Sommelier exam, and recently won the Champagne Ruinart UK Sommelier of the Year competition. Since moving to the UK, he has worked for City Rhodes and The Greenhouse, and as head sommelier at The Capital Hotel.

Key suppliers: Champagnes & Chteaux, Corney & Barrow, Fields, Morris & Verdin, Liberty Wines, Roberson Wine Merchant