Sommelier Diaries - Stuart Knox at St James

By Dans Sims

From The Wine Guide

If you're on twitter, love food & wine, and haven't heard of Mr Stuart Knox and Fix St.James, well, what the bloody hell have you been doing! Somehow between running one of most exciting wine bars in Sydney, he still manages to clock up a truckload of tweets and engage in the social media space with enthusiasm and genuine intent.

This also transfers with the all-important one to one interactions with his following of loyal customers, all of whom are keen to try his most recent vinous finds from Australia and across the globe. You'll always find something interesting to drink at Fix St James; #realperoni included.

For this hospitality 'lifer', food and wine has long been a passion, suddenly finding himself as assistant Sommelier at Sir Terrance Conran's first restaurant, Bibendum, alongside one Mr Matthew Jukes in 1998. After returning to Sydney he took the Sommelier reigns at Forty One before eventually taking over the management of the restaurant. In 2005 he opened his first business Fix @ Castlereagh, before opening Fix St James in 2007. FSJ (as we affectionately dub it) is now his sole and primary business passion.

Sommelier Diaries - Stuart Knox at St James

Hard yards, hard work and a keen finger on the social media pulse has seen this business go from strength to strength, and in 2011 he was awarded the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year Award. You would be hard pressed to find a more deserving and approachable recipient.

Nice work mister.

Oh, and err, he's rather obsessed about red shoes. And on that note...

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 full-time sommelier for 13 years. I have worked in hospitality for 22 years and gravitated to the beverage side. I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to become a sommelier in London at Bibendum Restaurant and haven't looked back.

How long have you worked at Fix St James? Tell us briefly about it.

I have owned & run Fix St. James since November 2006. Fix is a small bistro & wine bar in Sydney's CBD. A wine friendly menu and usually around 250 wines on the list. Casual, friendly and just a little bit crazy too.

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

My list is about 250 bottles strong. It doesn't go deep into the older vintages and more expensive lines. It's focus is more on affordable and interesting drinks. My personal taste is what drives the choices; every wine on the list has been chosen because I like it for one reason or another.

Highlights are probably a pretty extensive bubbles section and an ever growing list of 'Orange' wines.

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

The most important thing for me is interest. I don't see the point of having your most interesting wines inaccessible in bottle only format. Sure, you need a couple of stayers but most of them are left field. Screw cap is also another big factor.

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

Pinot always sells well. As we trade lunch and dinner pinot covers a lot of ground. We are fortunate at Fix that our clientele are a pretty knowledgeable bunch. Stylistically the light-medium reds also go well for the same reason.

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

We've got a cracking smoked eel soufflé on at the moment that rocks with oxidative style whites from Jura.

Best tip is to go with wine you like drinking. The best supposed match will never come off if you don't like the wine in the first place..

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

Studying? Ha! Between two kids under 4, a restaurant and actually trying to sleep there's sadly no time to learn more. Having said that, the more I learn about Germany the more I realize how little I know.

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

The Oxford Wine Companion. Perfect easy reference.

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

I can't believe it but after a bit of thought I think Australia is. The wines we are seeing now is blowing me away. So much cool stuff and we're about to see it go from a trickle to a flood of fun juice.

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

Last full bottle? Larmandier Bernier fizz found it in the bin ends at the local Dan Murphy's at a crazy price. Bought it all and drank one at home with my wife after kiddy bed time.

Absolutely cracking grower fizz. The reason why I've got too many on my list!

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

There's not enough room to list them all! But most interesting/exciting/esoteric would be Xabragas 'Madmen of Riesling' orange (skin contact not the place) Riesling.

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

The region that keeps drawing me back is the Loire Valley. Not as wow as Burgundy or Piedmont but it doesn't send me broke either!

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

The economy. It's dire out there at the moment. Too many restaurants competing for too few $ means that some will close. Sadly it's not always the worst ones that do though.

How can a guest get the most out of their wine experience at Fix St James?

Talk to me or my offsider Tristan. Trust us to take you on a journey, but also help us with what you want to spend, what you might normally drink.

Where was the last place you had dinner?

Momofuku Seiobo for my birthday. It was amazing. I don't think it's for everyone but it really rocked for my wife and I. Having someone like Richard Hargreave sorting my wines doesn't hurt either.

Favourite lunch spot? Favourite luncheon wine?

It would have to be Fix, mainly as we are open 5 lunches so no chance of getting anywhere else!

And because I'm always working the best luncheon wine is whatever is open and near me at the time.

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

Probably dumping a whole main plate of lamb etc. on a lap - Ugly!

Career highlight so far?

Being chosen as the SMH Sommelier of The Year for 2012. I still don't understand but I'm not giving it back!

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

In my first job, the head sommelier was a Frenchman, Francois Verite, otherwise known as Frank the Truth. He always wanted the truth from me and really instilled the fact that first and foremost was 'does it taste good?'

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

Read & taste & read & taste & read & taste & read & taste. Taste with other people. Order by the glass. Share bottles. It takes a long time to really focus your palate. Training is tough as you often seem to get drunk but it's an occupational hazard! And please remember, you are NEVER better than the customers, whatever you think of their wine preferences.