Decanting the Secrets of a Top Sommelier: Melody Wong, The Carlton Tower Jumeirah
For our second F&Be article, we interview Melody Wong, Head Sommelier for the five-star The Carlton Tower Jumeirah, which is reopening in June after a £100 million ($134 million) renovation in Knightsbridge, London.
Moving from Hong Kong to Switzerland, where Melody studied hospitality management, and then to the United Kingdom, she has worked in some of London’s finest hotels and restaurants including The Four Seasons, The Mandrake, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and even the London Olympics. Winner of the Wine List Confidential Rising Star award for 2019, you could say that her career has shot off like a champagne cork over these past 10 years.
Hi Melody! To be the Head Sommelier at a 5-star hotel is an amazing accomplishment. Where are you from and what was your first job?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong and moved to Europe at the age of 18. My first job was delivering takeaway for a small restaurant near my home in Hong Kong one summer. My first sommelier job was as a commis sommelier for a stunning resort in Scotland —The Gleneagles Hotel.
How did you first get interested in wine?
Unlike many of my European sommelier colleagues in the UK, I did not grow up in a wine-producing country, so it is uncommon to see a wine bottle on the family dining table. My interest of wine began during my time studying at the Hotel and Tourism Management Institute in Switzerland.
I was curious about the flavours and aromas of wine and wished to learn what is behind the wine label. I signed up for my first wine course during the semester break. From then on, I took every opportunity to work with wine during my time as a student, including leading the wine and beverage team for school events and working as a wine waitress during my internships in Switzerland and the UK.
What steps have you taken in your career that brought you to where you are right now?
My career journey has included luxury hotel groups such as Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons, as well as several Michelin restaurants. Now, I am part of the opening team in The Carlton Tower Jumeirah hotel in Knightsbridge, London. In my role as the Head Sommelier, I am responsible for the wine selection and service for all food and beverage outlets.
What is your favourite part of the job?
There are so many favourite moments of my job, however, being able to taste wine from around the globe is the biggest highlight of being a sommelier. I enjoy travelling and I believe that wine tasting is another form of travel. You can feel the terroir, the sunshine, the craftsmanship… ‘Travel through the glass’ is the way I would describe this feeling.
The past year has obviously been really challenging for everyone in the hospitality industry. What has helped keep you busy (and sane) during this time?
It has been a rare opportunity for us sommeliers to have time to discover other interests besides wine. I polished my cooking skills with homemade noodles and dumplings, experimented with cold brew coffee (different grind size and water ratios); I also practiced calligraphy and flower arranging.
As virtual meetings are becoming a ‘new normal’, I ran some virtual wine trainings for my team, as well as doing some fun online tastings with my non-industry friends!
The Carlton Tower Jumeirah is looking fab and I am sure will have an incredible wine cellar, can you tell us a little about it?
This exciting opening includes two restaurants: Al Mare, an Italian restaurant, and Chinoiserie, which will serve fantastic afternoon tea and all day dining.
For Al Mare, we would like to showcase the quality of Italian wine. Our guests will be able to discover unique and small producers from lesser-known regions and grapes, as well as fine wines from famous regions such as Tuscany and Piedmont. There are lots of hidden gems and we want to bring lots of excitement and energy to the wine list. Our sommeliers are looking forward to guiding our guests though this exciting journey.
The Chinoiserie wine list is filled with classic and international favourites. Champagne is the spirit here. Who says NO to a glass of bubbly? From small producers of English sparkling wines to the finest and rarest champagnes, we will be ready to welcome our guests for some treats.
What is your favourite wine to serve?
I have many favourites, but it is always an extra special moment when I open a bottle from an older vintage (wine from the 1960s or older). It feels like I am opening a bottle of liquid history and I feel extremely honoured to serve it.
What would be your favourite wine to drink? I am a Champagne and sparkling wine lover. It goes well with all occasions.
What would be an unexpected pairing that you might suggest?
Give it a go with Champagne and French fries. (Don’t doubt, try it!) The acidity really does cut through the grease well.
What makes your eyes roll when people order wine?
I do not have a strong dislike or opinion about any ordering situation. My role is to enhance guests’ dining experiences with a wine that they can truly enjoy; this is not related to the price or upselling.
What thrills you when people order wine? When an experienced wine lover is open to a wine recommendation and allows the sommelier to be in charge of choosing the bottle. Some guests might be very knowledgeable about wine, however, each menu and recipes are unique, so trust us! We promise to bring you the most appropriate wine to maximise the dining experience!
For the person that does not know anything about wine, are there any basic tips you can suggest not to look or sound like an idiot? (Or order plonk?) We need the sommelier secrets! Don’t be scared to speak with sommelier. Share as much information regarding your preferences with your sommelier (such as a ‘crisp white’, ‘fruity red’), ask to taste the wine before committing to the rest of the bottle. If you are not very sure about the wine, let the sommelier know!
Asking for a wine-by-the-glass pairing for each course is another way to look smart in an unfamiliar wine environment. It can probably the best way to enjoy it as well!
As a woman in hospitality—and particularly in the beverage sector—what are some of the obstacles you have been able to overcome on your career path?
I think it is important to believe in yourself and stay confident. There have been certain perceptions in the past about female sommeliers, such as not treating it as a long-term career or not willing to work long hours. Nevertheless, I believe "Wine World" is a borderless country and the quality of one’s work always speaks for itself.
What are you hoping to help change in the industry over the next year, five years, or 10 years?
I would love to see more diversity in the wine and sommelier industry. There is great young talent who are keen to join the industry, but lack job opportunity. I hope there are more companies like mine that are willing to recruit passionate people eager to progress in their careers, even if they have less experience.
What are your top 5 service tips for dealing with high-end clientele at a world-class hotel?
Be confident and know your product
Communicate with the team (front of house, chefs, everyone!)
Do your research – know the customers’ preferences and the occasion
Do not hesitate to speak with the guest
Remember, details are essential
What are your top 3 can’t-live-without bottles in your personal wine storage?
Champagne – (Gosset Grand Rosé Brut & Eric Rodez’s Blanc de Noirs)
Oaked chardonnay from Burgundy (Chassagne-Montrachet & Meursault)
Pinot Noir from New Zealand (Martinborough & Canterbury)
What wines are you drinking right now/ suggest for spring?
Valtellina Superiore, 'Costa Bassa', Sandro Fay, Lombardia, Italy 2016. It is a cooler climate Nebbiolo—goes well with duck, mushroom, and spring vegetables. Don’t forget to get it slightly chilled before you pull the cork.
Best bargain wine?
Kumeu River, Mate's Vineyard Chardonnay, New Zealand 2016. This is my answer to the Burgundy Chardonnay lover.
Best splurge wine?
1947 Château Latour from Bordeaux. It is a life-changing wine which is going to shock your mind with wonderful memory.
What about canned wines for summer? Have you tried them?
Canned wine seems to be getting popular these days! I think is it convenient for a picnic or outdoor sporting event, but I find that sharing a bottle of wine with friends and loved ones creates a special moment that is difficult to replace.