Q & A with Sommelier Max Gürtler
Max Gürtler was born in Berlin and moved to Australia in 2000. He worked as a chef in kitchens across Sydney, before discovering a passion for mixology and bartending. Max's interests grew to wine while working at Rockpool Group, and he shifted his focus to becoming a sommelier. Since 2017, Max has worked as a sommelier for renowned Sydney restaurant Momofuku Seiōbo, and he’s currently completing a sommelier diploma through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
You were a chef before a sommelier. What led you to change professions?
I was a chef, and then I worked as a bartender in between. I moved from the kitchen to the bar because, at the time, I saw an opportunity to be creative, making drinks and interacting with guests on a different level.
As for deciding to become a sommelier, I was working at Rockpool Bar & Grill as a bartender; the restaurant has always had a strong focus on wine. So, I went to all the training and tastings I could, signed up for WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) and Court of Master Sommeliers and eventually made a move to wine.
What are your most memorable career highlights so far?
Working at Rockpool, and moving to Momofuku Seiōbo. Working with the team and managing this program is certainly a highlight. Oh, and, of course, passing the Court of Masters Sommeliers Advanced Certificate.
How does the Berlin wine scene compare to Sydney?
It's a world apart. I feel like Berlin is still catching up with the wine scene. There a few small bars opening with great wine lists, but not as many as here. Sydney's wine scene is also driven by the sheer number of young winemakers in Australia parting with convention and pushing boundaries. On the flip side, Berlin has the best clubbing and nightlife scene on the planet.
What's the best part about being a sommelier and working at Momofuku Seiōbo?
As a head sommelier, you get to exercise a great deal of creativity and take people on a journey. This is made better by the team who all share the same passion and excitement for great wine, great service, and giving people something genuine and memorable.
What sets Momofuku Seiōbo apart from other fine dining establishments?
For one, there's a unique identity and personality that we try to embrace. We also get the rare opportunity to represent a culture often unseen in Australia, gastronomically speaking. Through the menu, we introduce diners to some of the most complex flavours of the Caribbean. There's also a high level of freedom of expression through the beverages we serve.
How did you make the wine list your own?
The Caribbean doesn’t have a big wine culture; thus, we were given a blank canvas to work with many different beverages, like sake, cider, beer, cocktails and of course, wine. I was free to express the wine list to best fit the menu. Our list has a strong focus on wines that show typicity. These varietal characteristics are such a vital part of understanding a wine and revealing its unique personality.
If you had to pick a favourite Australian wine, which one would it be and why?
Not sure if I could pick just one favourite, but anything from Cobaw Ridge is pretty special. Their 2010 Pinot Noir is outstanding.
What's your favourite thing about working in the wine industry?
My team. It's a great feeling to work with people who share your passion.
What's your number one piece of advice for those looking to make a career change?
Ask lots of questions, surround yourself with people from whom you can learn and who are willing to teach you. Go to every tasting event you can, read often and, most importantly, enjoy your work. Pier-Alexis Soulière, Master Sommelier, once said to me: "You need to trust yourself and put your love and heart into your work, stay passionate and be yourself." I think that's more important than studying and tasting every day.
What's your ultimate wine and food match?
Laksa and Kirk's Pasito. Not technically a wine but try it and tell me I'm wrong.
What is your favourite Momofuku Seiōbo menu item?
The fish head with chickpea and hot sauce served with a busted roti on the side. It's such a simple dish, but a perfect representation of what we're about. I had this dish before I worked at Seiōbo, and it made me want to work here. Try this with Red Stripe Lager from Jamaica or the 2017 Riesling Kabinett Dönnhoff Oberhauser Leistenberg from the Nahe in Germany.