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Q&A: Isa Bal MS, co-owner, Trivet

Published:  19 October, 2023

Andrew Catchpole catches up with Isa Bal MS, sommelier, restaurateur and new chair of the Sommelier Wine Awards.

Your wine list is geographically ordered by the chronological advance of viticulture around the world – how did you conceive of that idea?

I was tasting a lot of Burgundy Grands Crus, classic Bordeaux, top Barolos, top Californians. There comes a point where you get a bit disenchanted by the wines, because you are tasting the same thing every day. And I thought: ‘I’m starting to feel a little distanced from the one thing I really like.’ It started to worry me – was I losing interest? When we started here [at Trivet] I said to the guys, I want to do something a little different, not just a list of wines, but something more interesting, where perhaps you also learn a little bit and give people an option for trying things that are somehow out of the ordinary.

One day I thought: ‘Why don’t I look at it from an historical angle and follow the chronology of winemaking into the modern day – even the future, maybe?’ And hence, if you look at the list, it starts with 7,000BC, areas that made wine then – such as Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Greece – and then it follows the history [of viticulture].

Your chronology ends at 3,000AD, with planet Mars. What wines will those be?

We are offering them as en primeur, if anyone would like to invest…

How risky is it presenting a list that completely shakes up the traditional order?

I knew I was taking some risk, but I trusted the crowd in Britain to welcome something nicely done, that has substance to it, not a gimmick. And it very quickly proved popular with our customers. It’s done really well. A token selection of one wine from a country doesn’t work. Those regions represented by a number of wines always sell better. If you look at Georgia, Armenia and Turkey, these are sizable selections and people go for it. And at one point, Greece, Armenia, Turkey and Georgia were selling more than France. The UK, and London in particular, is probably the most open-minded with wine consumption in the world. I love London for that reason, it makes our job a lot more interesting.

How did you come to wine?

Entirely by accident. I’d never drunk much wine. I did study hotel management, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I worked at The Vineyard at Stockcross. It’s an amazing place, probably one of the best wine lists in the country, and when it first started, I was so lucky – I had Edoardo [Amadi, director of wine] as a manager and mentor. It was a very nurturing environment and there you could see the width of the wine world.

What in particular inspires you about wine?

I’m almost more interested in the cultural aspect of wine than simply the wine itself. You can look at whichever aspect you want and you will see some fantastic things there. For me, that’s probably the strongest thing, there are so many stories to be told. And let’s face it, when most people go out for lunch or dinner, wine isn’t the main thing for them, wine is something that makes the lunch or dinner nicer. We elevate wine to a point where it becomes the biggest thing in life: no, it is not. Wine is one of those things from which we take pleasure, so we should remember that part of it more than anything else, rather than turning it into a sort of mythical creation. Respect the producers, respect the people who work with it, but have a wider perspective.

Wine and food pairing is also daunting for many people – do you have any helpful rules of thumb?

If a wine is really high quality, it often doesn’t matter what food you are serving, it just works. It’s maybe our psychological approach to it, or maybe the wine has such a personality that it can accommodate much food and you can still enjoy it. The other thing is that certain winemaking styles tend to work really well. People turn their noses up at rosé, but rosés are always brilliant food wines. And then I find that amphora-made wines, like old-school Georgian wines, tend to be almost like an Allen key, especially at tables where you have many dishes, they are just perfect with that. Texture often gets overlooked.

What appeals about chairing the Sommelier Wine Awards?

It’s exclusively judged by sommeliers, it’s a good experience for them, because they see a lot of wines in the on-trade and can have a larger perspective of what they are tasting. They can select wines that will be good for restaurants and, at the same time, the wines have greater visibility to make inroads with restaurants – I think it is making a very important connection. But also for the suppliers, it gives them an indication of what sommeliers might like in terms of styles of wines tasted and awarded. So, if I was a supplier, I would also pay attention to this.