Sommelier Diaries - Penny Grant at Stokehouse

Sommelier Diaries - Penny Grant at Stokehouse

By Dan Sims

From The Wine Guide

You'd be forgiven, if only for a minute, if you haven't heard the name of one of Melbourne's young gun Sommeliers Penny Grant. However, mark our words, as we are certain that you will soon enough. Not only will you hear her name, you'll be thankful for it; especially if you are looked after her at The Stokehouse. Penny is one very talented young lady with a quiet humility and maturity to boot. Oh yes, mark our words people; you'll be hearing more about this lady in the years to come.

A Queensland interloper, Penny decided to make the move to Melbourne some years ago to take up residency at Circa The Prince. It was here where she met the first of her list of mentors, Liam O'Brien, who took her under his Sommelier wing to help navigate their extensive and highly respected wine list. The hard work at Circa certainly paid off, as when the opportunity to work with Lincoln Riley at Taxi Dining, she jumped at the chance.

A clear and present mentor Lincoln proved to be, as Penny has worked diligently alongside him ever since. When Lincoln took the top Sommelier job at Maze, Penny got to experience the highs and the fiercely hard work of opening such a high profile restaurant and dealing with the high expectations that goes with it. Maze was indeed a challenge, and a restaurant with more than its fair share of hardships, though you could never deny the caliber of the wine offerings, and the great work the sommelier team did. As her tenure there came to its natural end, she again rejoined Lincoln at the iconic Melbourne restaurant Stokehouse, the venue where she remains today. Shying away from hard work is not really what Penny is about.

At the Lorenzo Galli Scholar in 2010, signs began to show the training and keen mentorship were paying off with the judges all noting (Dan included) 'watch this space'. Penny, however, is not one to chase the lime light as 'there is still so much to learn' she tells us. Yes there most certainly is Penny. And continually learn we all must.

As we say folks, one to watch.

How long have you been working as a sommelier and what compelled you to travel along the wine route? What made you want to be a sommelier?

I have been working as a sommelier now for 2 years. I grew up in country Victoria with friends and family owning vineyards. We were always part of vintage time, we pretty much just sat on the back of the tractor and ate snags as kids, to us that was helping. But as I grew older my parents got my sister and I more involved in tasting and matching food and wine. I knew straight out of high school that wine was my chosen field, it was an easy and natural choice and I love every minute of it.

How long have you worked at Stokehouse? Tell us briefly about it.

I work at the Stokehouse Upstairs in St Kilda, I've been here now for over two years. Stokehouse has been open for over 20 years and has become somewhat of an iconic Melbourne restaurant. Upstairs we are known for our long lunches, friendly efficient service, cocktails on the balcony and watching some pretty special sunsets. Some staple items on the menu still remain like our kingfish ceviche, crispy battered king George whiting and hand cut chips and of course 'the bomb' for dessert.

Briefly describe the philosophy of the wine list you manage/work with? How big is it? Highlights? Philosophy?

The wine list has a simple philosophy; that the wines are above all great examples of variety, region and vintage, along with their suitability to be paired to offerings from our kitchen. There are over 800 wines on the list with a highlight of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Italian varietals both domestic and international.

When choosing wines by the glass, what are the key factors you look for?

Every wine by the glass has its place, we carefully choose these wines season to season for our menu, and offer a great range of interesting and benchmark wines.

Is there one wine style/variety that sells the most on your wine list at present?

As its getting slightly cooler reds are moving heavily. The usual Pinot noir and Shiraz are always big movers but Italian reds are getting a nudge, and boy, do we love selling them. Mmmmmmm.

What's your favourite food & wine match on the menu at the moment and why? And any tips for beginners?

Definitely the whole duck for two with date puree, almonds and heirloom carrots, with Hurley 'Hommage' Pinot Noir, 2008. Duck and Pinot... delicious. We are selling copious amounts of this wine by the glass; it has such a great balance of power and elegance. It has a lovely amount of florals and dried fruit aromas that complement the date puree, and a certain amount of gaminess to stand up to the meat.

My tips for beginners take into consideration the sugar, acid, alcohol and tannins of the wine and how they can be accentuated or minimized when paired with certain types of food.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, right? Is there a wine region/country in which you struggle with when studying?

USA, we just don't get to try enough.

Is there one wine book you can't live without? What's your favourite?

Jancis Robinsons 'The World Atlas of Wine' but also 'Vino Italiano' is definitely one to read.

What wine/region/country is exciting you the most at present?

Having just been over to Italy, I'd have to say Verona - we were lucky enough to try some great Valpolicellas and Amarone.

What was the last bottle of wine you tried? Where were you?

2010 Jean Paul Brun 'Moulin a Vent' Beaujolais at Pei Modern.

What's the most exciting Australian wine you've tried recently and why?

We recently saw the latest release of wine from Chalmers. The wines are looking great especially the reds Aglianico, Nero d'Avola and Sagrantino, these wines have a freshness and vibrancy to them, worth a look.

Have you an all time favourite wine and/or region? Was it a 'light bulb' moment?

Wine region definitely Piedmont, especially La Morra and Barbaresco.

Wine, a light bulb moment for me was having dinner with my mother when I was 19 and opening a bottle of wine that was given to us by a friend. Not knowing what it was we were quick to say 'god this is good'. It was 1998 Sassicaia, I'd never heard of it before but it was sealed in my memory and I still want more.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the restaurant/hospitality industry at present?

Staffing as usual, but also finding keen people who are willing to work hard without wanting to rise to the top before they are ready, front and back of house. There is a shortage of good knowledgeable staff, hence most of them take a leadership role earlier on without having had the proper training and experience in each area.

How can a guest get the most out of their wine experience?

It is such an extensive list which is daunting to some diners, talk to the sommeliers and be open about what you want, region, variety and price. There is plenty of knowledgeable staff at Stokehouse, and some of them aren't even sommeliers.

Where was the last place you had dinner?

Pei Modern.

Favourite lunch spot? Favourite luncheon wine?

East Imperial yum cha in Carlton on a Sunday - possibly no wine though, just a Lucky beer.

Funniest/most embarrassing moment working in hospitality? (And you don't have to name where!)

Once I fell up the stairs carrying 10 plates and cutlery, they all slid down the stairs into a crash pile and the whole restaurant stopped and said 'oh that poor girl'. I was 18 at the time - you learn from these things.

Career highlight so far?

I think just being able to work with such great wine mentors. It's a great feeling when they take you under their wing and guide you into the great world of wine. Thanks Matt, Liam and Linc.

What's the single most important piece of advice, on wine, you've ever been told?

Do not bullshit... you will always get caught out.

Finally, do you have any tips/advice for budding young sommeliers looking to get into the industry?

Anyone who is looking to become a sommelier, my advice would be to start as a section waiter and be part of the wine team then go to tastings, study and be keen. Don't rush into it. If your good at your job and you love your job everything else will come naturally.