Uncorking a Superstar Sommelier | Living North

Uncorking a Superstar Sommelier

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Living North went behind the scenes with Will Dennison, the much-talked-about Sommelier at the most lauded restaurant in the North East, House of Tides
‘The amount of people who knock on the door now and send me samples…’
House of Tides

The fine wine order is where Will Dennison has his fun. As Sommelier at the House of Tides restaurant on Newcastle’s quayside (recent recipient of a Michelin star), it’s his job to order the wine. That includes fine wine. AKA expensive wine.

‘I spend a lot of money every month,’ he laughs.

His estimate: between £15,000 and £16,000 on wine each month. If he buys an expensive bottle he has to hope that the right customer (with the right money) comes by, otherwise hundreds of pounds of stock sits unsold. A few bottles have given Will concern. A bottle of vintage Cristal was one. He eventually sold it for £800. Phew.

The person who pays Will’s wine bills is Chef Proprietor Kenny Atkinson (who co-owns House of Tides with his wife). Will says Kenny’s wine knowledge is ‘not fantastic’ (sorry Will, hope you don’t get in trouble for that one), so other than Kenny giving a thumb up during a tasting in the kitchen (and sometimes asking about price), Will is on his own.

‘Kenny always looks at my fine wine bill and goes, “Why have you done this?”,’ Will tells us. ‘But then in two months time or three months time, however long it takes to sell that wine, he’ll go, “Oh, actually, nice one mate.”’

Not bad for a 24-year-old. Will is one of those exceptional young people: assured (but not arrogant), convivial and on the fast-track to success. Despite being born and raised in Newcastle, he went to Dame Allan’s School and has no hint of a Geordie accent. 

‘Posh boy,’ chips in Kenny, who’s doing paperwork on a neighbouring table while we chat to Will in the  restaurant.

Immediately after leaving school he worked the bar at Allard’s in Tynemouth, before going backpacking in Australia. In Sydney he had his first Michelin experience, working at the two-star Bridge Room. 

‘I was working on the bar and worked my way up pretty quickly,’ he says. ‘They started to put me as a Junior Sommelier, training me, and I went to loads of wine tastings. The Sommelier Joshua Renshaw took me under his wing and started to really help me out, and I came home and said, “Mum, Dad, I’m not going to go to uni anymore.”’

They took it well. He got a job at Malmaison but when he saw Kenny tweet about needing staff for a new restaurant, Will tweeted back. Kenny responded with... nothing. About five months later Kenny tweeted again, seeking a ‘Head Waiter of Wine’, which Will describes as ‘a peculiar kind of position’, but peculiar for a reason.

‘You think Sommelier and you think of that kind of arrogant French guy in the restaurant,’ Will explains, adopting a thick French accent reminiscent of ‘Allo ‘Allo. ‘I think Kenny didn’t want that at this restaurant.’

What Kenny wanted was someone who knew about wine but would fit in with House of Tides’ laid-back atmosphere. Will applied, was interviewed, did a trial shift, was hired, and immediately changed all the wine pairings – ‘They were all pretty basic,’ he says. 

That was in June 2014, a few months after the restaurant opened (in a former merchant’s house). Now he’s Sommelier and Assistant Manager. If the restaurant is open he’s usually there, working split shifts, sometimes 14 hours a day, maintaining standards.

‘My main role now is to check the restaurant is set,’ he explains. ‘We call it mise en place – French for everything to be in place.’

When the restaurant opens he often greets diners, makes cocktails, serves coffee and of course explains the wine pairings (he’s helped by two juniors). As lunch tails off at around 3pm, he starts paperwork and meetings. Today he has a 3.15pm with a wine supplier – hard bargaining, which is easier since House of Tides was named the AA’s best restaurant in England (London has its own category) and received its first Michelin star.

‘To me it doesn’t make a difference at all,’ Will says of the star’s impact. ‘It’s still House of Tides, and I still absolutely love it and love the building, but the amount of people who knock on the door now and send me samples…’

He says he has 60 bottles upstairs waiting to be tasted, and that’s not including the tastings he does abroad – he’s just back from Tuscany, and before that Burgundy. He predictably tries to tell us it’s not as fun as it sounds, but we’ve seen his Twitter pictures.

The slightly less fun side (all relative, of course) is the studying. He’s on the first year of a two-year wine diploma, after which it’ll take three years to become a Master of Wine – ‘It’s obsessive,’ he tells us, ‘you’ve got to be dedicated, and you’ve got to read, read, read.’

It’s vital though, especially when serving more demanding customers, some of whom request to see his badges – he has some, which he dutifully removes from his pocket when required. The other tricky kind of customer is the drunk one: ‘They order a bottle of wine to go with the wine pairing.’ That’s five glasses of wine each, with a side order of wine (a whole bottle), probably preceded by some cocktails. Inevitably they end up ‘absolutely hammered’ and Will does his best to shepherd them to the coffee menu. Not that he minds – it’s part of being a Sommelier, a career he loves, despite some raised eyebrows among his peers.

‘I talk to my friends and they’re all doing these financial jobs, you know, investment banking, or they’re all lawyers, training to be barristers,’ he tells us. ‘I feel like all my mates support me, but then you see the guys from school who you don’t keep in touch with and they say, “Oh, you just work in a restaurant?” I think some people don’t get it at all.’ 

A life of wine and travel and Michelin-starred ambition – what’s not to get?

 

WILL'S PARTY PIECES

Let a professional sommelier pick out your winter tipples

Carrara Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 
‘For me, Italy is showing incredible value for money and this iconic wine really delivers. Full of spice and sour cherry, it’s a great winter warmer alone or with roast meats.’
Morrisons £11

Pol Roger Brut Reserve
‘Prosecco is on trend at the moment, but for me you can’t beat a great champagne such as Pol Roger. Sir Winston drank two bottles a day in the last 10 years of his life, so it can’t be bad!’

Waitrose £40.99

H3 Chardonnay, 
Washington State
‘Lovely, elegant and lightly oaked Chardonnay to go with that prawn cocktail starter and white meats. Creamy, nutty and slightly tropical, it’s incredibly well balanced and good value.’
Carruthers & Kent £16.49   

Plum Sake
‘While at Carruthers & Kent, which is in Gosforth, pick up a bottle of this sake. It’s full of sour plum, marzipan and nuts. Pretty unique tasting, and an all-round talking point too.’
Carruthers & Kent £17.99   

De Bortoli Show Liqueur Muscat
‘An alternative to the port on Christmas Day, full of raisins, coffee and caramel. This wine is becoming an Aussie classic and a sure crowd pleaser among friends.’
Tesco £14

Published in: January 2016

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