Like the majority of us, Samantha Payne seriously loves wine. Although, unlike most, she’s taken this love and turned it into a successful career spanning over a decade. The sommelier, wine consultant and communicator has held the position of head sommelier at some of Sydney’s best restaurants, including Manly Pavilion, 4Fourteen and China Lane, and has consulted on a number of the city’s most high profile wine lists, such as The Governor’s Kitchen at the Museum of Sydney, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art.
explore DRINKS sat down with Sam recently to find out what her daily grind looks like and how she started in the wine business, as well as to learn some tricks and tips to pick the perfect drop.
explore DRINKS: How did you first get into the wine business?
Samantha Payne: I’ve been working in the wine business in various facets since I was 18, when I started part-time at Vintage Cellars to pay my way through university. At the time, I was studying for a degree in Art History, because I wanted to be an art critic/museum curator. Fast forward to the end of my degree, and I had fallen in love with the wine industry; the people, the wines, hearing the stories about how winemakers get grapes into the bottle, its symbiosis with food… I was hooked. I then decided I wanted to become a sommelier – because let’s be honest, they’ve got the best access to wine – and use that knowledge to write and create films about wine.
eD: For people who may think that your job consists of drinking wine all day, what’s really involved in the job of a sommelier?
SP: Spreadsheets. Many, many Excel spreadsheets. I currently write eight different wine lists all across Sydney for various clients, and at the end of the day, a well-balanced and well-thought-out wine list is a profitable wine list. I also have a huge focus on staff training and wine education at all of the places I write for because when I’m not on site, the floor team is the spokesperson for that wine list. They guide the guest through the myriad of options to create a great dining experience.
eD: How many years of training/stages does it take to become an accredited sommelier?
SP: I think it’s safe to say, when you love wine as much as I do, you never stop learning or training your palate in the intricacies of wine, and a lot of that includes ‘on the job’ training and tasting with your peers. For something a little more formal, the Court of Master Sommeliers in Australia offers one intake per year for The Introductory Sommelier and Certified Sommelier Certificates, while the Advanced Sommelier Certificate is held once every two years. You then have the option of tackling the beast that is the Master Sommelier diploma.
eD: What is the most common mistake people make when picking their wines?
SP: They don’t take into consideration the food they’re eating with the wine. By all means drink what you love, but understand that the big, tannic wine you picked is going to drown out the oysters you’ve ordered.
eD: What are some basic tips people can follow to pick the right wine when ordering out at a restaurant?
SP: I have a foolproof guide that I teach to all my staff, which I call the ‘three golden questions’. These three simple questions can help anyone deconstruct any wine list, from anywhere in the world, in under 30 seconds.
1. Do you want red or white? (That eliminates 50% of the wine list)
2. Do you want something lighter in style or richer/heavier in style? (There goes another 25%)
3. Do you want something more fruit-driven or savoury?
These three questions will get you to a point where you’ve eliminated 75% of the wine list and you’re left with a much smaller, more manageable section to decide from. Or, this is where your friendly sommelier can come in and make a few recommendations based on your preferences and what you’re eating.
eD: There are a wealth of new varietals on the market at the moment. Any tips for people looking to try something new, but not sure where to start?
SP: Start with something that’s familiar to you. That could be a blend of a grape variety you recognise with one that you don’t, or your favourite producer who’s made a wine style you’ve never tried before, or even a region you know but that’s producing a grape you’ve never heard of before i.e. mencia from McLaren Vale.
eD: What’s the weirdest question someone’s ever asked you about being a sommelier?
SP: It’s not so much a weird question but a frequent one, “Are you just drunk all the time?” and the answer is no, I’m not. Working and travelling as much as I do, I have a healthy appreciation for what wine and other alcohol does to the body, and I try to promote moderation as much as I can in my daily life. This includes upholding responsible service of alcohol when I’m working on the floor.
eD: What do you think will be the next big trend in wine drinking habits in Australia?
SP: I think we’re going to start to see a big shift in the way wine is consumed, especially the format. We’re seeing the re-introduction of premium versions of cask wine both here and globally, meaning you’re not urged to drink a 750ml bottle in an evening because in sealed bags it will last for weeks. A lot of wineries are now bottling in 500ml for those same reasons. Also how we approach our drinking culture in general, with the surge of wine events that promote the education of what’s in your glass, to more events and dinners showing the symbiotic nature of food and wine. It’s not about abstaining, but drinking in moderation, and sharing a collective experience around wine that will drive this industry forward.
eD: Sitting down for a well-deserved glass at the end of the week, what would be your go-to drop currently?
SP: Anything white and on the aromatic spectrum. In particular, I’m loving the experimental chardonnay/sauvignon blanc blend from Stefano Lubiana aged in Amphora. It’s bright, textural and has the most delicate acidity that reverberates on the palate. I have to keep asking people to smuggle me back some from Tasmania, because we can’t get it on the mainland.