What I've Learned…Bar Boulud's Head Sommelier David Vareille

What I've Learned…David Vareille
The Head Sommelier at Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London reflects on the art of being a great sommelier, grumpy winemakers, and his desert island wine...
· Widely used French term for a specialist wine waiter or wine steward. 
Coming from Chablis there were two career paths. Either you dress well and have access to the most beautiful girls by working in a restaurant, or you are in the vineyards. It was not a hard decision for me.
The key to being a successful sommelier is self-motivation and being a total maniac about things people generally find boring. There is no shortcut and it can be a long and lonely journey.
We have a very modern approach at Bar Boulud. A sommelier is only on request, so you are only speaking to guests who want to talk to you. It results in a more positive dining experience.
A sommelier must not show off. For all the knowledge acquired, in many respects, the more you know the less a sommelier has to say. You need to understand what the customer means and a fundamental knowledge gives you this opportunity rather than a chance to show off.
A sommelier is 80 percent people person, twenty percent wine knowledge. It’s about reading the mood of your guests and understanding people. A relationship based profession in many ways.
My first job in England was in Simon Rogan’s L'Enclume in the Lake District. It was fantastic. It was quite scary and a real eye opener.
I will taste, revisit and assess our wine list at least three times a week.
As a wine buyer I can be a challenge because I question and query every single vintage. A new vintage in Bar Boulud is an opportunity to change the wine and this attention to detail does not always make me popular in the trade. People who work with me love me but I’m not working to win a popularity contest.
The kitchen is the heartbeat and drum of a restaurant. We have a very innovative chef and we need to match his craft on the restaurant floor. It contributes to making Bar Boulud unique and creates a bit of a buzz.
It’s about the energy of the restaurant. Your wines don’t bring the energy, it’s part of it, but it’s just one of the motors, one of the engines helping the train.
There are too many wine lists in London that you could find in any restaurant. It’s safe and often lacks personality and this is because suppliers have too much control. It would be better if sommeliers took greater ownership of their wine lists without being led by the trade.
If you are starting to compete with other sommeliers you are going to have wine lists that pander to someone’s ego. That is not very guest focused.
Sometimes sommeliers think they are king of the world, but if we let our egos get too big you get burnt.
The turnover in your cellar and cost of it is very important. Wine represents half a restaurant’s value, some times more. If you are starting to compete with other sommeliers you are going to sink your restaurant.
Like every sommelier I think my wine list is the best. I have lots of colleagues I admire as sommeliers and I love their work, but I think my wine list is the best.
I’ve got a few show off wines like Henri Jayer, Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Cros Parantoux 1990, which is £18,000 a bottle. But the focus is absolutely on the concept.
Sommeliers are a very magical person in a restaurant. It is primarily an interaction and sommeliers have the capacity to put the right words in the hearts of the guest. Sommeliers are a very dangerous and powerful presence in a restaurant but a good one.
Some sommeliers are very passionate about a certain wine and will impress this passion on their guests. I respect that but only on the basis that the guest is happy and enjoys it, not because it has been inferred.
Guests who challenge you are enjoyable to have in the restaurant. If everyone liked the same wine life would be pretty boring. 
The diversity of wine is beautiful. The different tastes and diversity of people make our job very interesting.
The job of a sommelier is to read the mood and understand, between the lines, what the guests want.
I have learned more from my mistakes. Early in my career I once had to address a drunk, angry guest who had misunderstood the price. I learnt so much from that episode, particularly that the money side must be clear. Make sure the sommeliers are talking the same language and that the customer won’t be disappointed.
Vintages celebrated by critics do not always represent good value for money. The critics said the 1997 Bordeaux vintage was a disgrace to Bordeaux, but it is now one of the best to drink. If we can articulate this to the guest, then critical scorers are not the be all and end all.
It’s not only David the king and mastermind. My wine list started from scratch at Bar Boulud, with blank pages. The kitchen was the starting point and the guests drive me.
Sommeliers are dreamers. Some dream to be the best. Some dream to be rich. And some dream to have their own vineyards. I think every sommelier dreams of that but only a few succeed.
The grumpier the winemaker the better the wine. Most winemakers are from agricultural backgrounds and don’t speak our language. They are very grumpy but we all love them and sommeliers are the go between.
A sommelier is the missing link between winemaker and customer. We translate what happens in the bottle to the guest, which is our mission.
Gerard Basset changed the perception of French sommeliers. After him they were no longer an arrogant caricature. They married greater humility with talent.
There are great sommeliers that are not Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers and yet they are immensely talented and hugely knowledgeable.

Service in America is the best in world and for a very good reason. No one is a waiter; they are all actors. You also pay by tips.

Some journalists were throwing rocks at me about the wine list concept at Bar Boulud. At first lots of critics didn’t get it. We changed the rules and change can be misunderstood, but we knew what we were doing. [Last year Bar Boulud won "Best Restaurant Wine List" at Taste of London 2013]

I’m a maniac for craft beer. When I come home from work I drink craft beer.
Some wines from supermarkets are excellent and others less so. There is no reason for a restaurant to blush at our prices but I have to know what customers drink in order to understand what they enjoy. Otherwise we will talk two different languages.
In England there is a real Claret generation. At first Daniel and I didn’t want any Bordeaux but people were pushing for it and so we brought some in.

My Desert Island wine would be Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tache 1999. It’s so complex that every time you return to the glass you discover more. Wine makes you very poetic and emotive and this particular vintage creates this. Honestly, it’s a bottle I would not want to share even with my best friend, who I love a lot. I could have said Winston Churchill or Roosevelt but I would not be focussed on the wine. Just me and the wine, it’s very egoistic but I would be very happy.

For reservations at Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park call: +44 (0)0207 201 3899 or email: barboulud@mohg.com 

Article first appeared in Under the Skin Magazine, Summer Edition 2014. CellarVie Wines' quarterly print publication accompanies all orders on www.cellarviewines.com 



Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 


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