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Catch Up with Head Sommelier Of Aria, Alex Kirkwood

Catch Up with Head Sommelier Of Aria, Alex Kirkwood

Perched on the sparkling shores of Sydney Harbour with breathtaking views of the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and more, Aria Restaurant has been the jewel in Sydney’s dining crown for 20 years. We caught up with Aria’s head sommelier, Alex Kirkwood, to talk wine and to find out what it’s like to work at such an iconic establishment.

What attracted you to the wine industry?

A gentle nudge plunged me into it, but the opportunity of a life focused on a subject that required commitment, passion and dedication dragged me in. We’re so lucky to be a part of a community, unlike any other industry. There’s so much genuine love, engagement and a desire to share and welcome in the wine industry. I feel very lucky to have become a part of it.

What are some of your most memorable career highlights?

My time in this industry has been incredible. All the positions I’ve had have been challenging, high energy and stressful, but I have loved working in all of the magnificent venues I have worked in. Arriving at Aria Sydney for my first shift, selling my first 10k bottle at Rockpool Bar and Grill, my time at Momofuku Seiobo and Quay are all extremely special for me. Printing my name on both the Aria Brisbane and Aria Sydney wine lists have been my proudest. I was incredibly fortunate to receive the Daniel Pontifex Scholarship in 2014 which was an incredible boost for my career and allowed me to stage in some of the best restaurants in London at a young age. I then carried on to travel and taste through some of the great domains in Burgundy, Champagne and Jura which took my career addiction to another level. Last year’s inclusion in the Len Evans Tutorial was an overwhelming experience which taught me so much more than I could have imagined. Humbling, challenging and so incredibly rewarding! This industry will give back what you put in!

Where do you start when curating a wine list?

Understanding your market. What is your pitch and who is your audience? It’s very easy for sommeliers to get caught up in their own world, listing the wines that they love and think are so hot right now, but a list should speak of a venue rather than an individual.

Does the list align to your values and direction as a venue?

So many lists around the country are highly reactive to what’s hot and just follow trends and seem to receive a lot of credit for it.

Does the list highlight the quality of the wine buyer and the authenticity of the venue?

A good list has thought, depth, breadth whilst it engages and might sometimes might challenge the reader – I love that! A good list provides value to all and allows the big cats to play, but should never shame someone who wants an easy night out. For me a great list should be defined by the quality of the ‘by the glass’ program and the wines under $100. Everyone can buy expensive wine; a good palate will find the quality whilst still making their margins on the lower scale price point. The first step is to create a list that is easy to navigate and read! 

Why do you like to highlight smaller producers?

The smaller players must be as equal part of the conversation as the big boppers and deserve a voice. Quality still comes first. I’m not going to put a small producer on the list just for the sake of it and potentially underdeliver a guest experience through a poorly chosen wine. The smaller producers don’t hold the marketing budgets to get their voice out there and the majority of the time they have a better story to tell because they live and breathe their day-to-day in the vineyard and winery. My team and I would much prefer to tell those stories then those that tell themselves in the bottle.

What’s the best part about working at Aria?

It’s impossible to put it down to a single thing. The team, the list, the service engagement. I left here to go explore and learn across some other venues in Sydney but came back three years ago (Matt Moran still gives me a bit of stick about it!) Now, I try to take a moment a few times a week to have a coffee at the front of the restaurant to appreciate how lucky I am to work in such an incredible venue. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Definitely still working in fine wine, hopefully diversifying what I do and growing to have more impact across the greater industry. Travelling to visit and taste the great wines of the world and ensuring we continue to grow our local industry and develop local talent. If I could be so lucky to help young people engage faster in the industry, educate and mentor the next generation of wine lovers, that would mean a lot to me. We can at times lack mentorship within our industry. The old heads of hospitality are becoming fewer and fewer, so ensuring younger talent are shown the great wines and are passionate about delivering genuine hospitality, I am all about that.  

What advice would you give to those pursuing a career in wine?

Dive straight into the deep end! You need a baptism of fire in an attempt to get up to speed with a base knowledge of the industry. Accept you’ll never know everything, be humble with what you learn, listen, taste as much as you can with seasoned palates, mentor those who know less, and ensure you’re never the smartest in the room.

What’s your favourite Australian wine?

Australia’s diversity of Chardonnay is what I am attracted to more than anything else right now. I love that we’re becoming more competitive on an international level with Pinot Noir, but if I had to choose it would be the seduction and vitality of the 1965 vintage from the Hunter Valley. I’ve been lucky enough to drink a few bottles from the vintage – the Linderman’s Bin 3110 at Len Evans Tutorial last year and a few bottles of Keith Tulloch Pokolbin Dry Red have both been astonishing highlights.

If you could only have one meal and wine combination for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

A prawn sandwich on Wonder White and the coldest flavourless beer would be my death row. Shucking oysters and drinking Bollinger LGA 08 a few weeks ago with the boss, at Mollymook beach, was up there. 

Do you believe glassware is important when it comes to wine?

Glassware is crucial to delivering an experience. Winemakers that come to visit and taste get so excited to see us tasting out of premium glassware. They understand the importance of showcasing their wine to its full potential. Time and place are important. Don’t take Zaltos to a picnic or at least until the day they drop their range of keep cups on us.

Why should people come to wine and dine at Aria?

This year marks our 20 years since opening the restaurant. In today’s dining scene, especially fine dining, we are so proud to have achieved such a milestone. People might have the preconception that after that time a restaurant would sit back and tick along. Honestly, we couldn’t be further from that mentality. With more and more pressure on restaurants, we know we have to push every day. After 20 years our offering right now, I believe is better than ever. The wine program is the largest and most engaging it’s been and I stand behind it being at the top echelon not just in the country, but also internationally. 1700+ individual bottle listings that changes on a daily basis, four options of drinks pairings besides our tasting menu and our beverage program as a whole strives to continue being progressive with our head bartender Gunzan Lama putting out some of the best drinks in Sydney. We have been fortunate to have one of the top teams of sommeliers in the country led by Bryce Faiella and Johnny Lyons and our executive chef Joel Bickford continues to present a standard of food comparable with a small fine diner whilst seating a restaurant of our size. We know we need to deliver on every aspect of a guests experience and our aim for genuine hospitality is our day to day focus.

What is your favourite:

Aria menu item:  Calamari, roasted hen and fenugreek. Being a very proud Aussie, S&P calamari has always been a staple, but this takes things to another level!

Red wine: Last week 2012 Maison Pierre Overnoy Poulsard, yesterday 2017 Clonakilla Western Vineyard Shiraz, today 2015 Philippe Pacalet Cornas – I’m already excited for tomorrow. 

White wine: Last week 2015 Anne et Jean-François Ganevat La Graviere Chardonnay, today 1997 Nikolaihof Federspiel Gruner Veltliner, tomorrow, ice cold furphy. 

Holiday destination: I have a new found love for Kingscliff (NSW), but I will happily spend a week in Beaune every year!

Book: Danny Meyer; Setting The Table – reinforced I was on the right path early in my career. Andrea Frost; Through A Sparkling Glass: An A-Z of the Wonderland of Wine – reminded me of the romance of wine just at a point when it was all becoming a bit much. 

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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