Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Q&A: Stefan Neumann MS, director of wine, Dinner by Heston

Published:  18 September, 2020

Andrew Catchpole catches up with one of the most passionate sommeliers in London to talk wine culture, change and cheese

How did you get into wine?

It was a gradual process. I grew up in Wachau in Austria, which played a part, but it wasn’t until I went to hospitality school that I discovered my love for wine. The real moment when the wine bug really bit me was in the UK in 2009, when I was working at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. They have a massive list, nearly 2,000 bins and mainly French. At that time my knowledge about wine was not so great, but I realised there’s a whole world out there and I wanted to learn more about
it, I was so interested. And I still feel like this never leaves you in the world of wine. There is always something out there you want to read about, to learn about.

And that drove you towards becoming
a Master Sommelier?

It was definitely quite something [to
do]. At that time not many people had heard about the title or what people went through. When I started I thought ‘I’m not going to go for this’, mainly because it seemed so far away, like having a go-cart, knowing what Formula One is, but never thinking you’ll drive Formula One. But over the years, you realise you come closer to that dream, and then say ‘yes, I can do this, I have the drive and energy’.

When did you join Heston Blumenthal and how much of a change in culture was that after Monsieur Raymond Blanc?

In late 2010, just after two years at Le Manoir, I started at The Fat Duck in Bray and worked there for three years. It was worlds apart, in many different ways. I love Le Manoir and it set me up with a knowledge of classic French food and wine. And Heston is nothing like this 
– he wrote his own rulebook, but this fascinated me. Especially when you are in your 20s and 30s, you really want to push the rulebook, you are eager and want to see and learn new things, complementing your knowledge with something completely different.

So it was a massive learning curve?

Most definitely. There was a lot to learn wine and food-wise, but you also had to understand wine pairing at its most essential, what you need to look out for in a dish to pair a wine – and the thing is there is no reference point with some of these dishes. Isa [Bal, former head sommelier at The Fat Duck] was a big help because he was always very keen on helping others, giving a reason and explanation why a pairing worked.

Moving on to Dinner by Heston, since reopening how much has changed?

We made quite a few changes when we opened the terrace a month ago, with a reduced menu, and with less wine by the glass. And now, with the restaurant being fully reopened, we’ve just lost a few tables.

The idea behind Dinner was always to deliver historic-inspired British recipes, in a relaxed, comforting way, but at the same time in an exciting environment. The pandemic has meant social distancing, so for us the focus has been to deliver the very best in a relatively short time of interaction at the table.
 Reading your guest has become more important than ever, so we focus on the essential things. Two big words – we’ve adapted and been flexible. We’ve also been doing Dinner at Home, essentially a collection service, from three different menus, and that has been a real success. We will continue this for the foreseeable future.

Do you encourage those Dinner at Home customers to buy wine?

We tried this, but generally people are not purchasing wine at the same time. We have a few wines available, which we pair specifically with the menu and dishes, but a lot of people were just interested in the food. It’s kind of funny, we dropped our margins quite a lot, but we had a lot of enquiries asking ‘what do you recommend with this dish, I’m going to go shopping, to Waitrose or Majestic, or to The Wine Society’. But there has been quite a trend to support local shops, and people have been buying wine from their local merchants, so I think this is a factor.

Looking beyond the pandemic, what trends current or new do you think will stick with food and wine and dining?

It’s very hard to tell. What I would hope to see is that we’ve all learned something from the pandemic, which is that supporting local business is important, and supporting the restaurants you like is very important. The restaurants that will thrive in the future are those which adapt their business model and manage
 – despite masks and social distancing – a personal connection and interaction with the guests. I see problems for restaurants that relied on low mark-ups and high volume. If you provide good quality service and create a unique and special environment, guests will come back. And you can never compromise on quality – the ingredients the chefs are putting on the plate and with the wine list too.

Do you have a go-to food and wine pairing when you are chilling out?

A hard one to answer – my wife says I just like too many things. For me, I love dim sum, it’s delicious, and it’s really interesting to pair with different wines. But in general, what I enjoy the most is what ties in with all the knowledge gained over the years, around the world.
I look at the world’s cuisines and one of the reason I fell in love with wine is that I love to challenge myself to find perfect pairings for specific dishes. I love cheese too – I worked in a cheese bar – I’m working on a wine and cheese video to publish on my Instagram now.

Is there a grape or wine style that would best describe your character?

A Grüner Veltliner because I’m quite aromatic, quite floral, also quite outspoken and a little bit spicy here and there. Grüner is a very open style of wine, you know what you are going to get – and I like to smile and talk to people and exchange knowledge and learn.