Diversity is Strength, Knowledge is Power

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From chef to TV show host and sommelier to café owner, Penfolds Global Ambassador Jamie Sach is a dynamic individual with an enigmatic passion for the world of wine. Jamie sat down with Asia Dreams and shared some of his insights on the growing wine industry of Asia — the current state of the business and what’s changed over the last decades. Throughout the entire session, we were dazzled by his superb communication skills and catching enthusiasm.

Q: Thank you very much for giving us some of your time today. I understand you’ve been a restaurateur, a chef, television host, and now a global ambassador for Penfolds, one of the biggest Australian wine producers. Mind if I ask a bit about your background before Penfolds?

A: Most of my background was working in hospitality, so I have a lot of experience running hotels and restaurants for a while. I really loved cooking, and to be honest I got quite burnt out. The kitchen is a pretty hot place to work in even in the best of times. I had a café in Sydney and I was working 90 hours a week and I was just getting burnt out. So I decided to make a change.

I went back to Adelaide, which is where Penfolds was based, and I was lucky enough to land a job at the Penfolds Magill Kitchen and I trained and became a sommelier. That’s where I completely made the switch from handling the kitchen side of things into the wine side of things, and then I really fell in love with the brand. I became fascinated by the intricacy and history of the brand.

It was around this time that I also went back to school for a journalism/art degree. I did that for three years while working full time for Penfolds, and when I graduated I was appointed the ambassador for the brand. That was in 2005, so I’ve been with the company for 15-and-a-half years — it’ll be sixteen years in December.

It’s been a really exciting journey. One of the reasons I am where I am is because I have a diverse background. I know hospitality and restaurants, I know public speaking, I know the marketing side of the business, and, of course, as a sommelier I have to understand what the customers want — all of these skill sets have helped me in the role I have today as an ambassador.

Q: So it seems like you have always had a clear direction about what you wanted to do from the start. Has that always been the case throughout your journey?

A: A very interesting question. I’m not sure. I think these days people tend to be more flexible with their jobs. They alter their career path more frequently than perhaps my parents’ generation. I count myself lucky, especially in hospitality. I guess I just decided that each new skill set would help me a great deal while I was adjusting to my passion and what I wanted to happen in my life. All in all I’m very happy with all the decisions that I took.

Q: How many other global ambassadors are you working with at Penfolds right now?

A: Originally when I was employed in 2005 I was the only ambassador for Penfolds, and that remained the case for about eight years until we decided to put a team of regional ambassadors together. So we now have one based in London who looks after the UK and all of Europe and the Middle East. We have two in Asia — one in Singapore and one working from our Shanghai office. We’ve got two in the US as well, and in Australia we’ve got a guy who’s a winemaker at the Magill Estate winery who works as an ambassador for Australia as well. So, including myself, we now have a team of seven ambassadors globally. Job descriptions are all the same as mine, which is working closely with the local distributors, sales team and country managers to help promote Penfolds.

Q: Throughout your 15 years as global ambassador, what changes or shifts in trends have you seen or helped pioneer in the industry?

A: If you look back to, let’s say, the early 1990s. Australia has now got about 2,500 wineries, but back then probably there were only 600 or so. There’s obviously been a large of amount of growth in Australia in terms of wineries and brands. So that’s great. But then competition kind of went into it. Considering the political scene in the 1990s in our export destination countries, like in Europe — the Iron Curtain comes to mind — as they unfolded and relaxed, we were seeing a lot of competition in the cheap and cheerful side of the equation that Australia was previously strong in. Although Penfolds didn’t really chase volume, but more quality, other winemakers began to realize that the really healthy place to be was with us on the upper side of that spectrum.

I’ve also seen China offering tremendous growth potential. Particularly when it comes to demand for our Bin range, which is our comfort wine, where luxury and cost intersect in the middle range, the Chinese market is absorbing our exports really well in this area. As the size of the middle class improved thanks to the booming economy in the 1990s, we saw the demand increase as well.

Q: What advice would you give to a budding sommelier and wine enthusiast trying to build a career in the industry?

A: Read a lot. Taste a lot. If you want to be a sommelier you need to understand the service side of things. Most people transition from a waiter, and the pathway would be to try and do some training. Find a training course that fits your working schedule or try to get the more senior waiter to teach you about wine. You need to read up as much as you can. The one book that every wine lover should have in their armoury is the Oxford Companion to Wine written by Jancis Robinson, one of the biggest, if not the biggest wine figure in the world. It is literally the bible of wine know-hows.

Also join a tasting group. Informal or formal tasting groups are fine. These groups come together once a month for a Burgundy night, for example, where everyone brings a bottle of Burgundy wine and you get to taste different varieties from Burgundy. This is definitely a smart way to go if you’re looking to expand your knowledge.

For beginners, it’s quite useful to get one of the pocket guides that explain the nuances of the different grape varietals. It lists all the varieties and describes the aromas or flavours that you can expect in any variety. They’re quite useful especially when you’re starting to write tasting notes.

In a nutshell, read widely, smell widely, taste widely, and just immerse yourself in the world of wine. Be curious and be passionate about it and you’ll get there.

Q: What do you do to unwind?

A: I’ve got three children. My eldest, Henry, is seven. Sophie is three-and-a-half and I’ve got a 10-month-old baby called Otto. I mentioned before I used to be a cook. I love cooking. So on the weekends, I keep the wife out of the kitchen and I take over. My kids are starting to get into it as well, so I’m teaching them how to make their own bread and pizza doughs. I like to cook a lot of different things: Indian, Italian, Thai food, for example.

I’m also lucky to have friends of like mind, and so every year when the tomatoes are ripe we have a sauce day where we make 30 litres of sauce each to last us the rest of the year. Its good fun. I’m all about food when I’m not working. www.penfolds.com

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