Lucian Obreja, Assistant Head Sommelier at the L'Ortolan
LWC speaks to Lucian Obreja about his role in L'Ortolan, his wine education, the current wine trends and much more.
Reading is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK with a reported 307% increase in jobs over the last 50 years. Situated in a Grade 11 listed building with landscaped gardens, in the leafy countryside nearby Michelin Starred L’Ortolan homes an extensive lists of Natural, Organic and Biodynamic wines curated by Associazione Italiana Sommelier (A.I.S.) trained Lucian Obreja.
What is the role of a sommelier in your opinion?
There are different types of sommelier roles. For example, I have a background in cruise ships, which is different than in this as a Michelin starred Restaurant.
There are two sides to help the owner to increase his business, whilst the other side is to bring the customers into the many different wines that we have.
For example, we have Orange Wines or individual wines from Italy where I come from. As a Sommelier, I must show L’Ortolan customers these special quality wines that they wouldn’t ever buy in the supermarket is really important.
The role is to help the business to bring something new to my guests.
Tell us about the role in L’Ortolan? Are there any quirks, differences points of interest?
Our list is oriented on organic, biodynamic and volcanic wines - over 50% of L’Ortolan’s list is organic and biodynamic and from my point of view, it is a way to go.
The food matching with the chefs is an important part of what the role is about. When they launch a new dish, I bring wine or several wines to match with their dishes. I have an Italian wine background so I have a kind of map to try and pair the food and wine - everything logically paired plus we have several tasting menus.
We have 3 different tasting menus with regular and fine wine flights – 4 glass, 5 glass and 8 glass menus. These are very popular and we work hard on these matches especially.
What personal qualities do you require to be a sommelier?
Instinctively you require a passion for wine. But to be in charge of wines takes a little bit more. It takes knowledge of marketing, ecology, trends, economic situation, and also be aware of the company’s needs.
Wines and beverages bring extra revenue to the restaurant so it is very important.
Where did you start with wine education?
I started In Italy Sommelier Associazione Italiana Sommelier (A.I.S.), graduated then England Wine and Spirit Education Trust 1,2 & 3. I had 4-year experience on cruise ships where the training is rigorous. I have documentation from Italy and England
Is the role of sommelier confined to just wine?
Absolutely not. For example, we have a selection of Sake. You have to be able to judge a plate or a dish or a person in front of you in order to be able to provide a special experience. You also have to be able to make a connection with staff and crew and with the head chef and owner. You have to understand what they want.
In terms of drinks then it is across the different drinks and now we have a bartender. We are working together in an elaboration of cocktails which we change each season so, for example, we are just launching new Autumn cocktails – then winter and a collection of cocktails with sake.
Life as a sommelier is 360 degrees Including service!
Is there a career path beyond sommelier?
Luckily I got married this year so my dream would be to have my own little place in England or Italy either a wine shop or restaurant where I can express my passion for wine and food.
From my own experience working in different restaurants then each day of the week is different. If you change towards buying or selling then you will need to be flexible. There is no single statement for wine apart from it continues as a trend for people.
Is wine still basically all about Shiraz, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot or has it moved on?
Wine is continuously changing and you discover new things every day, for example, we have a passion for orange wines, biodynamic, which were made a long time ago and now they are fashionable again.
New winemaking techniques and then there is always going to be a classic way. There is so much more, for example, the volcanic wines from Sicily – the wines are like nothing else you have tasted before. Then there are white wines coming from the Friuli region in Italy, which are so removed from with regular white wines from Italy.
The wine is far more than that – wouldn’t have time to speak about wine as much I would love.
Tell us about the latest trends – English Wines, Prosecco, Australian Italian varieties?
English sparkling wines are absolutely amazing. We have by the glass a couple of English wines. We always look for the balance between price and value. When compared to Champagne some are more or less the same price.
We have many customers who prefer English sparkling wine as opposed to our excellent House Champagne.
We do many tasting menus and wine flights which is where we are not going to be classical for example with foie gras we suggest Orange Wine. It is really surprising and inspiring how well they lift up the dish. Of course at L’Ortolan we are very keen on biodynamic and organic wines, which contribute to protecting the environment. I inherited this philosophy from the previous sommelier and continue to develop.
Then there are those quirky wines. We have one from South Africa, whose winery is surrounded by Eucalyptus. The vines extract this minty taste from the Eucalyptus and transfer to the grapes. With the lamb that our head chef prepares it goes very well.
What tips can you give for the aspiring or new sommelier?
Feed the passion of wine by going and studying or visiting the places. Believe it or not, until I was 20 I didn’t like wine. When I discovered wine I was in a cigar tasting. I tasted this particular wine and it blew my mind. So I started to be interested in wine. studying it and informing myself.
Go and look for and discover - it doesn’t matter how you feed your passion – feed your passion.
You have been a good psychologist too in order to read the people and the guests – a mood psychologist.
Will Alexa ever replace sommeliers?
No, I don’t think so, because the sommelier is something special – something human. More than ever we need humanity in the service industry.
When we do the wine flights – many guests take out their phone – look for the wine in front of them. They are reading what other people are saying and judging the cost when the real story and experience is in front of them.
I think that it is funny. As much as the science is good there is nothing to replace the knowledge and passion of sommelier.
About the Author
The article is contributed by Alistair Morrell, Wine Inspector, wine industry consultant, journalist and, commentator. Over 30 years as a wine business professional, Alistair shares his global knowledge, network, and experience of growers, importers, distributors and buyers.