What I've Learned…Vincent Pastorello

What I've Learned…Vincent Pastorello
Head of Wines at The Dorchester, overseeing the wine list at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, Vincent Pastorello discusses working with one of the world's most revered chefs, his schooling under Gordon Ramsey and the key to wine and food pairing...
· Widely used French term for a specialist wine waiter or wine steward. 
My first tutor inspired me to go into the wine industry. I was only 15 and thought wine was cool and exciting, but I couldn’t really understand it or appreciate it. But my tutor Mr [Francis] Panek spoke about wine with simple words in a way that a kid of 15 could really understand. What he taught me [at Ferrandi Paris, the college where he received formal hospitality training] I still keep with me to this day. When I’m talking to guests in the restaurant or to young sommeliers I speak in a language they will understand.

I think a good sommelier can be the icing on the cake. This is where you can make the difference; the food and the service can be exceptional but I think the wine should elevate the meal and the dining experience. Wine can bring that extra sprinkle of magic that will make you remember your experience. The sommelier brings that extra touch.

The key for a sommelier is to be personable. Knowledge is important, but how often you use it to talk to people is crucial. It is not always about the level of qualification, it is how you deliver the information that is important.

We are an extension of the concept that comes from the chef. Over time, we have made the wine list at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester more international. The list was originally 97% French and New World wine only took up half a page. When I came to the restaurant I had a different mind-set, particularly coming back from my experiences in Australia. I wanted to open up the wine list more to the new world and to Europe. London is very embracing of new experiences.

You need to understand Alain Ducasse’s philosophy; you need to understand his ingredients, what he is cooking and what he is trying to achieve. If you have a clear understanding of the chef’s philosophy, the wine list can evolve from there. His vision is very clear, but he is a very open person who is always willing to listen. I think this is one of the keys to his success.

When selecting a wine to appear on the wine list, the key is for the wine to taste of where it comes from. It needs to be a varietal expression – I don’t want a wine that is obscure. If a wine is from Burgundy I want it to tell a tale of Burgundy.

I want purity in wine and I want freshness. If I give you a 15% alcohol wine, you may tell me you really enjoyed it, but that you don’t want another one. A good glass of wine should invite you to have another one.

The older I get the more I find myself drawn to the basics. I was very keen on the experimentation of varietals initially, but for me now, the beauty of wine lies in the terroir.

Terroir is very simple for me. It talks about where it comes from. The fruit is grown there, and it has an identity because of this. If you experiment too much or alter the wine too much you lose its sense of identity.

Winemakers have the hard job. We just taste wine and if we like it, we pass this on to our guests. We obviously develop a level of knowledge but the winemaker has to fight with nature every day.

It’s very hard to compare Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse because I worked with them at very different stages of my career. I was only 19 when I worked with Gordon Ramsay [at Maze and Claridge’s].

At Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester it is all about the art of precision and consistency. Consistency is the hardest thing to achieve in the industry. There are so many places where you will go one day and have a great meal, then the next it will be only ok, but the absolute key is getting the consistency.

I revisit all of our wines every vintage. You can’t expect wine to be the same every year, that’s nature, so we retry them every vintage. I feel very lucky to be able to do so.

I feel that the individual decides if a wine is a “good” wine. A good wine is up to you. I think a good wine should speak of where it comes from; about the grape variety and the region. The most important thing to consider is, do you like it? If you do, it is a good wine.

The key to wine pairing is to never overpower the food. The wine list is always the support act to the food, to lift or to bring freshness to the dish. A great example is Foie Gras; many places will serve you a glass of Sauternes and although the first bite is great, by the end you are full, it’s too much. I take a different approach. I’m looking for texture to handle the richness and I’m looking for acidity to cut through and bring a bit of freshness.
When I went first went to Australia, I felt lost. Lost with the language and the accent as my English wasn’t good. I found the first six months extremely hard. I arrived as Assistant Head Sommelier at Maze, so I felt confident, but when I arrived and saw that the wine list was 70% Australian I had to go right back to the basics.

There is a new wave of Australian wines which I think is extremely exciting. The whole area around Melbourne, the cool-climate regions, is super exciting. The Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley are where the new wave of winemakers are flourishing, many of whom have worked in Burgundy with Chardonnay. They have really changed their approach and are making lighter wines: reducing the amount of oak, reducing the amount of alcohol. They are making wines that taste beautiful with food.

Australia surprised me a lot and I learnt a lot. To be less serious, more relaxed and to be more interactive with the guests. Service is a lot more friendly and approachable, and if you come to eat here at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester this is the exact the approach we have adopted.

The rapport between chef and sommelier is crucial, but not immediate. The chef I have worked with has not always given me the green light straight away – we had to gain each other’s trust. You serve wine with each dish and you see his reaction; what he likes, what he doesn’t like. As I moved forward I developed an understanding of his philosophy and adjusted.

Chefs have a different approach to flavour which is why we taste everything together. The way they analyse food - texture, saltiness, acidity, spiciness - is different and it’s really interesting to see things from their perspective.

It’s hard to keep up with the amount of restaurants opening in London, it’s crazy. Lots of the sommeliers in London are my friends, so I don’t think it’s competitive. We all know each other very well and we all worked with each other at some stage.

There are wines that I personally don’t really understand and I’m not convinced others understand them either, but they drink them because they are fashionable. I am not sure whether it will last. The funny thing is if you had served them ten years ago someone would have said “they are fizzy, cloudy, oxidised”, but because these wines are cool at the moment people drink them!

At Alain Ducasse we do fifty or so wines by the glass. It is super important and increasingly so. It’s all geared towards the customer experience on the tasting menu as we offer three different wine pairings. It could range from a glass of Barbera at nine pounds to a glass of 2001 Saint Estèphe Château Cos d'Estournel at £60, to a glass of Château Mouton Rothschild at £120 over Christmas.

I drink wine at home all the time. Wine is my passion, my hobby, my work. It’s what I am all about. On my day off I love meeting friends or colleagues and sitting down with good food and good wine.

If I had to pick one wine from my list it would be the Meursault Pierre Boisson 2010 from Burgundy. As a product it is exactly what I love, it talks about Meursault, it evokes Chardonnay, it’s pure, and it’s elegant. To me, it’s exactly what a Chardonnay should be.

Today, I am sat here in front of you because of three people; Mr [Francis] Panek who I have mentioned. The second person was Frédéric Grappe who gave me a chance to work at The Orrery in Marylebone, a one Michelin star restaurant, even though I had very limited wine knowledge outside of France and I was still learning the language. I couldn’t really talk to anyone but he gave me a chance. When I went to Australia, David Lawler pretty much gave me my philosophy, inspired my approach towards wine and how I think about wine. How I talk to others about wine is motivated by him: simple, approachable, accessible. I keep this ethos with me all the time.


For reservations at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
Call: +44 (0)20 7629 8866
or email: alainducassereservations@alainducasse-dorchester.com


Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 


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